Book Review Archives

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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BOOK REVIEW: A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington

REVIEW SUMMARY: An intelligent vampire/human romance set in post-WWI England.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Socially anxious and bored with high society life, Charlotte finds herself drawn to the vampire Karl, her father’s new research assistant. As their relationship grows, they find themselves under growing threat from Karl’s old master, the obsessive and twistedly-religious Kristian.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Intelligent social commentary; uncommon time period for such a novel; beautifully poetic writing.
CONS: Somewhat predictable plot; heavy use of what are now common vampire tropes.
BOTTOM LINE: It won’t revitalize the genre, but it’s a welcome addition to bookshelves that are filled with trite immortal romances — enough of a change from convention and with enough social and scientific commentary that it will keep readers engaged and entertained.

A classic vampire-human historical romance, set in England after World War I, is what Warrington sets up in A Taste of Blood Wine. Not an idea that hasn’t been done in a dozen and one forms over time, to the point where most offerings of this type are fairly derivative and don’t bring anything new or interesting to the genre. So right off the bat Warrington’s work faces some stiff competition in that it’s another vampire romance in a saturated genre, and thus, sadly, is likely to be overlooked and passed over.

Which would be a big mistake.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: Getting introduced to a book discovered by my now-adult son turns the tables, as he matches my enjoyment of military history, historical figures and strategy with a series that lays out all of these factors in a future 100-year war between the Alliance and the Syndics.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Captain John “Black Jack” Geary, awakened after 100-years spent in an escape pod, finds himself in mid-battle and in charge of the Fleet, fighting the same opponent as he was 100-years ago, but with a chance to turn the tide and end the long war.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Builds believable rules of warfare and technology; explains the thought process of the strategies without bogging down the pacing of the story; flawed characters, even the legendary Geary.
CONS: A series, that might not end? Never explains why the 100-year war began (perhaps later in the series?).
BOTTOM LINE: Mixing a believable set of technological rules with complex characters, The Lost Fleet: Dauntless is fast-paced military SF that my son calls “believable.”

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Short Fiction Friday: New Fiction from Tor.com

REVIEW SUMMARY: Two short tales from Tor.com touched with a seasonal chill.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: A deeper imagining of a familiar heroic tale and a glimpse of psychological interrogation in an alternate, magical-filled Europe make up the latest free fiction offerings on the Tor.com website.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Lyrical prose; storytelling that evokes the mood of Autumn-Winter transition; tight narrative structure.
CONS: I tried folks, I really did…nothing leaps to mind.
BOTTOM LINE: Fantasy with a hint of folklore, when done well, can create a rich sense of history, a texture that makes a story more than the sum of its parts.  Both of the recent selections from Tor.com showcase talented writers mining familiar territory to craft memorable stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge

REVIEW SUMMARY: The second volume of Wrath-Bearing Tree continues to expand the scope of Morlock’s life and world.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following the events of the Dragon-Dwarf War, the religious nation of Kaen is the battleground in the continued conflict between the Ambrosii and the Gods of Fate and Chaos.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong fusion of sword & sorcery and epic fantasy.
CONS: Some parts do not mesh well together, leading to a less smooth reading experience
BOTTOM LINE: New characters and new conflicts deepen and to flesh out the origin story of Morlock.

Wrath-Bearing Tree is second in James Enge’s series A Tournament of Shadows, following A Guile of Dragons. The series serves as an origin story for his character Morlock Ambrosius (previously seen in A Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way and The Wolf Age)

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BOOK REVIEW: Lost Covenant by Ari Marmell

REVIEW SUMMARY: Marmell continues to explore the growing up of a teenage thief with a God in her head as she is on the run outside her home city.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On the run from her deeds in her hometown, a young thief finds that aiding a branch of her old patron’s family is far trickier than she thinks.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent voice and interaction between Widdershins and Olgun; fun, relatively light action not afraid to go darker at key moments; good development of the character’s long term arc; Offers expanded look at the world; excellent cover art.
CONS: Plotline taking place back in Davillion does not feel as well integrated as it might be.
BOTTOM LINE: Another solid entry in the continuing story of Widdershins from Marmell

Ari Marmell’s Lost Covenant, the book that follows Thief’s Covenant and False Covenant, picks up with Widdershins on the road. Not content to lie completely low, her information gathering and fortune lead her to the distant city of Lourveaux, where she discovers that the last branch of the Delacroix family is under threat from a rival House. Widdershins’ sense of obligation to her old mentor and adoptive parent leads her on to seek to help of the last of that House, to deal with the threat against them. Since the aristocratic Delacroix knows nothing of who or what Widdershins is besides an obviously common-born girl of no merit whatsoever, this is not going to be easy at all for Widdershins to manage.

(Note: From this point on, spoilers for Thief’s Covenant and False Covenant are inevitable.)
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BOOK REVIEW: Reanimators by Pete Rawlik

REVIEW SUMMARY: This homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” breathes life into minor Lovecraft characters. A slower pace and certain characterization stylings will get the reader into the mood of the source material.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: While getting his revenge on Dr. Herbert West, Dr. Stuart Hartwell romps through the author’s favorite Lovecraft stories.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A great way to pay a visit to the fictional world of H.P. Lovecraft; compelling cover art.
CONS: Pacing is incredibly slow especially at the beginning; episodic action often felt forced; I never connected with the protagonist
BOTTOM LINE: Readers well versed in Lovecraft lore will find a lot to love, but readers new to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft may have a tough time getting their bearings.

Odd things are afoot in the sleepy new England town of Arkham. Strange creatures stalk the night, and even stranger research is happening at and around Miskatonic University. Dr. Stuart Hartwell is determined to get his revenge on Dr. Herbert West, the twisted man whose reanimation experiments were responsible for the deaths of Hartwell’s parents. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft (and certain fans of some early 80s cheesy horror flicks) may recognize the title of the book and the name Herbert West.
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BOOK REVIEW: Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann

REVIEW SUMMARY: Explosive first book in a brand new urban fantasy series about an amnesiac hitman who can’t die.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Dying Is My Business is the story of Trent, underling to a Brooklyn crime boss, who just can’t stay dead. His invulnerability to death makes him an asset in the New York underworld until a job gone wrong lands him in the middle of a secret, magical war.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fast paced story; solid world building; interesting utilization of underused magical creatures; an atmospheric, violent and all-out-fun time.
CONS: Felt a touch too short and ended without resolution to some plot points.
BOTTOM LINE: A frenetic, breakneck paced novel that’s half hardboiled New York City crime story and half spectacularly realized fantasy novel. Both sides mix well together, resulting in a very satisfying story with enough twists and turns to keep even the most jaded of urban fantasy readers on the edge of their seat.

What would you do if you couldn’t die and your memory only went back a year? If your answer is grab a gun and work for a Brooklyn crime boss named Underwood, then you’re most likely Trent, the anti-hero in Dying Is My Business. Blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with the inability to die, Trent uses his odd ability to do small jobs and petty theft for his boss. He’s kept on a short leash with the promise that Underwood is searching for answers into Trent’s past. Everything comes tumbling down when he accidentally gets himself caught up in the middle of an ancient battle between good and evil.
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BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong collection of short fiction that shows the author’s versatility and range at shorter lengths. (”The Things“ opens a strong selection of the best of an underrated writer.)

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of fourteen stories written by Peter Watts.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent stories that highlight the author’s versatility and strengths in writing science fiction.
CONS: Story order might have been rejiggered to better impact.
BOTTOM LINE: A chance to delve into Watts’ work and find out what the fuss is all about.

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