BOOK REVIEW: Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

SYNOPSIS: War threatens the solar system as forces react and move in a world rocked by the events detailed in Leviathan Wakes.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: strong classic Space Opera; excellent set pieces; intriguing new characters.
CONS: The characterization beats of longstanding characters continues; they are eclipsed by the new characters.
VERDICT: Another solidly entertaining space opera from the team of Abraham and Franck.

Caliban’s War takes off some months after the events of Leviathan Wakes, and ups the ante. In the wake of the heroic (and drastic) actions taken to avert a total catastrophe for humans, the powers in the Solar System have not been idle. In point of fact, metaphors about fighting in a burning house might be extremely appropriate.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Explorer by James Smythe

REVIEW SUMMARY: This book keeps you engaged and interested from page one.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A journalist joins a team of astronauts on an expedition to the farthest point in space humans have ever traveled. The mystery that awaits is more dangerous than trying to reach it alone.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fascinating story; empathetic and beautiful struggle of an explorer separated from his family; epic, outer space anomaly leaves the reader burning for more
CONS: The mystery is not completely resolved.
BOTTOM LINE: The Explorer earns a “can’t miss” recommendation for its mind-bending, heart-wrenching, avalanche of a reading experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Archangel Protocol by Lyda Morehouse

REVIEW SUMMARY: A first novel from Morehouse that still holds up years later.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a theologically oriented 21st Century, an excommunicated NYC cop learns that Angels are more, and less real, than commonly believed

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A fascinating 21st century world. The scene-stealing and book-stealing characters of Mouse. The original book’s gorgeous cover art wonderfully re-used.
CONS: Some of the book feels a bit dated. Deidre is not quite as interesting as the cast of characters around her.
BOTTOM LINE: A first novel from Morehouse that still holds up, and has a chance to be read by a wider audience.

Back in 2001, on the far side of 9/11, I became aware of, thanks to a “Maiden Voyage award” from Barnes and Noble and mention in a quarterly publication of theirs highlighting upcoming books, a debut novelist named Lyda Morehouse. On the boundaries of SF and Fantasy, with a big helping of theology, I decided to give this book set in a 21st century New York a try, and ended up reading it and its sequels in short order.

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BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars and History edited by Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl

REVIEW SUMMARY: A unique and interesting resource when looking at history.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Science Fiction tends to be closely linked with contemporary history in more ways than one would expect. In this collection of papers, historians examine the parallels between real-world history and the Star Wars franchise.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A neat and interesting way of looking at history.
CONS: Oversteps its bounds at points.
BOTTOM LINE: Know a Star Wars fan who’s having trouble with history? This volume might be the best way to get them interested.

When I was in grade school, I had trouble reading early on: the books that I had for my classes weren’t doing it for me, and it wasn’t until my parents gave me a couple of youth mystery novels (Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys), that my appetite for reading was realized, and I began consuming books with an ever increasing pace. I bring this up because this was the first thing that sprang to mind while reading through this history text: this is THE book for any kid in high school who’s struggling with the basics of history, and simply needs to look at it in a different light.

Star Wars and History examines various types of real-world history by comparing it to the events in the Star Wars franchise, and for the most part it works. As a fan of George Lucas’s franchise and as a professional historian, the mere existence of this book is exciting, because it combines two passions. On the face of it, it looks like a bit of a strange mash up much like those Victorian era novels juxtaposed with zombies or androids. But, the book reaffirms my belief that science fiction is an inherently political and relevant genre at the time of it’s creation: Star Wars being no exception. Cobbled together from a variety of source material, this book links a number of connections between the franchise and the real world. The topics are pretty far reaching, too: subjects such as insurgency and rebellion are covered, women in warfare, the American Civil War, leaders and power, trade and a whole host of others.

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BOOK REVIEW: Goodbye Babylon by Seb Doubinsky

REVIEW SUMMARY: A subversive, sometimes lunatic series of incursions that raid the intersections of desire, fear, and resilience to reflect on what makes us human and inhuman, and why the lines sometimes blur between those distinctions.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In three interlinked stories Doubinsky creates a labyrinth, in the best sense of the term. We explore, reflect upon, and are sometimes stymied by these tales of war, crime, and poetry in a city that is mythical and reimagined, one full of people that we both recognize and do not want to look at. Stylistically and structurally intricate and intense, this book challenges the reader at every turn as it conjures a world that is strange yet resonant.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Aggressive, audacious prose; innovative structure and style keeps the reader off-balance and engaged; fearless exploration of characters’ inner lives; ideas and questions that linger long after the reading is done.
CONS:  A few of the characters felt flat to me.
BOTTOM LINE: A great book that is demanding, disturbing, and mesmerizing.

The best books are often the hardest ones to review; it’s easy to heap superlatives on a novel and praise it so much that you lose sight of what makes it so good. But Seb Doubinsky’s Goodbye Babylon is a work that demands more than that; to just call it “excellent” or “powerful” makes it sound like any book that gets a glowing review. It is an excellent novel, and is a powerful artistic work, but there is much more to it than those adjectives can encompass. It is philosophically intricate, viscerally evocative, and unsettling as it melds pulp sensibilities, Beat echoes, and textual legerdemain to create a maze of words and sensations for the reader to get lost in, so that they may figure out their own path.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King

REVIEW SUMMARY: Comic book in prose sends us inside the heads of heroes and villains fighting for the world and those they love.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A mysterious threat to Arcadia forces the last superhero to choose between being a husband and saving the world.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Superhero adventure with heart, mystery, and immersive action that makes reading about these characters a moving experience.
CONS: The prose may take too many liberties in what the reader understands to be happening, and the mystery of The Blue may be too slow of a burn to hold some reader’s attention.
BOTTOM LINE: May require more concentration and patience than some readers will give, but if they do, they’ll be rewarded with a philosophical gem on heroes, sacrifice, and the meaning of life in a corrupt world.

I don’t read comic books and I’m not really a fan of superheroes. That said, I can appreciate a tremendous cover, and was intrigued by the premise of a world where all but one of the superheroes gave up their powers to save the world.

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BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

REVIEW SUMMARY: Important to the dystopian genre, but a difficult and often boring read.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The diary of a member of the OneState who begins to question his life and the virtues of the state, due to the attention of a rebellious woman.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: interesting ideas, historical significance
CONS: unsympathetic characters, disjointed narrative, scarce descriptions
BOTTOM LINE: Many of the themes and plot points used in We are also used in the more readable – and more famous – 1984.

D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, the space ship that will bring the OneState to the stars, starts this missive with the intent of including it in the propaganda transported by the ship. But his treatise on the virtues of the OneState gets hijacked when the mysterious I-330 crosses his path. Suddenly his writing is more about dreams and hopes than the realities of life and the happiness brought by a lack of freedom.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: Zahn channels the spirit and energy of the original trilogy.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, the Death Star destroyed, but the war has not yet been won. Struggling under the responsibility of politics and diplomatic duties Luke, Han, and Leia now face a new challenge. On the outskirts of the New Republic a brilliant Grand Admiral is gathering the remnants of the Empire in order to strike at the heart of the Rebels.

MY REVIEW
PROS:
Zahn accurately portrays well known characters, the fight against the Empire didn’t end with the Ewoks on Endor, Grand Admiral Thrawn is a superb villain, author’s notes enhance the experience.
CONS:
Luke is sort of a sissy, too many cases of coincidence, Mara Jade isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, Grand Admiral Thrawn might be too smart.
BOTTOM LINE:
Despite some flaws this is still better than anything offered in Episodes I-III and the 20th Anniversary Edition is a great collector’s item.

The news of Disney buying Lucasfilm accomplished something that I never would have thought possible. It got me excited about Star Wars again. I used to be a major fan of the series as I think most kids are. My aunt took me to see the original trilogy when the movies were re-released to theaters in the 90′s. At the time Taco Bell had promotional Star Wars toys and I also got my first battery-powered lightsaber. It was the Golden Age of my childhood. I continued to love the series well into my teenage years. It wasn’t the new trilogy that killed it for me (although that was the start), but the CGI movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the Cartoon Network show it spawned. I hadn’t looked back since…that is, until the news of Disney’s acquisition.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A redundant and uninteresting read.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jack Casey, retired soldier in England’s collaborator army, is brought back to track down a renegade friend in a reverse-colonization novel set in England.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Writing is solid, flows well.
CONS: Boring, redundant, and elements of racism present.

Land of Hope and Glory by Geoffrey Wilson takes its name from the patriotic British song that most Americans would recognize as Pomp and Circumstance (if you’ve ever sat through a graduation, you’ll know it). The association here is linked to a tightly nationalistic one, where a country’s people can band together under a common appreciation for the simple fact that they live within the same borders as one another. Never mind that this is an enormously complicated issue, one that seems to be the driving force behind the first book in this series. In an alternative history, magic is present in the world, and in a stunning twist of fate, England has been colonized by India, where the English find themselves under harsh foreign rule.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: An exceedingly grim trip through a village of the damned.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Details the childhood stories of a group of friends in a tiny German village that makes the idea of a holiday in The Village of the Damned look like a great idea.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Parts of this book are beautifully written and some scenes are haunting in a very stark, stripped down way.
CONS: Unrelentingly grim, could not connect with any of the characters at all.
BOTTOM LINE: I really wanted to like this, but while it wasn’t badly written, it was akin to watching a train wreck as it proceeds to its inevitable horrid conclusion.

When a group of childhood friends gather together in the German village of their youth to attend a funeral, one of their group waits until after the service, when everyone is gone, lifts her skirt, squats, and pees on the fresh grave of her childhood friend. This pretty much sets the tone for one of the strangest books I’ve read this year.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper

REVIEW SUMMARY: Cooper marries the classic SF trope of a Generation Starship to an intensely character-driven drama with a fascinating main character.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ruby Martin, bot technician trainee on a class-riven generation starship, struggles for freedom and the rights of her underclass peers.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Captivating main character; strong character-focused story with strong themes; stunning cover art.
CONS: A couple of Ruby’s relationships feel a bit false.
BOTTOM LINE: The Creative Fire is a powerful opening half to a planned diptych of novels.

Ruby Martin lives on The Creative Fire, a generation starship, making its way between the stars. As one of the underclass, called ‘greys’ by the classes above her, she feels she is destined to live out her life as a robot technician quietly toiling away, unappreciated and unnoticed, in the bowels of the ship.  An accident exposes Ruby to the world above. At the same time, the shakeup caused by the accident provides Ruby with the opportunity to try and reach that greater world. Little does Ruby realize that her gifts are stronger than she suspects, and her charisma, voice, thirst for knowledge, and potential leadership skills are perhaps more powerful than any weapon on board the ship, if she is only allowed the chance to use them.

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BOOK REVIEW: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

REVIEW SUMMARY: McDonald proves the concept of his world of the Infundibulum has legs, and provides some intriguing new ideas amid an entertaining adventure.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Fleeing Charlotte Villers and seeking a way to find and rescue his father, Everett and his friends aboard airship Everness discover why a particular world is off limits.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Lots of ideas thrown out and explored; good development of main characters.
CONS: The establishment of Everett’s double as nemesis feels extremely forced.
BOTTOM LINE: Malevolent Nanotech. More world hopping. A solidly entertaining second volume to the series.

In Planesrunner, the first novel in Ian McDonald’s YA series about Everett Singh, we were introduced to the world of the Infundibulum. Everett’s father, with help from Everett himself, unlocked inter-world travel, a breakthrough powerful and potent enough that people will go to great lengths to possess the technology. Everett’s journeys takes him to a parallel world of carbon fiber technology and enormous airships. At the end of the first book, Everett’s father has been cast to somewhere in the multiverse, and Everett is determined to find and save him, even as the forces arrayed against him are in hot pursuit.  Now, those forces, led by Charlotte Villiers, have a new plan for capturing Everett and his key to the mulltiverse. They intend to use the one person who can anticipate and counter Everett’s moves and actions: himself…

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BOOK REVIEW: In Situ Edited by Carrie Cuinn

REVIEW SUMMARY: With this collection’s 15 stories, editor Carrie Cuinn argues that sometimes it’s best to keep hidden mysteries hidden.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: “An anthology of alien archeology, hidden mysteries, and things that are better off left buried,” with stories by such writers as Ken Liu, Alex Shvartsman, Mae Empson, David J. West, and K.V. Taylor.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Well-written, quick-paced stories; no clunkers.
CONS: A few stories with similar plots, characters, settings.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting batch of stories about “things that are better off left buried.”
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BOOK REVIEW: Osiris by E.J. Swift

REVIEW SUMMARY: A debut novel with interesting characters, writing, setting and premise let down significantly by plotting issues.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Osiris, apparently the city on Earth, is the site of a conflict between the haves and have nots, as a scion of the most powerful family and a have-not shake Osiris by their alliance.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Interesting characters, premise and a great “bottle” setting; excellent prose and evocation of themes.
CONS: Very weak plotting and narrative flaws undermine the strengths of the novel.
BOTTOM LINE: A premise and set-up that doesn’t rise as far above the waves as it should.

The last bastion of human civilization, after our Neon Age has come and fallen, is a city built on a continental shelf in the ocean. A city divided by fabulous wealth and the remnants of the old age on the one half, and grinding poverty, hunger, need and lack on the other side. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and Osiris is a house that may not manage to stand. Shortages threaten the social fabric and changing weather threatens all. When a maverick scion of the powerful Rechenov family meets a westerner seeking social justice, the world of Osiris hangs on their actions.

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BOOK REVEW: The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

REVIEW SUMMARY: Schafer convincingly adds secondary world cities to her list of well evoked fantasy locales in the second book of the Shattered Sigil.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A threat to the barriers surrounding Alathia bring prisoners Dev and Kiran back to the titular tainted city of Ninavel, and the dangers of being involved with the doings of powerful mages.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Schafer brings the city of Ninavel to as full flower as she did the mountains of The Whitefire Crossing
CONS: A plot device used feels a bit like a reset button. The book could sorely use some maps and a concordance.
BOTTOM LINE: Schafer continues to develop as a writer in her sophomore effort.

In her debut novel The Whitefire Crossing [My SF Signal review here] Courtney Schafer introduced us to The Whitefire Mountains, the perilous mountain border between the Painted Desert, with Ninavel, the city of Mages, and Alathia, a prosperous country with a tight rein on its magic users. The Whitefire Crossing is the story of Dev and Kiran. The latter a mountaineer and caravaners with a love of the mountains who is asked to smuggle a perilous cargo–Kiran, a mage who is fleeing his master. And both men are soon caught in events and plots much larger than they realize.

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REVIEW: The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin

REVIEW SUMMARY: Heavy on the world building, this dystopian novel is unique.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three hundred years after being put into cryogenic freezing, a man is awakened into a world where humans have become incorporated, buying and selling pieces of themselves, and others.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fully realized dystopian world, thought provoking, interesting characters
CONS: Problematic decisions by characters, black & white thinking
BOTTOM LINE: A slow read but a thought provoking one.
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BOOK REVIEW: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

REVIEW SUMMARY: A dark, gripping character novel.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Miriam Black knows how and when you’re going to die, just by a simple touch. When she meets a truck driver who’s death she’s going to be present at, she’s pulled into a plot that will test her gifts and outlook on life.

PROS: Strong, character driven novel, with a vivid, high-speed pace.
CONS: Very dark throughout, overly so at points, with a couple of untied ends.
BOTTOM LINE: Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds came highly recommended by a number of friends over the past summer, and after picking up a copy and reading through the first couple of pages, I can see why. It’s gripping from the get go, and jumps out of the gate and never slows down. While none of the characters in Blackbirds are particularly likeable, it’s hard not to root for anti-hero Miriam as she’s pulled into a plot that twists her around into knots.

With just a touch, Miriam Black can see when and how people will die. It’s a troubling gift, and its kept her up on the road, right on the ragged edge of the Mid-Atlantic coast. She’s used to the deaths that she can’t prevent, but it’s particularly troubling when she comes across a truck driver who calls out her name when he’s murdered in just a couple of weeks. In short order, she finds herself in the company of a con man and tracked by a violent pair of agents for an even scarier individual who’ll stop at nothing to take back what’s his…

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REVIEW SUMMARY: The Bones of the Old Ones is a damn good tale that not only pays homage to the masters, but sets its own print on the genre.

MY RATING: 

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Dabir and Asim find themselves battling dark sorcery again, but this time, the stakes are much bigger than one city.

MY REVIEW
PROS: A fast-paced, intriguing tale with engaging characters.
CONS: While it is a stand-alone novel, it is much more enjoyable if the first has been read.
BOTTOM LINE: I only hope we’ll see many more like this, and that Sword and Sorcery’s new face is here to stay.
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SYNOPSIS: Unlikely heroes Dave and John unwittingly bring about the “zombie” apocalypse. Faced with an impending doom of a ridiculous nature the two must get to the bottom of the mystery and save the world.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS:
Side-splitting laughs, nail-biting horror, heroes worth cheering for, and a homemade triple barrel shotgun.
CONS:
It ends.
VERDICT:
Kevin Smith’s Clerks meets H.P. Lovecraft in this exceptional thriller that makes zombies relevant again.

Some time has passed since the events of John Dies at the End. Dave is happily dating Amy and undergoing court-ordered therapy for shooting a pizza deliveryman with a crossbow. John is mooching off others and peeing off of water towers. Molly the dog is eating what ever food Dave drops on the floor. Life is never good in [Undisclosed] but for the moment it is relatively peaceful. That is, until Dave and John become pawns in a sinister science experiment set in motion by the Shadow Men. As the result of gross incompetence and a lack of foresight these two white-trash monster hunters unleash havoc upon the world. Despite a penchant for making mistakes it falls upon Dave and John to wrong the rights and fight evil.

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BOOK REVIEW: Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey

REVIEW SUMMARY: Fun heavy metal urban fantasy, if a little convoluted.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After saving existence once again, James Stark finds himself stranded in Hell. This time things are different though. James is in charge but that doesn’t make life any easier or less dangerous.

MY REVIEW
PROS: 
Lots of cool ideas and interesting approaches to overdone tropes.
CONS: 
Almost too many ideas and a convoluted plot.
BOTTOM LINE:
Fans of Sandman Slim will be pleased and urban fantasy readers in search of a unique series may have a friend in Kadrey.

After the events of Aloha From Hell, demon hunter James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) finds himself stranded in Pandemonium. The Devil decided it was time to abandon ship and left him in charge. Stark is given a crash course in Hellion politics and court intrigue, rebuilding Hell and dodging assassination attempts to boot. Things aren’t much better back in L.A., with a serial killer ghost causing havoc and a secret cabal plotting to rewrite reality. It looks like Stark has some killing to do.

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