Book Review Archives

Short Fiction Friday: EMBER by James K. Decker

REVIEW SUMMARY:Ember” is a novella prequel to James K. Decker’s novel, The Burn Zone, and the recently released sequel, Fallout.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Dragan Shao had been an exemplary soldier, defending his nation’s resources by guarding the borders and dealing with the hunger-driven people who see the alien haan not as our saviors, but as parasites that need to be destroyed. Shao has his reasons for turning in his resignation and returning to civilian life, and he will find himself examining those reasons as his former skill set brings him into confrontation with the reality of what humans will do in order to survive.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Tightly wound prose; novella does everything it should to hook readers into the world fleshed out in Decker’s novels; inventive look at how an advanced alien race might interact with humanity; just the right level of gripping action with nods given to character development.
CONS: For some, the quantity of story present may not justify the $2.99 ebook price; revelations regarding the alien presence are few in number.
BOTTOM LINE: This series by author James K. Decker promises much with its imaginative future technology, look at the coexistence of an alien race with humanity, and acknowledgment of the economic and environmental issues our world is sure to face in the decades/centuries to come, coupled with a solid, action-packed story.  Decker gets things right straight out of the gate with this novella which introduces readers to a few pivotal characters and lays a bit of groundwork for the world-building, all while providing an exciting story.  If the goal of “Ember” is to get you to want more, it succeeds brilliantly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

REVIEW SUMMARY:The third novel in the Everness series continues to expand both the universe and its protagonists and antagonists alike.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Everett, Sen and the rest of the crew of the airship make a jump to a BDO (Big Dumb Object) inhabited by descendants of dinosaurs.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A BDO of engineering larger than a Ringworld! Good character development of both the protagonists and antagonists.
CONS: Perhaps a bit too brief in length, especially given the size of the locales and the amount of material covered.
BOTTOM LINE: The third novel in MacDonald’s series starts taking off the gloves and kicking things into high gear.

I’ve a big fan of Ian McDonald’s Everness series, which began with Planesrunner and Be My Enemy. I’ve avidly followed story of a teenage genius who unlocks his father’s most prized secret — the secret not only to visit the ten worlds of the Plentitude, but the entire multiverse. The series follows Everett’s quest to find his missing father, lost somewhere in that multiverse, and the efforts of those who follow Everett in order to capture the Infundibulum for themselves. In the third novel in this series, Empress of the Sun, the story follows (in separate plotlines) Everett (still with the crew of The Everness, the airship he encountered in Planesrunner), Everett’s double from another world of the Plentitude who was recruited to find him, and Charlotte Villers (the main antagonist of the series).

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BOOK REVIEW: Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole

REVIEW SUMMARY: The third book in the Shadow Ops trilogy is the strongest yet by Military Fantasy author Myke Cole.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Looking backward and forward, Cole gives an antagonist of the series, Harlequin, screen time as we learn his story and his place in the Shadow Ops history and universe.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent delving into the character and motivations of a previous antagonist of the series; solid world building; action sequences alone are worth the price of admission.
CONS: A couple of beats could have been more clearly hit; a couple of intimations, if they are, are too softly invoked.
BOTTOM LINE: The final book of the Shadow Ops trilogy is the strongest.

[WARNING: Plot spoilers and general trilogy discussion ahead...]

Black Hawk Down meets the X-men. That’s the one-line high-concept that introduced me to Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: Holy Unicorns, Batman! This novella, set in Charles Stross’ Laundry universe, will leave you sleeping with one eye open anytime a young girl mentions a penchant for the mythical horned beast.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: What agent Bob Howard hopes to be a bogus assignment fueled by surviving death-bed letters written by H.P. Lovecraft, turns out to be a true eldritch nightmare. The mythical one-horned horse and its magical connotations are pushed through a Lovecraftian meat grinder with results both comical and frightening.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Stross channels Lovecraft masterfully; story is short enough to be read in one long sitting while not skimping on plot; works well as an introduction to the Laundry universe; balances wry humor with suspenseful elements.
CONS: Those familiar with Bob Howard and his adventures may find themselves skimming past introductory material, despite its brevity; in-jokes abound that will not have the same impact for new readers.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not my first experience with the writing of Charles Stross, but was my first foray into the world of his Laundry novels. I was encouraged to read the novella after seeing mentions of it on Hugo nominations lists and wanted to read it for consideration as I compile my own list. Given Stross’ ability to channel Lovecraft so well, it is a strong contender for a nomination. This is fun, funny and chock-full of the rich horror atmosphere that has helped the stories of H.P. Lovecraft remain popular to this day.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Echo by James Smythe

REVIEW SUMMARY: Goes deeper into the mystery and emotions of this dark space epic.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The sequel to The Explorer charts the second expedition to understand the deadly anomaly in the far reaches of outer space.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Complex mystery adds depth to what was established in The Explorer; relationship between main character and his twin; empathetic struggle between ambition and failure; the ending.
CONS: Lacks immediate hook into the story; secondary characters only engaging at key moments; confusion during significant events.
BOTTOM LINE: A deep-space mystery to save Earth in a story for anyone who fears failing in their life’s work.

Following in the footsteps of the phenomenal first book, The Explorer, The Echo rewards fans with answers to the anomaly located deep in outer space, but then adds more danger as the anomaly’s strengths and mystery increase. More than that, though, the story of its main character, Mira, is touching, succinct and a perfect fit for a reader toe-to-toe in the battle between ambition and failure.
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BOOK REVIEW: Trucksong by Andrew Macrae

REVIEW SUMMARY: An inventive, unique and fresh Australian post-apocalyptic novel.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A first-person dystopian science fiction novel about lost love, AI trucks and the search for meaning in a post-apocalyptic Australia.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Inventive, strong point of view gives a tight focus on the world around the protagonist.
CONS: First-person narration sometimes works against it; some elements not fleshed out sufficiently; dialect and slang may put off casual, non-Australians readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A unique and fresh post-apocalyptic novel.

Australia after the apocalypse is a hell of a place in Andrew Macrae’s debut novel Trucksong. The great metropolises (Gigacities in the parlance of the book) have all fallen, leaving a remnant population of humans, and things more and less than human. That last includes semi-trucks, with artificial intelligence, the ability to symbiotically bond with humans, and the seemingly dominant species left in Australia. Above it all, an ancient satellite named The Watcher sends cryptic messages to those who can hear them, including a young man determined to free the girl he loves, and break the power of the strongest truck on the roads, The Brumby King.
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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: An anthology of eighteen fairy tale revisions, reinterpretations, and responses.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Shows the wide range of fairy tales with variety of excellent stories–from fairy tale adventure all the way to bleak fairy tale-style retelling of real-life tragedy; brief authors’ notes illuminate stories’ meaning, writing.
CONS: Some stories miss the mark; some stories depend on familiarity with the source fairy tale.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid anthology for fairy tale lovers and revisionists.

Fairy tales are rarely what we think they are. That’s the overall message I take from Paula Guran’s interesting, instructive, and thankfully spoiler-free introduction of Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales. As Guran notes, fairy tales are conservative lessons about the danger of transgression–unless they’re progressive and liberating tales of transgression. Fairy tales are misogynistic tales of witches and virgins–unless they’re feminist stories of wise women and the discovery of sex. Fairy tales are timeless–unless they’re tied to their particular time. And so on. Perhaps the one thing we can say for certain about fairy tales is that they contain some measure of magic, of wonder, of otherworldliness. And that’s a pretty loose foundation on which to build a genre.
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[GUEST REVIEW] Kate Onyett on HOW TO BE DEAD by Dave Turner


Kate Onyett lives and works in Oxford, UK, doing her bit for the NHS and the sick of England. When not nursing a doctor’s ego, she can be found reading and reviewing speculative fiction, and is open to suggestions and submissions for such (gizmomogwai at hotmail dot co dot uk). Her interest in the speculative found full flowering at university, when she talked her tutors into letting her write first about vampires, and then about pirates. Yarr.

Dave is not an obvious hero. He’s a bit of an apathetic worker; just marking time perma-temping at a big business. He knows how to handle the pushy behaviour of his manager, but goes to pieces over Melanie- the girl of his dreams and office hottie. Oh, and he can see ghosts.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A deeper look at a new work of short fiction by Hugo, Nebula, Locus and World Fantasy award winning author Ken Liu. This story is featured in Clarkesworld Issue 88, January 2014.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A bounty hunter who has successfully nabbed her quarry inadvertently learns more about him during their journey through hyperspace as she kills time with a text-based computer game of his creation.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Clever execution of the story-within-a-story device; unconventional story structure fuels the fires of discovery; enjoyable blend of science fiction and fantasy devices.
CONS: Readers may be left with the desire for further resolution between Alex and Ryder.
BOTTOM LINE: Ken Liu has won several awards for stories that are out-of-the-ordinary and explore complex topics and emotions.  Those talents allow him to excel at telling a more straight-forward story as well, albeit one with signature Ken Liu flourishes.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of the Dead Edited by Jared Shurin

REVIEW SUMMARY: Another anthology from Jared Shurin’s Jurassic London imprint satisfyingly takes on yet another unexpected subject.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Mummies get their due in an anthology with strong stories from Paul Cornell, Gail Carriger, Maria Dahvana Headley and more.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Mummies! A wide range of tone, subject, and style gives something for every taste; good use of illustrations.
CONS: A couple of the stories don’t quite reach the high standard of the real highlights.
BOTTOM LINE: A solid and strong anthology of stories in an underexplored corner of the fantastic.
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BOOK REVIEW: Control by Lydia Kang

REVIEW SUMMARY: A light, fun, young adult medical thriller that serves as a good gateway book for YA fans looking for something SFnal.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After the death of their father, sisters Zelia and Dylia are separated. In this dystopian future, genetic mutations (be them natural or not) are illegal, and it’s believed Dylia has a secret genetic trait that can be exploited. Zelia needs to rescue her sister from a dangerous organization and come to terms with their father’s secrets.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent scientific explanations of genetics and biology without infodumping; empowered teenaged characters; interesting world.
CONS: Many plot points felt rushed; over-the-top villains; story never quite reached that “Wow” moment.
BOTTOM LINE: A light, fast SFnal thriller with some fun hard science aspects and a satisfying (if somewhat telegraphed) twist at the end.

After the car accident that killed their father, teenage sisters Dylia and Zelia are quickly processed through social services. Hopefully they will be placed with a foster family soon, and won’t have to spend too long at the New Horizons Center. Older by four years, Zel is very protective of her thirteen year old sister, Dylia. When their father was alive, his medical practice kept him working long hours and moving around the country, so it often fell to Zelia to raise her little sister.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience marked by it’s unstoppable narrative drive, realistic character portrayals, gripping action sequences, and expertly delivered plot developments.

MY OVERALL RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Follows Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor on a mission, initially to investigate the existence of evil-tainted drug-like substance, but that investigation uncovers an even greater conspiracy against a powerful enemy.

MY REVIEW:
RAVENOR

  • MY RATING:
  • PROS: The final act was non-stop, page-turning fun; Abnett juggles multiple story threads effortlessly; central characters evoke love/hate emotions in the reader; all characters are distinct; superbly written action scenes; the universe is well-drawn and alluring.
  • CONS: The story stalls a bit in the second act.

RAVENOR RETURNED

  • MY RATING:
  • PROS: The arc of the trilogy shifts gears to a greater conspiracy, upping the stakes; completely engrossing from start to finish; Abnett is not afraid to write off characters.
  • CONS: A couple of scenes where innocents are killed without question.

RAVENOR ROGUE

  • MY RATING:
  • PROS: Excellent presentation of action and drama; Ravenor being held accountable for his actions; delivers an epic finale.
  • CONS: One mildly-jarring time jump when Ravenor actually goes rogue.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: The second novel in the Legion of the Damned prequel series brings readers back to the adventures of socialite-turned-solider, Cat Carletto, as her alter ego Andromeda McKee seeks vengeance on the ruler who murdered her family while trying to survive both the assassins set on her death and the hostile forces intent on the Legion’s destruction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Her success as a Legionairre has earned Andromeda McKee the Imperial Order of Merit. In order to receive it she must leave the battlefield and return to Earth, which is possibly the most dangerous place she could ever find herself. An unanticipated opportunity for vengeance, a surprise reunion, and an assignment against overwhelming odds will teach the woman formally known as Lady Catherine Carletto several things about herself, some of which she may not like.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Builds upon the solid foundation laid down in Andromeda’s Fall; significant character development; intense battle sequences; satisfies the craving for strong military science fiction while building anticipation for the next book in the series.
CONS: Resistance story line is touched on far too briefly; the reaction of one character to a specific choice by the protagonist seems unnaturally absolute and was not supported by enough background information.
BOTTOM LINE: Author William C. Dietz has created a new jumping on point for readers unfamiliar with the long-running Legion of the Damned series that features a multifaceted character who matures over the course of this second novel. The first two novels in this series were released in 2013, giving readers an opportunity to get well and truly immersed in this world and in the journey of Andromeda McKee.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iron Night by M.L. Brennan

REVIEW SUMMARY: Amazing sequel that sees a stronger plot and even greater character development.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Someone or something is killing humans in a particularly gruesome way and it just happened to pick the wrong target – the roommate of Fortitude Scott. Fort, now being brought up to speed on the family business, pursues the killer with vengeance in mind, but he might have stumbled onto something far more dangerous than a common murderer.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Fortitude is really coming into his own; Suzume is as awesome as ever; the family dynamic is developing interestingly; the elves are 50 shades of creepy; and the plot itself is an improvement.
CONS: The final showdown was a little too short.
BOTTOM LINE: I haven’t been this excited about a series in a long time. This is urban fantasy at its best, with a strong focus on characters and relationships and an awesome take on established creatures.
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BOOK REVIEW: Heartwood by Freya Robertson

REVIEW SUMMARY: The first volume in the Elemental Wars series is a promising start from new fantasy writer Freya Robertson.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A society of knights dedicated to protect a Yggdrasil like tree quest across the land in order to save it and oppose enemies known and unknown.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent misc-en-scene and detail; egalitarian society at heart of novel most welcome.
CONS: Several coincidences and turns of plot are awfully convenient; some character arcs feel like missed opportunities; a repeated typographical error was more than a little annoying.
BOTTOM LINE: An imperfect but entertaining start to a new epic fantasy writer.

A tree at the center of creation, an egalitarian set of knights set to protect it, and a ghastly attack that threatens the health of the world are the stakes in Heartwood, a debut epic fantasy novel from Freya Robertson.

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Short Fiction Friday: My Favorites of 2013

REVIEW SUMMARY: A look back at what I consider the best of the short fiction that I read in 2013.

It has been quite a run. I did not realize how time-consuming and challenging it would be to take on the task of attempting (and sometimes failing) to review works of short fiction each week for 2013 here on SF Signal. I have appreciated the opportunity and the rewards have been rich indeed, as will be apparent in the following post. Many of the stories featured were first published in 2013, though some are not and were simply discovered by me for the first time this year. I have included links to each short story, when they exist, as well as my edited review notes and a notation of where I found each story. All of the stories featured in this annual overview received either a 4.5 or 5 star rating from me at the time of review.

This is a great selection of short stories, novelettes and novellas. In the mix you will find the presence of both established and up-and-coming authors, a great variety of style and subject matter in both science fiction and fantasy, and will see that various selections unintentionally play off of one another for interesting thematic contrast. As a disclaimer I will state that ratings are a matter of personal opinion and thus you may not experience these stories in the way that I did. A shortage of time means that many potentially noteworthy stories were missed and my personal desire to stay current with a handful of short fiction publications means that many other purveyors of short fiction were not featured during this year of reading and reviewing short fiction. So feel free to tell me where you agree or disagree and let me, and all the SF Signal readers, know what short fiction I missed in 2013 and where it can be found.

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BOOK REVIEW: Brass Stars by A.G. Carpenter

REVIEW SUMMARY: Revenge Western wrapped in a science fiction envelope.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gunslinger Tashndelu Sand seeks revenge on the last of the posse that raped and killed her mother.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong female lead, inversion of tropes, gunslinging action, psychotic cyborg horse.
CONS: Confusing spatial relationships, minor plot choices.
BOTTOM LINE: A provocative twist on the revenge western.
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BOOK REVIEW: Below Zero by Ben Tripp

REVIEW SUMMARY: Wraps up an innovative zombie-apocalypse duology.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The zombie apocalypse has turned into a wild west where children are used for bait and happy outcomes are few and far between.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: moments of excellent prose and horror; one-of-a-kind zombie mythos; interesting heroine; solid ending.
CONS: weaker middle; weak empathy for secondary characters; disappointed after really enjoying first book.
BOTTOM LINE: The action from an interesting concept of Happy Town’s dark secret, along with the heroine’s emotional journey made this a good read, but the lack of supporting characters you really care about made most of the events only marginally exciting.
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BOOK REVIEW: Moon’s Artifice by Tom Lloyd

REVIEW SUMMARY: Lloyd convincingly begins a new fantasy universe of Gods, noble houses and an attempted apotheosis.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the Imperial City, the heart of the Empire, a lowly investigator gets entangled in a conflict between Noble Houses and the Gods themselves.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Rich, deep world building (almost to excess); dverse set of protagonists; excellent action scenes.
CONS: A concordance would have helped illuminate the wave of information thrown at the reader; some character elements out of central casting.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining and strong entry into a new fantasy universe that reads like the fantasy equivalent of a technothriller.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: The third in Ian Sales Apollo Quartet sees a more alternate historical mode to his story of astonauts and spy satellites.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate world where the Korean War dragged into an endless meatgrinder, a female-led space program ties in with a black ops spy satellite program

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Solid research into dark and strange corners of the space program, both in terms of people and technology; three-dimensional characters whose depth belie the shortness of the work.
CONS: Not all aspects of the alternate history are as plausible as others; divergent time points in the alternate history could have been bound more tightly together.
BOTTOM LINE: An impressive depth of research combined with a love of space programs is aptly married to excellent writing.

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