Book Review Archives


Ben Blattberg is a freelance writer currently living in Texas. He blogs about movies and story structure at incremental-catastrophe.blogspot.com and makes jokes on Twitter @inCatastrophe.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a magical LA ruthlessly run by a cannibal magician, a thief with a magical talent gets caught up in a heist.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fun world-building with some darkly vivid imagery, and a fast-moving caper plot that pulls readers along.
CONS: Some jarring plot shifts and murky character motivations.
BOTTOM LINE: I wouldn’t want to live in van Eekhout’s grim, magical LA, but it’s a fantastic place to visit; and despite a few hiccups, the book is a fun thrill-ride.

If you’ve ever been to sunny Los Angeles, you know that it’s a dread-laden city of madness, where the palm trees merely bide their time till they wake and push us all into the unforgiving Pacific. Or maybe that’s just me; maybe Los Angeles strikes you more as a city of pretty people cavorting in endless sunshine. Greg van Eekhout channels both versions of LA into his new novel, California Bones, an expansion of his earlier short fiction story “The Osteomancer’s Son“. Looked at one way, California Bones is a light-hearted epic heist story in a magical, alternate California; looked at another way, it’s a dystopian Grand Guignol about a decaying bureaucracy ruthlessly ruled by the biggest cannibal in town. Either way, it’s a fast-moving adventure with some heavy stakes, and only a few bumps along the way.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: In Bald New World, Tieryas Liu explores social complications, structure and
culture of a world in which everyone loses their hair.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story follows Nick Guan as he moves between a Dystopian future set in L.A. and parts of Asia with a twisted plot revealing shocking truths about hair loss on a global scale beneath a seedy underworld filled with spies and murder.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Descriptive, engaging narrative that is smart in its observations of popular culture; deep, personal narrative set against intense, raw scenes.
CONS: Fast paced ending gave illusion of being a tad rushed.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful, clever narrative that builds an intriguing look at a plausible yet fantastic future while remaining a personal story of man’s struggles with societal norms and family.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

REVIEW SUMMARY: McCellan’s second Powder Mage novel expands the canvas of the story in a welcome and engaging manner.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: The repercussions of Promise of Blood echo forward, as Tamas strikes into Kez even as political events back in Adopest (and an angry god) threaten to overwhelm the promise of his revolution.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Engaging story of the main protagonist; excellent set pieces; tight writing.
CONS: Some choices in POV characters remain something of a lost opportunity.
BOTTOM LINE: A solid follow-up to The Crimson Campaign that keeps the momentum of the series.

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Eleven failed expeditions have ventured into Area X. We embed with the twelfth – a psychologist, a surveyor, a linguist, an anthropologist, and a protagonist – as they cross Area X’s mysterious border, hoping to discover their precursors’ fates.

Annihilation, first in a trilogy to be drip-fed throughout 2014, is part dark fantasy horror, part sci-fi adventure into verdant wilderness, and part bittersweet fabulism. The prose is lucid, gripping, and establishes a not altogether disagreeable sense of “breathless and unexplainable dread,” in H.P. Lovecraft’s words.

Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) are significant precedents in their mix of trepidation, adventure, and rapture. Annihilation can also boast a crawler and a pit, a bit like Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” (1918).
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A deliriously smart and funny beginning to a new urban fantasy series about dragons in the ruins of Detroit.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Fantastic and memorable characters; spectacular world building; fast paced adventure; snappy dialog with a lot of humor; completely unique magical system.
CONS: Would have liked more info about the rest of the world after the magic apocalypse.
BOTTOM LINE: A compelling first volume in a new series that will knock your socks off so hard they’ll leave smoking holes in your wall.
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REVIEW: Clarkesworld Year Six, Edited by Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace

REVIEW SUMMARY: Clarkesworld Year Six includes all 34 original pieces published in Clarkesworld Magazine during their sixth year. If you’re looking to get caught up on Clarkesworld, you can’t beat their yearly volumes.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Large variety of voice and style; good mix of famous writers and newer voices; includes many excellent examples of speculative fiction that pushes the boundaries; stories can be read in any order.
CONS: None. One of the strongest collections I’ve read in a long time.
BOTTOM LINE: This collection is jam-packed with Nebula and Locus award winners and Hugo nominated works. Well worth the money for that alone.

Skimming the table of contents of Clarkesworld Year Six, you’re going to recognize a lot of titles. The fiction that Clarkesworld published in their sixth year includes Nebula and Locus winners and nominees, Hugo nominees, and stories included in Gardner Dozois’ Years Best Science Fiction, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. So it easily goes without saying that the 34 stories included in Clarkesworld Year Six are some of the best of the best.

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BOOK REVIEW: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Third Craft Sequence novel continues to show the burgeoning skills of one of the newest and freshest voices in fantasy

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Diverse, interesting cast of characters; conceit of the Craftverse transplants nicely to yet another new setting; pacing is improved from previous novels.
CONS: Although not a direct sequel, novel doesn’t stand on its own well.
BOTTOM LINE: The Craft Sequence gets better in this third volume, but it’s not the place to start your engagement with this world and characters.

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Hard to believe that is is the first Friday in July. And Independence Day (here in the ol’ U.S. of A.) to boot!

It hardly seems that long ago that I was sitting in this same chair, in much colder climes, writing about the stories I was nominating for this year’s Hugo Awards.

Now here we are, less than a month away from the deadline for voting, and all over the internet folks are talking about their picks for this year’s rocket.

In the midst of today’s festivities, I would encourage you to take the time to check out the four entries for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

There are four very strong contenders that not only represent new (or newer) voices in speculative fiction, but the stories are also very much a reflection of the social and cultural issues prevalent in the science fiction community and in the world at large. There is nothing of what I would consider a long-held “standard” Hugo short story here.

While there are some similarities in theme, each story is uniquely its own and is different enough from its fellow contestants to make reading them truly pleasurable. It also makes it that much harder to decide which to vote top honors.

All four stories are available for you to read online for free and are well worth your time.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

REVIEW SUMMARY: Buckell continues to explore the near future world of Arctic Rising with a distinctly excellent focus on the Caribbean.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Interestingly drawn and well-depicted main character; amazingly immersive setting.
CONS: A point or two of motivations and setting need a bit fleshing out; a couple of off-the-shelf elements of the genre jar against inventiveness; lightness of genre may turn off some genre readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A science fiction thriller set in a startlingly plausible and intriguing future.

Prudence “Roo” Jones thought he was out of the game. He is so very wrong.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Leopard by K.V. Johansen

REVIEW SUMMARY: Returning to the world of The Blackdog, Johansen crafts half of a story continuing the machinations of wizards, devils and Gods.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: At the trading city of Marakand, a Goddess’ move to build an Empire draws the attention of assassins, devils, and stranger folk.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Welcome return to a rich, diverse, secondary world fantasy that looks beyond the usual Western European models; gorgeous writing.
CONS: Pacing needs work; title of the book is misleading; feels like half of a story rather than a self-contained one.
BOTTOM LINE: While not without issues, this is a pleasing step back into a fantasy world and characters that beg for more exposure.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A portal fantasy that excellently leverages the author’s penchant for strong characters, evocative description and vivid worldbuilding.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Sophie Hansa inadvertently finds herself transported from modern San Francisco to the parallel world of Stormwrack. The secrets of her own origins in this strange watery world are but a small thread in a tangle of politics and conspiracy.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong characters (especially female characters); interesting and evocative worldbuilding; tasty, complicated politics.
CONS: Portal Fantasy may be passé to some readers; the book could use a map and glossary.
BOTTOM LINE: A bright and clear view to an interesting world with an engaging heroine who is our entry ticket into it.

No good deed goes unpunished. One minute, Sophie is trying to help her birth mother, who, on a weekend where her adoptive parents are away, she’s decided to try to track down and meet. Next minute, a fight at her mother’s doorstep goes weird, and Sophie finds herself treading water in an ocean, but its not the Pacific Ocean outside her San Francisco home. She’s on another world, where the people are hauntingly familiar, even if they speak a foreign language. And they are aware of and dismissive of the more technologically advanced Earth next door. What connection does Sophie have with this world of Stormwrack? Why does it seem that people know who and what Sophie and her family is,here, even if she doesn’t know herself. Can Sophie learn to navigate the dangerous currents of the politics and conspiracy that she has been dropped into? Or even be allowed to stay rather than being bundled back to Earth? A.M. Dellamonica explores Sophie’s story in Child of a Hidden Sea.
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BOOK REVIEW: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam is the newest of the sprawling Discworld series of satirical comedic fantasy written by Terry Pratchett, the fortieth to be published.

If you haven’t read any of the Discworld series, you really should give it a try. It takes place on Discworld, a world that is (as you might suspect from the name) a flat disc that spins on the back of four great elephants who stand on the back of Great A’Tuin, a spacefaring sea turtle. My favorites in the series include Small Gods, Interesting Times, The Hogfather, and Feet of Clay. The series as a whole is linked only by the world, not always by characters or countries or time periods, though there are kind of sub-series within the main series that follow certain groups of characters to give them an arc. But you can read the books in pretty much any order (you’ll just appreciate some of the little things more if you’re aware of where the series has already been.

Raising Steam, like most of the books in the series, mostly takes place in Ankh-Morpork, the melting pot city-state that reminds me of a mixture of New York City and Los Angeles, ruled by the semi-benevolent demi-tyrannical Patrician.
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BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley

REVIEW SUMMARY: A debut collection that effortlessly plays with the finer nuances of sorrow and whimsy, though not without some wandering.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Beautiful Sorrows has no theme other than to showcase the range and skill of Mercedes M. Yardley. Her debut collection presents a rich assortment of short stories, flash fiction and micro fiction set in worlds that both resemble our own and remind of forgotten fairy tales left to their own devices.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Beautiful language that pairs with imaginative storylines; surreal, dream-like events; a general sense of unconventionality that works in favor of the narratives; emotionally charged scenes and strong characterization.
CONS: The flash and micro fiction pieces pale in comparison to the longer offerings, which make for an uneven reading experience
BOTTOM LINE: It’s a great debut. Beautiful Sorrows is subtle in some places, heartbreaking in others. Both surreal and painfully relatable in its familiarity. Mercedes M. Yardley sounds like no writer I’ve read until now and there’s a high chance she sounds like no one other than herself. That’s something to look forward to experiencing.

Beautiful Sorrows is a peculiar collection by a peculiar author with a peculiar voice and even more peculiar stories. That’s the best introduction I can manage and be concise as to what you can expect reading. This debut collection falls on the slimmer side, peppered with micro and flash fiction pieces serving as punctuation to the greater emotional narrative within Beautiful Sorrows. In his introduction, P. Gardner Goldsmith compares Yardley to a siren and rightfully so, but instead songs that fuel lust, Yardley sings songs to make hearts break.

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Short Fiction Friday: Two Tasty Selections from Tor.com

REVIEW SUMMARY: A brief glance at two recent stories acquired for Tor.com by award-winning editor Ellen Datlow.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Tight, imaginative prose; interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy; myth and mystery skillfully knit together; meaningful artwork accompanies each story.
CONS: One story may be too enigmatic to satisfy all readers.
BOTTOM LINE: Editor Ellen Datlow has acquired a couple of winners for Tor.com, a feat she seems to pull off with some regularity. One story weaves together old myth and contemporary mystery in a way that will draw the reader in while delivering a chill that is not simply the result of its winter setting. The other is a mix of science fiction and fantasy which examines the idea of multiple realities in a highly creative fashion. This second story is quite enigmatic, and yet it won over this reader who is often a curmudgeon when it comes to that type of storytelling.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: Underwood switches up from Urban Fantasy to New Weird secondary-world fantasy while maintaining excellent action-adventure beats.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS:Well drawn characters; excellent action beats; a real underdog superhero resistance vs. oppressive authority through-line; a wonderful cover from Stephan Martiniere.
CONS: New Weird elements do not always quite come through as strongly as they might.
BOTTOM LINE: A very convincing turn into secondary-world fantasy.

Shield and Crocus is a secondary-world urban fantasy novel from Mike R. Underwood in which Wonlar, an old, seemingly humble storyteller, tells stories to children to pass his days. But old storyteller is only a secret identity. Wonlar is really the superhero called First Sentinel. First Sentinel suppresses the one terrible superpower he has, but he uses intelligence, knowledge, scouting of one’s enemies and a lot of gadgetry and tricks to face off against his evil foes.
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BOOK REVIEW: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk


WRITERS’ RETREAT:
ABANDON YOUR LIFE FOR THREE MONTHS.
Just disappear.
Leave behind everything that keeps you from creating your masterpiece.
Your job and family and home, all those obligations and distractions–
Put them on hold for three months.
Live with like-minded people in a setting that supports total immersion in your work.  Food and lodging included free for those who qualify.  Gamble a small fraction of your life on the chance to create a new future as a professional poet, novelist, screenwriter.
Before it’s too late, live the life you dream about.  Spaces very limited.

That’s the ad that starts it all, in Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (most well-known for authoring Fight Club), which gathers a group of writers together, locked into a house for three months, with just the contents of a suitcase.
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Ben Blattberg is a freelance writer currently living in Texas. He blogs about movies and story structure at incremental-catastrophe.blogspot.com and makes jokes on Twitter @inCatastrophe.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the sequel to Wolfhound Century (reviewed here), while war approaches the city of Mirgorod, ex-Investigator Lom and Maroussia Shaumian search for the power to change the world, while totalitarian police chief Chazia discovers secret government research into a new weapon.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: More and deeper views into this alternate magical Russian/Soviet history; interesting side stories.
CONS: Central character Lom pales next to secondary characters; abrupt ending cries out for next volume.
BOTTOM LINE: An exciting sequel to a solid series — which will hopefully be wrapped up nicely in the third book.

Pity the fantasy author working on the middle book of a trilogy. Or don’t. But at least recognize the needle-threading necessary for a successful middle book: the author has to move the story forward, but not finish it; has to increase characters’ powers and the danger they face, but still leave some space for the final book; and has to build on the first book’s setting — but, boy, do readers get jaded with even the most inventive worlds. “Sure,” we might say to Peter Higgins, “your first book showed us a unique World War II-era Soviet fantasy world that was engrossing and strange — but what have you done for us recently?” Considering those prerequisites for a successful sequel, it seems like a minor miracle that Truth and Fear is as good as it is. In short, if you liked the first book, you will probably like this one, which continues most of the pleasures and minor faults of the first book.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A revenge fantasy that misses its potential to reinvent the Robin Hood mythos and examine real problems.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Interesting use of the Robin Hood mythos; novella length allows for the fleshing out of some elements of the story; great cover and interior illustrations by Charles Vess, the book itself is a beautiful edition, typical of Subterranean Press’ standards.
CONS: Appears to espouse an overly simplistic and destructive redistribution of wealth ideology; plot line of destined lovers is jarring against a background of violence; shines a light on real problems without offering any real solutions; the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment ending is hard to stomach against the plight of mundane world characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Given my familiarity with Charles de Lint’s work and his long history of tackling difficult subjects like poverty and abuse and inequality with honesty, creativity and a sense of hope amidst despair, I was wholly unprepared for a story that exposed real issues in a cliched fashion while offering nothing in the way of hope, with the exception of characters who were not worthy of the hope they receive. In the end this felt like little more than a revenge fantasy built on a very thin mythical foundation. If it is meant to be an indictment on the Robin Hood mythos, it is incredibly successful. If it has another purpose, it falls well short of its aim.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A look at the forthcoming book, The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon, to be released by Titan Books on May 27th, 2014.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Large, beautifully reproduced images; work spans wide range of Harris’ career; fitting foreword by John Scalzi; reasonable price point for book of this size/quality; equally reasonably priced slip-cased limited edition with signed print.
CONS: More prose about inspirations/thoughts on individual works would have enhanced the book.
BOTTOM LINE: John Harris and his iconic paintings have been a part of the science fiction community for nearly four decades.  He brings an impressionistic sensibility to his bold, massive space landscapes that make each piece stand out as a distinct work of art.  Generations of readers have discovered his work because of the science fiction novels graced with his creations.  Harris continues to be a prolific creator whose work resides on the covers of some of the biggest names in SF literature.  This new retrospective is a welcome body of work and should be added to your collection the moment it is released.

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BOOK REVIEW: Celeste by I.N.J. Culbard

REVIEW SUMMARY: An enjoyable story overall that suffers from some execution issues.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three people confront their own lives when the rest of the world’s population disappears.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: An interesting premise; deals with meaningful themes; engrossing story lines; sympathy evoked for two of the characters’ journeys…
CONS: …while the third character seems to experience a less meaningful and surreal nightmare; the artistic style, while not bad, doesn’t grab me.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting story and personally thought-provoking story.

I.N.J. Culbard deals with meaningful themes in his first original graphic novel Celeste. Specifically, the story deals with loneliness and the meaning we place on our own lives. These themes are explored through three separate story lines following a group of troubled souls: a woman named Lilly who has albinism and prefers to be alone; an FBI agent named Ray who’s wrapped up in his job, and a suicidal Asian man who goes unnamed. Each of them has to deal with the unbelievable fact that just about the rest of humanity has disappeared in the blink of an eye. How they deal with the situation given this new perspective is the meat of the story.
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