Book Review Archives

BOOK REVIEW: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

REVIEW SUMMARY: Thrilling new science fiction series which lays waste to tired old sci-fi tropes and stereotypes.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Devi Morris is a mercenary with the ultimate goal of becoming an elite guard in her planet’s military. When she learns of a position on a ship that could fast track that dream she signs up despite all the rumors about the ship being cursed. Things swiftly go downhill from there.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fast-paced, intense action; excellently written characters; outstanding, believable romance; completely original take on worn, old military science fiction tropes.
CONS: A touch slow going at the beginning but a packed thrill ride once things start rolling.
BOTTOM LINE: A spectacular action-packed story that even people who don’t like sci-fi will adore.

Devi Morris has a plan. She wants to become a Devastator, the highest military order on Paradox. She’s done her time as an elite mercenary and an army grunt and now she has her sights set on the impossible. Unfortunately, the Devastator’s won’t look at anyone who doesn’t have a certain amount of experience. Devi can’t stand the idea of doing merch work for another five years so she signs up to be security on a ship called the Glorious Fool. One year on the Fool is worth five years experience to the Devastators. Despite rumors that the ship is cursed and has a very high mortality rate for the crew, Devi is overjoyed at the opportunity to reach her goal faster. Things start out quiet on the Fool but everything quickly goes to hell when she starts to learn the real secrets of the ship and its odd crew.
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BOOK REVIEW: Runner by Patrick Lee

REVIEW SUMMARY: This is how page-turning books are written.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The chase is on from the very first pages when an ex-military operative stumbles across a young girl and the plot orchestrated by some very powerful people to capture her.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fast-paced action; builds genuine moments of suspense; it’s an engrossing page-turner.
CONS: Some the thriller aspects were a little harder to swallow than the science fictional aspects.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile thrill ride with promise for even better things to come.

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is its versatility. Science fiction stories aren’t always about spaceships and fantasy stories aren’t always about dragons. Oftentimes, stories are written from a different angle entirely even though they include speculative elements layered on top of them. Or at least, that’s how they are marketed.
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BOOK REVIEW: Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson

REVIEW SUMMARY: Compelling and insightful post-apocalyptic tale told from a unique perspective. Clever storytelling, tight prose, and a solid noir tone make for an enjoyable read.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Robot is sad because everyone is dead, including Mike and Sally and their kids, Mike, Jr. and his kid sister, Marie. Robot tells stories about Mike and his family, how they loved him and how he loved them. Someday, if he’s lucky, Robot might have a family again.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Sad Robot Stories is a brilliant retelling of the classic post-apocalyptic tale. A lone hero and a small band of survivors must traverse the wastes in search of salvation. They just happen to be robots. Mason Johnson explores his mechanical creations’ existential doubt and uncertainty and through their trials and ordeals, the reader is treated to clever examinations of human nature, belief, faith, will, and love. The book begins with an extended flashback to set the stage, and not one drop of ink goes to waste. Johnson builds his world for us through scenes showing Robot’s interactions with his workmates, employers, and surrogate family (Mike, Sally, and children). The prose is focused and spare of ornament that might otherwise distract from the pervading sense of gloom. But this isn’t a gloom that drags the reader down with it. Johnson has succeeded in writing a truly heart-breaking story, and has done so in such a way that you can’t help but crack a grin with every page you turn.
CONS: The one quibbling point I have with Sad Robot Stories is the occasional use of profanity. I’m not averse to it by any measure. Neither does it show up in any great amount. Yet, when four-letter words do appear, they seem to interrupt the narrator’s voice. There’s such a strong sense of sadness throughout the book. The few times that emotionally charged language does show up felt out of place.
BOTTOM LINE: Sad Robot Stories is a must read for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction. I’d also suggest it for anyone with an eye for clever storytelling and non-canonical characterization. The story excels in style, invention, and pacing. Johnson deserves praise for sheer originality and also for how far he goes in examining humanity through the eyes of our would-be successors.

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Short Fiction Friday: The Anderson Project

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Anderson Project is a Tor.com original ebook presenting three science fiction novelettes inspired by a preexisting work of art.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Three science fictional stories written by authors Ken Liu, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Judith Moffett, inspired by a painting by Richard Anderson. The painting is featured as the cover illustration.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Meaningful use of the elements of Anderson’s painting; nice variety between all three stories; solid narrative voice; significant word count allows room for the stories to develop.
CONS: Two of the stories have weak endings when compared to the overall story arc.
BOTTOM LINE: Editor David G. Hartwell points out in his introduction that there is a long tradition in the SF field of stories being written to accompany existing art work, a tradition that has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Hartwell teamed with Tor.com to reinvigorate the idea with The Palencar Project, based on an image by artist John Jude Palencar. Hartwell and Tor.com return to the idea with The Anderson Project. This is a fantastic science fiction image that compels you to wonder what is happening with these people apparently tethered to some sort of space craft. Each of these authors does an admirable job in interpreting the painting through story and this experiment has produced three solid stories that are well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

REVIEW SUMMARY: King blends a mostly accurate portrayal of the Kennedy Assassination with time travel and a man set on doing the right thing by changing history, and turns it into a doorstop-sized page-turner that kept me reading through the night and almost made me miss work.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Given a way to go back in time and change history, Jake is persuaded that the world would be a better place by stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating president Kennedy. After experimenting with changing history, he starts in 1958 and works his way toward that “watershed moment in history”. But along the way he tries to save more than just the world, and must balance honor and duty against love and comfort.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Stalking Oswald around the streets of Fort Worth and Dallas; portrayal of “evil” cities, small-town Texas, and the music of the 50s and 60s.
CONS: It’s a long doorstop.
BOTTOM LINE: King’s time travel novel focuses on the characters and events, a page-turner that makes the reader not only eager to see how events of history may be replayed but how the lives of the non-historical characters will turn out.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: The followup to Martinez’s debut novel The Daedalus Incident builds on the strengths of the first novel and shores up its weaknesses.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: The two worlds, alchemical and corporate future, meet again, as an ancient Martian plot draws them both to Saturn…and Siwa, Egypt, for an attempt to reopen the doorway between them, and beyond.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: High Concept remains interesting. More character focus given a deemphasis on the fast and furious worldbuilding of the first.
CONS: The splitting of the parties in both worlds is only partially effective, some plotlines are frankly more interesting than others, the two halves feel less connected.
BOTTOM LINE: A followup that manages to improve on the first in significant ways but doesn’t quite leap to the next quantum level.
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BOOK REVIEW: Snowpiercer, Volume 1 by Jacques Lob

REVIEW SUMMARY: The first volume of Snowpiercer, The Escape, is a grim and gritty post-apocalyptic dystopian allegory that carries on the best traditions of the genre. The story’s only weak point is a cliffhanger ending that serves as a lead-in to volume two.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The apocalypse has come in the form of a global ice age. The last remnants of humanity eek out a tenuous existence within the claustrophobic confines of a thousand-car train that never stops. A single passenger has escaped from the tail-section of the train, where starvation and disease runs rampant, in an attempt to find a better life for himself. As he is escorted to the front cars to be judged by those in power, he witnesses the corruption and indolence that has warped the train’s social hierarchy, threatening the continued survival of everyone on board.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A nostalgic window on a favorite genre of the eighties; action-packed; great tension; vivid imagery; cutting social commentary; absorbing storyline.
CONS: One-dimensional characters; lack of development of the protagonist; the cliffhanger ending.
BOTTOM LINE: If you grew up on the post-apocalyptic films of the eighties, whether it was The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Max, Night of the Comet, The Quiet Earth, or Terminator, you’re going to love this comic. Written in 1982, this comic embraces all of the genre’s best conventions.
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AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

REVIEW SUMMARY: A debut that underpins a strong new voice in fantasy.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In Alt Coulumb, the death of the God of Fire and the disposition of his contracts and bargains brings together magicians, priests, servants of a lost goddess, intrigue and high action and adventure.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong multiple female characters (and primary protagonist); exciting, wild and innovative worldbuilding.
CONS: Breakneck pace can work against the novel; perhaps one too many complications and small details are made relevant.
BOTTOM LINE: A debut novel that confirms the author’s nomination for a Campbell Award and points to great things in his future.

The Gods of the Craftverse are very different than most fantasy universes. Sure they are embodiments of magic, of cosmic forces, and all that, but that’s just a surface detail. To get things done, like in the Exalted RPG universe, Gods have to make bargains, deals, and contracts with other gods, Magicians, and countries. These deals and contracts are binding and can make or break a God; they hold legal force, even if the unthinkable should occur. A contract unfulfilled can lead to fires going out, steam trains not working, and worse.

So, when a God in the Craftverse dies, death, as they say, is only the beginning.
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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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