Book Review Archives

Gail Carriger’s Soulless The Manga: Volume 1

Soulless, the first book in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, turned four years old this week, so over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog, I thought I’d take a look at the Manga version of the book.

From the post:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti lives in Victorian England.  She enjoys high tea, reading books, the company of her very best friend, Ivy Hisselpenny, and the vampire, Lord Akeldama.  Alexia’s family sees her as a spinster, too old to marry, and a bit of an oddball for not caring one-whit about it.  She lives with her mother, step-father, and two step-sisters.  When a starving vampire attacks her at a social event, he is shocked to learn that Alexia is a preternatural, a ‘soulless’ being who has the power to render the supernatural mortal through touch.  She is forced to kill the vampire, which only complicates matters.  Lord Maccon, a werewolf, a member of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and the Earl of Woolsey, arrives to investigate.  He and Alexia spar verbally, but she is sent home.  The next day, she is invited to visit the Countess Nadasdy, Vampire Queen of the Westminster Hive…

Click on over to Kirkus Reviews Blog to read the rest of the review.

BOOK REVIEW: After The End: Recent Apocalypses Edited by Paula Guran

REVIEW SUMMARY: After the End: Recent Apocalypses is an excellent collection of stories for readers who like apocalyptic fiction but are tired of zombies.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology that collects twenty apocalyptic stories from the past ten years (with one exception).

PROS: Exciting action and intriguing protagonists. High level of differentiation in type and setting of stories. The anthology shows well how the tenor and composition of apocalyptic fiction has changed in recent years.
CONS: Mostly pessimistic stories with only glimmers of hope in them. Introductions that give away too much of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: After the End: Recent Apocalypses highlights how our perception of mankind’s role in this world has shifted toward a more pessimistic outlook post 9/11.

Stoker award winner, Prime Books’ senior editor and longtime anthologist Paula Guran collects twenty apocalyptic stories of the past ten years (2007-2012, save one) for a mostly depressing but occasionally hopeful anthology. Unlike many prior anthologies, which mixed various decades of writing output, Guran’s focus on the last ten years (post-9/11), shows how the tenor and composition of apocalyptic fiction has changed in our day. The double meaning of “recent” in the book’s subtitle refers not only to the timing of the apocalypses in this book, but also of their publication. As might be expected of the age of terrorism, war, political and ideological stratification, and the downplay of science, the stories are much darker, the glimmer’s of hope much dimmer. But hope is there among the wreckage, at least for some of our protagonists.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: An entertaining anthology of Urban Fantasy stories that sometimes suffers from treading over the same ground repeatedly.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: : Featuring a tight-knit set of authors, an anthology of Urban Fantasy that attempts to set
an agenda and a framework for what the subgenre should be.

PROS: Excellent set of authors, some real standout stories.
CONS: Some unfortunate repetition in UF elements between stories weaken some of the works.
BOTTOM LINE: A sound anthology of fantasy bringing a set of bite sized works to the Urban Fantasy subgenre.

Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann, in addition to entertaining the reader has a stated mission of being a statement of what Urban Fantasy can and should be. In the nearly two dozen stories on tap, here, the reader encounters the dead, angels, devils and much more.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Other Half of the Sky Edited by Athena Andreadis

REVIEW SUMMARY: A very strong anthology with a excellent mission, and some really striking stories with top-notch authors.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of genre stories with the purpose and mission of highlighting women as fully rounded characters and protagonists with agency.

PROS: Strong stories that both entertain and illuminate the book’s theme and mission.
CONS: Some stories not as good as others in the book.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent marriage of theme and mission with a well-cultivated collection of authors and stories.

Science Fiction has gotten a not-undeserved reputation for giving both women writers and women characters short shrift. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Gully Foyle, Beowulf Schafer, and many more go to the stars and beyond. Sadly, the Wilma Deerings and Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Drapers are far rarer, and it’s even rarer is when the female characters are the protagonists, plot-drivers and central characters. If men are going into space and to the stars or dealing with science fictional elements right here on earth, why can’t members of the other gender do so as well? And while we’re at it, what about relationships beyond the straight and narrow, so to speak. Human history and the modern day is full of relationships of all kinds. Why shouldn’t our science fiction future have the same? The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis, sets out to try and rectify these imbalances.
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Short Fiction Friday: Lightspeed September 2013 Original Science Fiction

REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday looks at a subset of the September 2013 issue of Lightspeed: two works of original science fiction.


BRIEF SUMMARY: These two original science fiction stories each look at alien invasion in vastly different ways, offering entertaining, yet frightening, images of the future.

PROS: Imaginative sfnal concepts;  thoughtful pacing; satisfying story structure; one story highlights actual scientific concepts.
CONS: Fans of character-driven science fiction over idea-driven science fiction may be disappointed.
BOTTOM LINE: The original works of science fiction in the latest issue of Lightspeed are very entertaining stories focused on science fictional ideas that spark the imagination.  One story looks at a threat to an as-yet-unpopulated Earth while the other examines humanity in the wake of a devastating alien invasion.  Both stories are work checking out and are available for your reading (or listening) pleasure. Additionally there are original works of fantasy, along with reprints and more, available in this issue.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bibliotheca Fantastica Edited by Don Pizarro

REVIEW SUMMARY: Eclectic, passionate and layered. Don Pizarro has an excellent eye for fascinating short fiction, which fully appreciates the magic imbued in books and the manners in which it shapes our lives, both directly and indirectly.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty tales launch to create their own personal mythos centered around the notion books carry power, which can change people, the world and the characters’ personal reality. Bibliotheca Fantastica serves as a haven to nurture diverse concepts, plots and tropes in support of its central theme. There’s something for everyone as the saying goes.

PROS: Each story offers its own interpretation of the central theme; subtle work as well as more head-on approaches are represented; imagination and creative freedom are king.
CONS: An absence of harmony and cohesion between the individual pieces contribute to a more chaotic reading experience.
BOTTOM LINE: A guaranteed treat for the readers who are infatuated with books as physical objects as the stories help you rediscover why you fell in love with the written word and the act of reading in the first place.

Historically and culturally, books have always possessed power. Whether they denote high birth as literacy often did in the past, serve as vessels for the word of gods or preserve mystical rituals and incantations for the next generation of witches, books are the first, long-lasting imprint upon history. Encyclopedias catalogue human knowledge, journals document human lives and ledgers reveal the development of human logic. Now that the paperback has infiltrated just about every household and become, in a way, ubiquitous, the luster has worn off to a point, but books remain an object of power to those who, since early childhood, understand the potential for a good book to alter their reality.
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BOOK REVIEW: Rotten Row by Chaz Brenchley

REVIEW SUMMARY: An intriguing novella that strongly explores the themes of art, form and identity.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A relatively famous artist named duLane, seeking a new challenge, journeys to the wildest world in the Upshot, only to find his very identity and art challenged and confronted.

PROS: Strong pair of main characters; clever worldbuilding; interesting prose style; very strongly evoked themes.
CONS: The denouement of the story doesn’t quite pay off the promise of the opening; infodumping sometimes stops the action in its tracks.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting novella that explores some thorny issues in an entertaining way.

Imagine a series of worlds interconnected by a network that mandates that to travel from world to world, you must give up your original body, your original flesh, and take on new flesh, a new random looking body at the destination. In such a world, where identity is of the mind and not the body, how would society change? How would relations change? And what taboos would still remain?

Now, imagine a world in this society that is the sink of experimentation, wildness, changeability and decadence. Where the nature of humanity and the flesh are put on display in an endless carnival and parade of augmented and changed bodies. Hawk-men and mimickers of Prometheus. Centaurs and Angels. Where people, rich and poor, strive to continually refine and reinvent themselves in an endless loop of body modification, using a repurposed form of the Upshot system as a way to decant into newer and better forms.

That is Rotten Row, the eponymous world in Chaz Brenchley’s novella.
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BOOK REVIEW: Charming by Elliott James

REVIEW SUMMARY: A great new urban fantasy series that falters a little but still manages to be a rollicking good time.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Meet John Charming, part of a long line of Templar Knights that hunt down things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately, one of those things is now John himself and he’s constantly running to keep one step ahead of those who wish him harm. Everything comes to a head when a beautiful blonde walks into his bar and turns his life upside down.

PROS: Interesting new world with original magic systems mixed deftly with folklore and fairy tales; good characters hold the story together; lots of black humor and pun-tastic chapter titles.
CONS: Hindered by muddled action sequences and dialog that sometimes misses the mark.
BOTTOM LINE: This first book in what will become a series has some stumbling blocks right out of the gate but is nonetheless a riveting story that left me anxious for more.
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BOOK REVIEW: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A coming-of-age tale set in Earth’s paleolithic period.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following apprentice shaman Loon, Shaman is the ambitious story of a young man’s journey from boyhood to adulthood, with all the associated love, heartbreak, and adventure you’d expect.

PROS: Incredibly detailed; an immersive experience.
CONS: Slow pacing; characters do not feel real until about halfway through the book.
BOTTOM LINE: A slow but creative trip into the past that’s worth the required investment.

Where most speculative fiction explores the what if‘s of the present and future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman takes a step back…30,000 years into the past. Winters are cold, summers are late and short, Neanderthals share the land with early humans, and the cycles of life go ever on. There’s a joke about Canada in there somewhere, I’m sure…

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BOOK REVIEW: Heart of Briar by Laura Anne Gilman


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: A fine urban fantasy, first in a duology, that uses a classic story from Scottish Myth as a template and foundation.

PROS: Strongly drawn, atypical protagonist; interesting and engaging web of secondary characters; good worldbuilding.
CONS: Protagonist’s relationship with her lost love could have been drawn more strongly; no grounding of place for protagonist.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good urban fantasy very representative of the author’s skills and work.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Lowest Heaven Edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

REVIEW SUMMARY: An indispensable collection of short fiction set in every corner of our solar system, and a bit beyond.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology produced in conjunction with the Royal Observatory Greenwich, with stories set across the solar system by some of the best authors currently writing in the short SF/F market.

PROS: An incredible array of stories representing an impressive range of subgenres, settings and characters.
CONS: As with any anthology, some stories miss their mark.
BOTTOM LINE: Fans of short SF/F shouldn’t pass this one up.

If there’s one reason to pick up the latest anthology from publishers Jurassic London, it’s the incredible Joey Hi-Fi cover that graces the front of the book. It’s elegant, and shows just what you’re to expect: a collection of short stories that take place in almost every major spot in our solar system. Like the cover, the fiction that follows it rarely disappoints.

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BOOK REVIEW: Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fun way to relive and remember the episodes of the original Star Trek series.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of 80 retro-style Star Trek episode posters from Juan Ortiz, plus illustration notes and an interview with the artist.

PROS: Fantastic illustrations; 1960s retro style captures the era of the original series; variety keeps viewing experience interesting; illustrations more often than not reflect episode elements; illustration notes offer keen insight into the design process; just plain fun to look at.
CONS: Some illustrations seem to have no connection with the episodes, leaning more heavily on capturing the design style of the 60s.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful art book for Trek fans and art lovers.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente

REVIEW SUMMARY: Short fiction and poetry with a connection to Japan, including mythology interpretations, dystopian alternate history, the education and protection of artificial intelligences, and the development of the author herself.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Valente has recently garnered a lot of well-deserved attention for her young adult The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland series. Many of the pieces in The Melancholy of Mechagirl have an emotional and autobiographical flavor, and touch on more mature and layered themes, sex and love, failure, expectations vs. reality, and the lies we tell ourselves when hope is on the line.

PROS: Gorgeous prose and imagery; multi-layered and evocative stories that bend back onto themselves, pulling the reader in and offering a unique combination of mythology, intimacy, and science fictional ideas.
CONS: The poetry was mostly lost on me. It was pretty, but I didn’t know what any of it meant.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a must-have collection for both fans of Valente’s works, and readers who are new to her works and are looking for a good starting point.

Catherynne M. Valente spent only a few years in Japan as a young Navy wife, but those few years helped make her the writer she is today. She went for love, armed only with a few stories, and returned with memories of shrines and tsukumogami, patron spirits and folklore, and weaved it all together in a way only Valente’s poetic imagination can. One of her first published novels, In the Night Garden, was born in Japan, and her experiences there, both good and bad, helped shape her into one of our generation’s most imaginative and talented authors.

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Short Fiction Friday: Reflections on the 2013 Hugo Award Short Fiction Winners

The Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend most likely found the eclectic group of SF Signal readers doing any number of relaxing, geektastic things.  I was basking in the glow of a decent fantasy football draft and watching the Hugo awards live via Twitter feed.  You have to hand it to 21st century technology.  Although the feed from LonestarCon’s hotel venue was poor and kept dropping, the avid SFF fans on Twitter managed to keep fans like me aware of things as they were happening.

In my opinion the short fiction categories were very strong this year. In many of the categories I had my own favorites that I was pulling for, and yet the short fiction category for me personally was one of agonizing choices because I found myself torn over who I hoped would win.  There were several stories that I felt were deserving of artist Vincent Villafranca’s gorgeous 2013 rocket.

Serendipitously, it happens that I have read all the winners of the short fiction category as well as many of the deserving also-rans and I thought it would be a nice idea to honor the short fiction winners this year by discussing them this week for Short Fiction Friday.  What were your impressions of this year’s Hugo short fiction winners?  Let us know whether you agree or disagree and why.

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Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Geekomancy, Libriomancer and their RPG identities

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.

This time out, we’re going to do something a little bit different and look at two recent series of ostensibly series. From a 30,000 foot perspective both Jim C. Hines’ Magic Ex Libris (so far comprised of Libriomancer and Codex Born) and Michael R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series (so fra comprised of Geekomancy and Celebromancy) have strong similarity. Both series tap into a fair amount of wish fulfillment and have geeky protagonists whose geekery turns out to be useful for magic. But as you dig into the series, there are two distinct personalities. They take place in two distinctly different roleplaying game universes, and this can be used as a way to critique and example the series and their elements.

Fair warning: This is a somewhat spoilery discussion of both authors’ series.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A well-written addition to an established series, The Crown Tower is a perfect example of a fantasy epic done right. An impressive outing for already beloved characters that does double duty as a warm introduction for readers unfamiliar with the author’s earlier works.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Outstanding prequel to an already outstanding fantasy series, this new adventure shows the auspicious beginnings of the partnership between Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn as they tackle their first assignment; steal a book from the highest tower in the land without killing each other first.

PROS: Incredible, fascinating characters; smart, well written dialog; superb world building.
CONS: A weak second act makes the story drag slightly in the middle.
BOTTOM LINE: A prequel that doesn’t disappoint or dilute the already-established series, it’s a delight to reconnect with these characters and discover their humble beginnings. It’s a worthy addition to the previously published adventures of Hadrian and Royce that will leave old and new fans alike craving more.

Michael J. Sullivan’s excellent Riyria Revelations was one of the most satisfying fantasy series I’ve ever read. The adventures of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn unraveled during the course of six books (gathered into three omnibus collections) and ended so strongly that I actually gasped out loud on a packed bus full of people when I reached the last page. The series was exceptionally well written and contained complex characters who you couldn’t help but love and root for. While on the surface it may look like another entry into the already glutted “thieves and assassins” fantasy genre, the Riyria Revelations manages to stand apart thanks to Sullivan’s precise world building and the cast of characters he created. At its core, the Riyria Revelations are about the friendship between Hadrian and Royce and The Crown Tower shows us how it all began.
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BOOK REVIEW: Crux by Ramez Naam

REVIEW SUMMARY: Frighteningly plausible cyberpunk.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following the events of the first book, Kaden Lane is on the run with bounty hunters in hot pursuit. Sam, having gone rogue, has finally found inner peace in the presence of special children born with Nexus connection. The Post-Human Liberation Front has found a way to weaponize Nexus in a frightening way and the United States government is taking drastic steps to fight such emerging risks.

PROS: Expands on the foundation of the original in a big way; continued character development; lots of character diversity; super-cool tech; moral ambiguity; intense action; lays the groundwork for future entries without coming across as filler.
CONS: A lessened presence of the Buddhism I found so cool and interesting in the first novel.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthy sequel that reads like a mash-up of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Naam’s cyberpunk thriller is even better than the original.
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Oh Ye of Little Faith – Stories of Belief

One god. Two gods. Red gods. Blue gods. Seems like gods are everywhere in fantasy stories (and some science fiction, yes). They tend to be a catch-all for the sources and styles of magic that characters often rely on, or can act as plot devices in themselves–though hopefully not actual deus ex machinas. Some love to slip into the story through dreams and visions, guiding people to their destinies, while others watch from the sidelines, pointing and laughing when the characters tumble and trip their way through the quest. Others bring the balefire once they get pissed off enough, judging anyone who forgot to slaughter a fatted calf in their name every half hour or so.

Whether possessing of inhuman personalities and intelligence or being all too human and fallible, whether they’re immediately active in events or just an annoying chatter in the characters’ ears, gods and the faiths they inspire provide fascinating backdrops and impetus for stories to unfold. Here are three books where gods play a significant role in some form or another.
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BOOK REVIEW: Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

REVIEW SUMMARY: An intriguing debut that brings characters and relationships all too absent in fiction front and center.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ship Surgeon Alana wants to escape the rock she is on, but the consequences of her stowing away on the Tangled Axon will influence the destiny of her sister, her world, and far beyond.

PROS: Character types, orientations, and relationships rarely seen in genre fiction, believably and engagingly presented; a beautiful cover that proudly proclaims its marker on the field.
CONS: Some aspects of the background, technology, and worldbuilding are either too sketchily described or do not hold up under scrutiny.
BOTTOM LINE: A strongly distinctive and memorable debut novel.

Alana Quick is a ship’s surgeon. That is to say, she is a starship mechanic. The problem is, with anyone and everyone switching over from standard starships to the amazing ships that come from the dimension-traveling Transluminal Solutions, business is not good. In point of fact, she’s not that far from a hardscrabble existence and she still has dreams of being a ship’s surgeon on board a ship, traveling the stars. So when the Tangled Axon comes into her shipyard, the temptation to stowaway is irresistible. Trouble is, the crew is looking for her sister, as are others, who are willing to kill or cause massive destruction in their wake to get her. Oh and did I mention Alana is not your typical Caucasian protagonist, with a kinsey score well above 0, and is dealing with a disability, a debilitating illness slowly eating her alive?
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Short Fiction Friday: and More

REVIEW SUMMARY: Four short works pulled from various online and dead-tree formats, reviewed for your reading pleasure.


BRIEF SUMMARY: A mechanical woman; a man on fire; a savage adventurer and a man in search of such an adventurer are the protagonists in the works reviewed this week.

PROS: Two selections have the nostalgic feel of old pulp adventure stories; skillful wordplay; poetic imagery; pacing that makes you lean into the story.
CONS: One story takes a disappointing turn and feels like a cheat.
BOTTOM LINE: There is a lot to like in the stories this week.  The three works of fiction demonstrated that a short story, even when it has a definitive beginning, middle and end, can be the ideal springboard into a larger work while the poetic selection of Catherynne M. Valente shows that stories are not bound to a strictly prose format.   The lack of foreknowledge that one short story is actually a piece of a larger created universe leads to some bitter disappointment, especially when contrasted to another story which is up front about a similar status right from the beginning.

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