Category Archives: Book Review

PODCAST REVIEW: To the Manor Borne by Robots

I’d like to draw your attention to a new sf fiction podcast, To The Manor Borne By Robots. This is an interesting new entry in the field of fully-produced science fiction audio dramas. Let me shamelessly crib from the press release for a description:

Only stories will feed the Beast! In the new podcast, To The Manor Borne By Robots, a monstrous entity invades 25th century Earth, wreaking havoc, destroying cities, killing millions. The only thing that will pacify it is stories, stories read to it by the Master, the leader of the future Earth. In an effort to destroy the Beast, the Master transports his 21st century ancestor, a cube-worker named Bob, to the future, where his DNA signature allows him to be a stand-in with the Beast, while the Master travels to the past, to unravel the origin of the Beast, and destroy it. Each episode features the serialized story of the Master, Bob, and the Beast, as well as a stand-alone story, all voiced by an extensive and talented cast of actors, lavishly produced, with sound effects and music. A sci-fi Scherherezade, To The Manor Borne By Robots is available on iTunes, and via web-player on its own site. Journey to the Manor, where the future is past.

They’re two episodes in, and I’m hooked. Every episode is split just about evenly between the frame narrative, where Bob and the Master must keep the Beast quiescent while seeking to destroy it, and the story that Bob reads to the Beast. Bob introduces the story, but it isn’t simply read; like the rest of the show the story is fully dramatized, with different actors, foley sound effects, and music.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

REVIEW SUMMARY: Like a steampunk cross between The Terminator films and The Darkness comic.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Compelling characters; interesting premise; lots of potential.
CONS: Lots of questions but few answers; predestined events lessen suspense.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting, if flawed, start to a series with loads of potential.

I didn’t get far into The Wolves of London by Mark Morris before I had to check the book description to make sure I was reading the right thing. Book One of the Obsidian Heart series starts out so grounded in reality that despite the promises made on the back cover I didn’t quite believe it could progress into the “nightmarish” and “unearthly.” It’s quite the incredible feat and I can’t say I’ve ever experienced its like before. It just goes to show how deft Morris is at writing personal drama. The Wolves of London is a book that hooks readers from the first page and though some elements of the story aren’t as successful as others, Morris tells a twisty-turny tale of the supernatural that is sure to thrill and intrigue.
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BOOK REVIEW: Silverblind by Tina Connolly

Silverblind is a historical fantasy written by Tina Connolly and published by Tor Books in October 2014. (For more on Tina’s work, read my spotlight on her podcast Toasted Cake.) It takes place in an alternate universe 1930s England, 15 years after the end of the Great War against the fae. Silverblind is the third book to take place in this setting, after her debut novel Ironskin and Copperhead. I was advised that Silverblind works as a standalone so I had not read the other two books at all before reading this one–this was largely true, although I tended to mix up the secondary characters of Jane and Helen whom I think were the protagonists of the first two books.

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BOOK REVIEW: John Golden Freelance Debugger and John Golden and the Heroes of Mazaroth by Django Wexler

REVIEW SUMMARY: A funny and diverting pair of novellas showing the author’s range beyond epic fantasy

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:John Golden is a Debugger, whose job is to debug computer systems of something even nastier than Trojans or Viruses.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong, snarky commentary from Sarah on events; excellent narrative voice; high concept; solid humor and geeky references.
CONS: Worldbuilding is a touch light; much more is suggested than shown.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting pair of urban fantasy novellas with a distinct voice.

Cyberpunk is not a flavor of science fiction that is often mixed into fantasy, despite some of the obvious parallels and ideas in the two subgenres. Spells are often as complicated and finicky as computer programs. A.I.s can be as powerful and dangerous as any Djinn. Virtual worlds and fantasy realms seem like two ideas made for each other. However they have not been explicitly put together all that often. Kelly McCullough’s Webmage series mixed mythology with computer programming; Jane Lindskold and Roger Zelazny’s Donnerjack had the Internet transform itself a fantasy otherworld. Shadowrun, of course, is perhaps the best known RPG example. And now Django Wexler’s two novellas about debugger John Golden can be added to that list.
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BOOK REVIEW: Severance by Chris Bucholz

REVIEW SUMMARY: Bucholz has written a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story about a generation ship bound for another planet, and the secrets it contains just might destroy the ship and everyone on board.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When Laura Stein discovers a plot to split the generation ship in two (killing half of the passengers before they reach their new planet), she stumbles upon a vast conspiracy involving martial law, genetic manipulation, and political intrigue.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Bucholz keeps us guessing at every turn, offering clues about the conspiracy at just the right times; pacing, humor, and dialogue are spot-on.
CONS: Some scenes are too heavy on the technical detail and too light on character development.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for an addictive story that explores issues of human colonization, genetic manipulation, and the vagaries of human nature, you need to read Severance.

It’s been over two hundred years since the Argos, a generation ship, left Earth, bound for a new home (Tau Pruis III). Now, you might suppose that the people on board have somehow progressed beyond the violence and intolerance and hatred practiced on Earth in order to have survived for this long on a ship in the middle of Nowhere, Space, right? Yeah, well, not so fast…
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BOOK REVIEW: The Lady by K.V. Johansen

REVIEW SUMMARY:The second half of Marakand (started in The Leopard) that is best read immediately after the first half

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: The story of Marakand continues, as the grip of the titular Lady upon Marakand is challenged from within and without.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fascinating world building; real epic storytelling feel to landscapes, characters, backstory and history; beautiful cover art.
CONS: The ungainly split makes for a rough singular reading experience in both volumes.
BOTTOM LINE: Deep, epic storytelling in a fascinating world that is marred by its split and format.

We crossed the river beds all etched in stone
And up the mighty mountains ever known
Beyond the valleys in the searing heat
Until we reached the caravanserai
–Loreena McKennitt, “Caravanserai”

There is a world in fantasy steeped in its history and myth. A world where the Old Gods have withdrawn, and seven devils, long ago imprisoned and bound, have sought to work their way free to dominate the world of local gods and Men. A world of cultures and societies inspired by Central Asia, the Russian Steppes, and Siberia. From the lost kingdom of Tipyur in the West, through to Nabban and the forest kingdoms over Malagru in the east. Along the trading highway, where the Malagru mountains meet the Pillars of the Sky, there is a great city. A city where three Gods once ruled, but now one, with a dark secret, is ascendant. A Goddess, The Lady, whose rule over the City, and the lands around, is challenged, even as she tightens her grip.

Come to Marakand.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

REVIEW SUMMARY: A followup of an urban fantasy novel that builds strongly on its predecessor.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: James Quill and his ‘Shadow Police’ team must deal with the apparent esoteric return of Jack the Ripper in the midst of protests and a possible police strike.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent followup of theme and character beats from London Falling; strong high-concept elevator pitch that pays off in the execution.
CONS: Grimness and darkness in the book might be too much for some readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A strong, dark drink of dark urban fantasy that successfully builds on the groundwork of the first.

“Jack the Ripper is back, only this time he’s killing rich white men”

Its an irresistible high concept, isn’t it? Amid protests and a possible strike by the London police, men are dying in gory, unexplainable ways. Deaths without a weapon being left on the scene, without physical evidence. Is it the protesters, seeking to turn violent their rage against the system? Is it someone using the protests to settle old grudges? Or is it the spirit of London itself, violently convulsing as its inhabitants do?
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BOOK REVIEW: The Genome by Sergei Lukyanenko

REVIEW SUMMARY: From the author of the famous Nightwatch series comes a futuristic thriller where genetic modifications are as freeing as they are enslaving.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After taking a young woman under his protection, Master Pilot Alex Romanov gets an offer he can’t refuse, and gets in way over his head.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Enjoyable characters; subtle world building; story was easy to get into; I got a huge chuckle out of the Detective.
CONS: Novel struggles with what it wants to be; ending felt very rushed.
BOTTOM LINE: If you enjoy multi-layered stories that balance well drawn and diverse characters with subtle social commentary, this is a novel for you.

Alex Romanov woke up dead broke and put back together. After a terrible accident that quite literally sliced him in half, he spent 5 months in the hospital, regrowing limbs and learning how to walk again. As a licensed master pilot, he can pretty much write his own paycheck once the hospital released him. Provided he’s on a planet that has a need for master pilots. Which currently, he isn’t. Never one to keep his life simple, Alex takes on the responsibility of helping a young woman through her genetic transformation. And when it comes right down to it, it’s not like he had a choice.

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Table of Contents: Nightmare Magazine, December 2014

Nightmare Magazine sent along the table of contents for their new issue:
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BOOK REVIEW: Endsinger by Jay Kristoff

REVIEW SUMMARY: A stakes-raising finale to the Lotus War Trilogy.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The theme of the series is rendered in strong lines; a high-octane action draws the reader through the book.
CONS: Questions of cultural appropriation reduce the book’s appeal for readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A strongly themed finale to Kristoff’s unique steampunk trilogy

The civil war, initiated by the death of the Shogun at the hands of Yukiko, the Stormdancer, has come to full fruition in Endsinger, the third and final book in Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War Trilogy. The Great Houses now openly strive against each other. The plan for Hiro, young lordling of the Tiger clan, to marry the late Shogun’s sister and cement a marriage bond claim to the throne has gone to ruin along with his palace. The gaijin, finally getting a reprieve from the war brought to their shores, have put plans in place to revenge themselves on their oppressors on the home front. And amongst it all, a long-standing secret plan by the Guild continues to roll. For the Lotus must bloom, and for a deep, dark reason that is about to be revealed.
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BOOK REVIEW: War Dogs by Greg Bear

REVIEW SUMMARY: A slow burn of a Mililtary SF novel whose structure and pacing dilute its impact.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Skyrine (Sky Marine) Michael Venn is dropped on Mars as part of an operation against an alien force. He uncovers a far greater set of mysteries in the process.

MY REVIEW:
PROS:: Intriguing if familiar basic premise differentiated by interesting worldbuilding touches; excellent grounding of reader into the action and universe.
CONS: Format of story and pacing dilute story to the point where the ending’s sting loses the emotional impact it should have.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting world and premise weakened by a sadly and frustratingly flawed execution.

The Gurus, a set of apparently benevolent aliens, come to Earth bearing gifts, but there is a price. There are hostile species out there, aliens who would regard Earth and the Gurus as prey and opposition. In exchange for new technology, Earth needs to step up and provide soldiers to deal with the alien threat, which already exists on Mars. It’s time for Marine Michael Venn to become a Skyrine and do aerial drops on Mars to deal with that alien threat, tangle with the few humans who have tried to colonize Mars (including a love interest) and try to survive.

Based on thius premise, you might expect slam-bang action and lots of technobabble — save the girl, save the planet, save the solar system, right? Well, the novel in question is from legendary SF luminary Greg Bear, and what you get instead is something rather different from expectations. What you get is War Dogs.

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BOOK REVIEW: Nest of Worlds by Marek S. Huberath, Translated by Michael Kandel

REVIEW SUMMARY: Huberath asks us to become more conscious of the narratives we create and think more broadly about our place in the universe.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When Gavein Throzz moves to Davabel, he soon finds himself linked to a growing epidemic of deaths. And when he and other characters start reading a mysterious book called Nest of Worlds, Gavein realizes that his existence and perception of that existence may be terribly flawed.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: This novel puts your brain on a fast-moving treadmill and asks fascinating questions about the nature of human existence.
CONS: More narrative time could have been given to the several nested worlds to flesh out some of Huberath’s philosophical questions.
BOTTOM LINE: Nest of Worlds is a wonderful introduction to the world of contemporary Polish science fiction, and a powerful, probing story that prompts thoughtfulness and self-awareness.

As part of my effort to read more scifi in translation, I jumped at the chance to check out Nest of Worlds, Huberath’s first novel to appear in English. A major force in Polish science fiction, Huberath is also a professor of biophysics and biological physics at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. And he brings everything to this metafictional tale of life, death, and reading.
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BOOK REVIEW: Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

Long Hidden is a speculative fiction anthology about marginalized groups of people in history, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older and published by Crossed Genres Publications in early 2014.

The introduction of the anthology begins with this:

Before Long Hidden was a book, it was a conversation. Really, it was many conversations, over the course of many different lives; these fed into one conversation in particular, a back-and-forth on Twitter in December 2012 about representations of African diasporic voices in historical speculative fiction, and the ways that history “written by the victors” demonizes and erases already marginalized stories. That discussion became an idea that became the book you’re about to read.

We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.

So, as you might have gathered, Long Hidden is an anthology meant to tell the stories of marginalized people in history (in speculative fashion). The setting varies, as well as the particular marginalized group, though the time period seemed to be most often between the 1600s and the 1800s. I’ll highlight a few of my favorites here.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Bitterwood Bible & Other Recountings by Angela Slatter

REVIEW SUMMARY: A brilliant short story collection, which deserves a spot right next to your volume of fairy tales and I’m not talking about the child-friendly variety here.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Interconnected stories of dangerous books, witches and wise women, fey folk from a different realm and girls trained to be assassins, professional poisoners and healers. This collection introduces the sisterhood of Little Sisters of St Florian and is set in the world of Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, acting as an origin story for the events in the previous collection.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Exquisite prose; a shared world where the stories bleed into each other to establish a vibrant and sprawling mythology; complex portrayal of women as protagonists and antagonists; the breathtaking pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.
CONS: The collection ended. Honestly, I could read at least three more volumes with tales in this world.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s among the strongest short story collections on the market and it will fill your heart with darkest wonders.

With The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings Angela Slatter proves why she’s one of the most important voices in fantasy. Fairy tales have seen a strong resurgence in recent years, but only Slatter understands them well enough to distill the essence that made them influential and prevalent and create her own mythos. She succeeds in her task and her short stories rival Grimm’s fairy tales in their darkness, danger and viciousness.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hawk by Steven Brust

REVIEW SUMMARY: Feeling like a who’s-who of Vlad’s friends in Adrilankha, Hawk balances fatalism with hope, and never misses a beat with the humor and rapid fire dialog for which Brust is known. Long time fans of the series will appreciate seeing their favorite supporting characters.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Done with running from the Jhereg, Vlad returns to Adrilankha. But this time, he has a plan to get the Jhereg off his back for good.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A surprisingly great starting place for readers new to this series; perfect pacing; spotlights Brust’s famous dry wit.
CONS: The trendy-sounding slang may sound dated after a few years.
BOTTOM LINE: Brust succeeds wildly in playing the long game, and in making this “nearly the end of a series” book completely accessible to brand new readers. Fans of the series will appreciate that Hawk moves the chronological plot line forward.

This is Brust’s 14th Vlad Taltos book, a series that stars its titular character and takes place in and around the Dragaeran empire. Each of the seventeen Dragaeran Great Houses are named after an indigenous species, and members of that House are rumored to share the qualities and mannerisms of that animal. Vlad, an Easterner (that means he’s a human), obviously wasn’t born into a Dragearan house, so his father did the only thing one could do it that situation: he purchased a title in the house of Jhereg. Lord Vladimir Taltos, Count Szurke, sometimes-friend of the Empress, broke the rules and has been running from the House of the Jhereg ever since. It’s an issue, because the Jhereg don’t just want him dead, they want him soul dead, the type of assassination that can only be done with a rare Morganti weapon. Oh, didn’t I mention? The House of Jhereg runs all the organized crime in the empire.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Redemption Engine by James L. Sutter

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong, character-focused story that serves as an excellent introduction to the Pathfinder universe

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Salim Ghadafar, reluctant minion of a Goddess of Death, investigates a set of missing souls, and so becomes caught up in machinations ranging from Heaven to Hell and the mortal plane between.

MY REVIEW:
PROS:: Strong, focused characterization; intriguing and diverse settings.
CONS: A couple of subplots don’t hold up quite as well as the rest of the book.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid, entertaining fiction that works for both those already familiar with the Pathfinder universe and newcomers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong urban fantasy novel that shows the author’s diverse tastes and skills in the subgenre.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Former cultist Jacob Hicks’ relatively innocuous life in New York City gets a kick in the rear as his sister comes to town to start the Apocalypse.

MY REVIEW:
PROS:: A pair of strong characters as family protagonist and antagonist; excellent overall use of New York City as a setting.
CONS: Almost too much worldbuilding and things thrown into the Urban Fantasy blender; one tiny mistake regarding a locale in Staten Island.
BOTTOM LINE: A strong story that introduces a delightfully tasty and complicated urban fantasy world that consistently keeps the reader turning pages.

It’s a classic story as old as time. Farm boy from North Dakota goes to the big city (in this case New York City), gets into big trouble because he is a hick from the sticks. In Michael R. Underwood’s urban fantasy novel The Younger Gods, he even has the adopted last name to prove it. Jacob Hicks née Greene has bigger problems than just managing his classes and his job, and even dealing with the confusing maelstrom of culture that is New York. Jacob’s big sister is coming to town, and she is not happy with her baby brother at all. How does the farm boy, already somewhat adrift in an alien and confusing world, handle family coming to town on top of it?

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BOOK REVIEW: Chicks Dig Gaming, Edited by Jennifer Brozek, Robert Smith and Lars Pearson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A multifacted set of essays that has proven unexpectedly topical.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: The Mad Norwegian Chicks dig… series continues with three dozen essays by women on gaming from video games to Dungeons and Dragons.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: High profile contributors on a variety of types and aspects of games; strong personal stories; many “I didn’t know that!” moments to be had reading essays.
CONS: Some of the essays feel like filler.
BOTTOM LINE: A set of essays made more timely by recent events than when the anthology was first conceived and essays written.

Stereotypes of women and their relation (or lack of relation) to games, particularly videogames and roleplaying games, have abounded since the dawn of both. From the old anti-D&D movie Mazes and Monsters to Felicia Day’s The Guild and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, depictions of games and videogames as a male-only activity rarely touched by women have been stereotyped, parodied and deconstructed. And on the face of it, the idea that half of the human population neither plays “real” videogames (whatever that means) or roleplaying games is ludicrous. And yet this misperception persists.

Even the idea that the gaming industry is exclusively male and therefore targeted to males is completely at sea with reality. Fantasy authors like Carrie Patel and Erin Hoffman write fantasy novels and work in the videogaming industry. Authors and publishers like Shanna Germain write and publish high-profile roleplaying games.

For answers — and real essays and thoughts by women on their relationship to games — one can come to Chicks Dig Gaming, the latest in the Chicks Dig… series put out by small press publisher Mad Norwegian Press. This latest volume is edited by Jennifer Brozek, Robert Smith and Lars Pearson. Brozek, like the aforementioned Shanna Germain, works both in roleplaying games and as an author and anthologist herself.

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BOOK REVIEW: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

REVIEW SUMMARY: With playful language, distinctly drawn characters, and a cavalcade of action in service to a coherent plot, this book is a winner.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A team of adventurers fracture over differing motivations while wading through the early efforts of a rising demon-god.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Distinct characters; well-drawn world; engaging plot; a cascade of action from start to finish.
CONS: “Firework” action; waiting for the rest of the trilogy.
BOTTOM LINE:  A good book, whose characters and plot take turns drawing the reader in again and again. No need to have read the preceding Aeon’s Gate trilogy; The City Stained Red grips the reader on its own merits while leaving one looking for the sequel.

From the first, The City Stained Red reveals a desperation in our main character, a desperation which is reflected in turns by his companions, by their situation, and by the city in which they find themselves fighting. Sam Sykes’ story unfolds with constant action, and every event increases the intensity. I read the whole thing in one long marathon read, because I simply never reached a moment when I wasn’t even more invested than the moment before in “what happens next.”
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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, transl. by Ken Liu

REVIEW SUMMARY: A masterful narrative about alien contact, physics, virtual reality, and Chinese culture and history.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When a Chinese astrophysicist succeeds in contacting aliens in Alpha Centauri, the resulting impact on human society reveals just how fractured our planet truly is.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fascinating word-paintings of abstract physics problems; thoughtful consideration of potential human-alien contact; deft toggling between time-periods.
CONS: We have to wait until July to get our hands on the next book in the trilogy.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a superb translation of a brilliant work of Chinese science fiction, where physics, philosophy, and history combine to push us to reconsider our place in the universe.

Over the past few months, I’ve been paying more attention to the state of fiction in English translation and have discovered many great publishers and translators. And while the number of contemporary novels translated into English could always be higher, I think we’re headed in the right direction. In terms of international science fiction, writers and translators like Lavie Tidhar and Ken Liu have introduced us to many voices we English-language readers might never have read.
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