Category Archives: Book Review

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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BOOK REVIEW: Shield and Crocus by Mike R. Underwood

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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[GUEST REVIEW] Ben Blattberg on TRUTH AND FEAR by Peter Higgins

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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Short Fiction Friday: Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint

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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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of John Harris – Beyond the Horizon


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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BOOK REVIEW: Binary (Revolution #2) by Stephanie Saulter

REVIEW SUMMARY: The second book in Stephanie Saulter’s ®evolution series answers many (but not all) of the questions readers were left with at the end of the first book, Gemsigns, gives us a lot of background information Aryel and Zavcka, and opens a new plotline that will get readers excited for the next book in the series.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Gems are now legally equal to the norms, but society has a long way to go. Aryel’s foster family visits the city for medical advice for her brother’s crippling disease, and Sharon Varsi is investigating a strange theft involving out of date genestock. Meanwhile, Zavcka Klist is rebranding her company in an attempt to start a partnership with the Gems she is responsible for creating and then nearly destroying.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Touches on important political issues; a great balance between good pacing and a well-developed ensemble cast; plot is emotionally gripping.
CONS: Handling of one of character’s special ability is heavy-handed; sometimes it’s hard to tell who the characters in the flashbacks are.
BOTTOM LINE: Some books are good, some books are even great. This one is important.

In a recent guest post here at SF Signal entitled We Need Fiction to Tell The Truth, author Stephanie Saulter more so uses the column to talk about how too many people allow their discomfort, fear, or ignorance to color their interactions with others who have physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities, but the column’s title itself is a perfect summary of so much of what she touched on in Gemsigns, and now in Binary. Gems (genetically modified people) may not look like us, but they are just like us. Does this sound familiar? This is the same line we raise (or should be raising) our children with: that person may not look like you (different skin color, or different culture, or is in a wheelchair, or is deaf, etc.), but they are just like you. Needing fiction to tell the truth, indeed. Before you start worrying about a “message” novel, Saulter isn’t trying to make readers feel guilty or feel bad. She’s showing us what can happen when we do finally remember that we are all in this together, that it’s not “us vs them”, because we are all “us”.

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BOOK REVIEW: This Crumbling Pageant by Patricia Burroughs

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fantasy debut that works best when relying on its strengths of characterization, plotting and description.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Vibrant, complicated heroine; evocative description and language; well-crafted plot beats.
CONS: Unclear worldbuilding raises too many questions; execution of certain concepts need work.
BOTTOM LINE: A promising main character, good plotting and good ideas marred by a flawed execution.

Persephone Fury has a problem. Several of them, actually. In a world bound to and next door to our own, her Regency-era life is rather complicated. Her magical powers, rather than being a celebrated gift, are of a sort that are dark and threatening, enough that tisanes consumed to dull them are the order of the day. Her twin brother’s tutor is up to something, something threatening enough that Persephone is willing to pose as her brother to find out what her tutor wants. And the Season is opening soon. Persephone’s prospects are not good, and they cannot be allowed to damage the prospects of her very marriageable sister. Things get even darker and more convoluted, though, though, when the tutor’s machinations, a challenge to the ailing crown, and Persephone’s own conflicted desires and her awakening powers threaten to unmoor Persephone Fury’s life completely, and her world with it.
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[GUEST REVIEW] Ben Blattberg on WOLFHOUND CENTURY by Peter Higgins

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 totalitarian, Soviet-like state, a police investigator tracks down a terrorist and discovers his links to a living angel that is poisoning the world.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Lyrical writing; fascinating world-building that mixes Russian/Soviet history with folklore and fantasy.
CONS: Abrupt ending; characters tend towards thinness.
BOTTOM LINE: While it doesn’t feel like a complete story itself, Wolfhound Century is an intriguing first volume, with a promising setting and some exciting plot threads.

Peter Higgins’s debut novel Wolfhound Century is an ambitious, lyrical, and occasionally messy mix of police thriller, Russian/Soviet history, and fantasy that lends itself to at least two drinking games.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Very Best of Tad Williams

REVIEW SUMMARY: Tad Williams’s third collection includes 17 stories from across his career, ranging in publication dates [1988 through 2014] and across the genre landscape [fantasy, horror, mystery/detective, science fiction] highlighting one of the genre’s most potent storytellers.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Very Best of Tad Williams is just that, a retrospective of a superb writer/storyteller.

MY REVIEW
PROS: A master of the Epic displays his storytelling abilities in the short form with great success.
CONS: A couple of the shortest stories of the bunch connected with me the least.
BOTTOM LINE: An essential addition to the bookshelf for fans of Tad Williams and also a great opportunity for new readers to sample the breadth of his storytelling prowess.

The Very Best of Tad Williams is the third collection of the author’s short fiction and includes stories published as far back as 1988 to a story new to this volume, 2014. To most genre readers, Tad Williams is best known for door-stopper epic sagas like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Otherland, and Shadowmarch, in addition to the recent Angel Detective series Bobby Dollar. This latest collection illustrates that it is not the size of the epic, but the teller of the tale.

I’ve read a handful of his shorts in various themed collections and am a very big fan of those aforementioned large-scale Epic sagas, and I consider Memory, Sorrow and Thorn one of my favorite series.  So how did the collection work as a whole?
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BOOK REVIEW: Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

REVIEW SUMMARY: A murder mystery with big aspirations that tries its very best, but is tripped by a detective-bard that’s the antithesis of a bard.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The travelling bard Talus and his companion Bran find themselves with a murder on their hands as they pass through the island of Creyak. The victim? The king. Who could commit such a crime? At first, it appears there is no clear motive and no suspect daring enough to kill the king and anger the spirits in the afterlife. But Talus and Bran soon find that the peaceful and isolated Creyak holds its share of secrets.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The juxtaposition of a detective narrative and investigation that reminds you of many police procedural dramas against an unlikely setting; the murder mystery and reveal are decent and satisfactory; the interpersonal relationships between the island natives, especially the sons of the king, are genuine and interesting to see unwind; the novel diversifies the cast with the inclusion of a gay character.
CONS: The writing tries to evoke a film noir feel, but most sentences turn into telegrams and at times it feels like you have a woodpecker in your head; Talus is supposed to read as a smart and cunning character who has everything under control, but remains a condescending grouch throughout the novel; Bran reads like a plot device that prompts Talus to explain every detail and break in the case to the reader.
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve had a maddening experience with Talus and the Frozen King because when Edwards nails it, this book is a page turner. I had no idea who the murderer was and all the suspects had the motivation to commit the crime. I loved the concept and how the investigative process translates into the Neolithic era. But when Edwards misses the mark, the novel makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I fluctuated between adoration and pure rage every thirty or so pages.

Talus and the Frozen King is at its core a whodunit murder mystery, so any discussion of plot holds little to no merit. I’m going to provide key points with as few spoilers as possible, but some minor spoilers may slip in. Beware, reader!
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[GUEST REVIEW] Kathryn Ryan on SWORN IN STEEL by Douglas Hulick


Kathryn Ryan is a blogger and infrequent reviewer. She can be found posting on her blog, The Forged Forest, as well as on Twitter as @Loerwyn

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Drothe, now a Gray Prince, journeys to a foreign land to track down his best friend, only to find himself trapped in a hostile city with dangerous people and factions calling for his blood.

RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: A more complex plot; intriguing and likeable new characters; greater exploration of the world and its lore.
CONS: Still continues with a too-short time frame; twists and turns are frequent and over-dramatic.
BOTTOM LINE: An improvement on Among Thieves that continues to be enjoyable and compelling.
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Short Fiction Friday: “The Churn”, An EXPANSE Novella by James S.A. Corey

REVIEW SUMMARY: An unassuming, I-will-not-spoil-it-for-you look at this just-released novella in the popular Expanse series.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: The spotlight turns on Earth, specifically Baltimore, as a crime syndicate comes under pressure from a private security crackdown.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Gives some solid back story to the first three Expanse novels; gritty portrayal of the criminal element alive and well in the future of Planet Earth; an (electronic) page-turner; satisfying conclusion; contains preview story material from the upcoming novel Cibola Burn.
CONS: Complaints are already out regarding the price and how much story is given at that price point; the full impact of the story is completely ruined if you read the story’s description on sites like Amazon.
BOTTOM LINE: Suckers for…or fans of…the Expanse series are going to want to read this. Each work of short fiction set in this universe has proven to be worthwhile reading, if only because they give readers a glimpse back to see how various aspects of these stories began. The story is tight, suspenseful and whets the appetite nicely for the June release of Cibola Burn.

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ART BOOK REVIEW: Mark Schultz’s CARBON

REVIEW SUMMARY: Carbon is the first in a new series of books gathering together the very best graphic work of artist Mark Schultz.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Carbon boasts high production values; many full-pages illustrations; four large gatefold pieces; book features examples of the artist’s experimentation with watercolors; the majority of illustrations are in print for the first time; preliminary studies next to completed works demonstrates the creative process.
CONS: The beautiful hard cover editions are sold out (only available in paperback); buyers wishing for quantity over quality may find the size of the book disappointing.
BOTTOM LINE: I have been collecting the Flesk Publications editions of Mark Schultz’s Various Drawings books for several years and was excited to see this new project come to fruition. Mark Schultz is a contemporary illustrator who channels the spirits of past pulp masters like no one else. Each work exudes a sense of adventure, a sense of story, and this gorgeous volume of recently completed art is a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with his work and a must-have collectible for anyone who considers themselves a fan.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach

REVIEW SUMMARY: The explosive, glorious finale of Bach’s incredible trilogy where all questions are answered and all fates are decided.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Devi Morris is beaten and broken, but she’s not down for the count yet. She has one last job that will decide the fate of the universe if only she can stay alive long enough to fulfill all the promises she’s made.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Intense final volume; heavy on action and moral quandaries; moments of genuine terror and heartbreak; a sharply written conclusion to an already great series.
CONS: A few loose ends that don’t get sufficient answers.
BOTTOM LINE: Masterful storytelling will make this series a classic of the genre. This trilogy deserves a standing ovation!
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BOOK REVIEW: Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman who long ago overdosed on the designer drug Numinous sets out to discover who is pushing the drug on the streets.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Amazing characters traveling through a diverse and convincing near future based on speculative neuroscience.
CONS: A possibly overly optimistic view of mental illness.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast-paced and engaging with a great narrative voice, perfect for those who like their science fiction to explore the borders of human consciousness.

With the title of his fourth novel, Daryl Gregory has given his game away. In his four novels so far he starts his stories where other people might end theirs–after the party, after the crisis. In his Crawford-award winning debut, Pandemonium, the main character is still a mess twenty years after being possessed by a demon. In Devil’s Alphabet, a town has settled into a new ‘normality’ after a mutagenic plague hit them; the protagonist comes back to try to heal his old wounds. In Raising Stony Mayhall, the zombie plague was intense but short lived; the few remaining zombies have been living underground, and the title character is the only zombie baby to have grown up. In the hands of other storytellers, these stories would be centered on the demonic possession, the mutagenic plague, or the zombie apocalypse. For Gregory, those moments of drama are back story, traumatic events that haunt the main characters for the rest of their lives.

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[GUEST REVIEW] Ben Blattberg on THE HALF-MADE WORLD by Felix Gilman

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 Western frontier torn between agents of the Gun and of the Line, three people are drawn into a conflict over a secret weapon that may finally end the war.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Engrossing setting; engaging writing; interesting ideas; exciting action.
CONS: Long and occasionally feels it.
BOTTOM LINE: Fascinating “fantastic western” with strong writing; a book that can spark a debate or provide entertainment.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory of Sky by Robert Reed

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Reed’s newest novel offers astoundingly vivid world-building and visuals that set the stage for an unusual coming of age story.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Astonishingly unique world; interesting characters; a true blending of science fiction and fantasy elements.
CONS: Uneven pacing; world building descriptions can be infodumpy; ending won’t have as big an impact for readers unfamiliar with Reed’s previous Great Ship novels Marrow or The Well of Stars.
BOTTOM LINE: Reed presents a fascinating and alluring world, but muddled exposition gets in the way of enjoying every level of the story.

I’ve enjoyed every Robert Reed short story I’ve come across, so I figured it was time to try one of his longer novels. It’s very difficult to talk about this story without dumping a lot of plot on you, but please trust me when I say I’m barely scratching the surface of the plot and the far-reaching consequences. The world-building and sprawling plot are presented in a very dense way, and there is a lot to tell.

Let’s talk about world-building first, because it’s as stunningly vivid as it is complex.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

REVIEW SUMMARY: Epic Sword & Sorcery.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Freshly blooded from the defense of Lissen Carrak, the Red Knight and his company venture to Morea where they find themselves in the midst of a civil war. Elsewhere in the realm factions move one step closer toward total warfare. Alliances are made and schemes are fulfilled.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Larger-than-life characters; authentic descriptions; densely woven plot; bold scope; high stakes; complex and mysterious magic; enthralling action.
CONS: The large cast of the first book is expanded even further, and while the characters are well developed, it results in a slowed pace.
BOTTOM LINE: The sequel to one of my favorite novels of 2013 continues to deliver on the promise of the first book. This series is bound to please fans of Epic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, and likely even Historical Fiction.
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