About these recommendations
In this series, we bring you a selection of science fiction and fantasy book reviews that we enjoyed, and highlight the qualities that made them work for us.
We’re not assigning ratings. We’re saying what we enjoyed, while at the same time paying attention to the craft of writing and to those who we feel do it well.
|Cover>||Title||Author||Review||Buttons||Genre||Keywords||Sort Name||Date Added|
|Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds||Brandon Sanderson||
Stephen Leeds can learn any subject in a matter of hours. To keep himself sane, he creates a new personality to manifest that new expertise. As he reminds himself, sanity is a relative thing.
Having an entourage of imaginary people following him can be challenging (he has over 50), but he’s willing to pay the price for the abilities it gives him. These stories are a fascinating exploration of psychoses and genius framed in fun action mysteries to put them on display.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:00:24.000Z|
|Mythago Wood||Robert Holdstock||
Ryhope Wood is a small woodland about 3 miles square. But George Huxley knew there was more to the small bit of primeval forest than met the eye. His experiments revealed a hidden world within, and awoke an ancient force that has begun tentatively extending beyond the bounds of the woodland. And now George is missing and mysterious figures and creatures wander at twilight along the edges of his estate…
|,||Fantasy||Occult,Top Ten||Holdstock, Robert||2021-01-24T22:54:01.000Z|
|Sailing to Sarantium||Guy Gavriel Kay||
In this two-volume tale, Guy Gavriel Kay assembles, stone by glittering stone, the tale of a master mosaicist, Caius Crispus, who is summoned to perform the commission of a lifetime by the emperor of Sarantium. Crispen journeys from a small, plague-stricken town that has claimed his family and his joy of life, to the glittering capital that is the analog of our Constantinople. He must make his way through Byzantine plots and tensions while maintaining his integrity and honor. Among those, how does he weigh the images of the official religion of the empire, against those pagan avatars that have more directly touched his life, knowing that those are considered as subversive by many in Sarantium. Kay’s prose is lyrical and rich, whether describing the way that a mosaicist perceives light and color in ways that you may not, or the way in which a chariot racer perceives the patterns in the dust and chaos of a chariot race. The two-volume set completes Crispin’s arc through his commission, his career, and his journey of self-discovery.
|,||Fantasy||Historical||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-22T14:06:04.000Z|
|And I Darken||Kiersten White||
The daughter and son of Vlad Dracula are hostage to the Ottoman empire.
In this telling, Vlad is a weak nobleman, pushed around by more powerful men. His daughter Lada vows never to be as weak, and teaches herself all the fierce drive that legend ascribes to her father. Her brother, Radu, is seemingly a timid scholar, but grows to be a cunning politician. Their courses collide when they each fall in love with the Sultan who wants to re-take Constantinople.
|Fuzzy Nation||John Scalzi||
When is it appropriate to re-imagine a classic and much-loved science fiction novel? Scalzi has updated H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy from 1962 for a new generation of readers. After reading and enjoying Scalzi’s book, I reread Piper’s to see how they compared.
Piper’s tale had a very fifties feel to it, with a large cast of characters (almost all male, of course). The story was about the big ideas of what constituted sentience and our duty to protect it. The characters weren’t very well developed, nor was the conflict very sharp. In that era, SF was about ideas.
Scalzi shrank the cast from around 30 to a half-dozen, and gave them backstories and more distinct voices so it was easier to keep track of their roles. Jack Holloway went from gruff old prospector to disbarred lawyer who had become a surveyor for reasons of his own. While the story evolved along similar lines, there was a much heightened sense of personal peril for the protagonists and a considerably more dramatic ending.
While both are good stories, and Piper’s is fondly remembered by many who read it earlier, Scalzi’s take is a worthy re-telling for the modern age.
|,||Science Fiction||Aliens,Anthropology||Scalzi, John||2021-03-24T01:02:34.000Z|
|The Lord of the Rings||J R R Tolkien||
The battle for Middle Earth, and how the smallest heroes are often more important than the greatest ones. The trilogy that launched the entire epic fantasy genre. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve missed countless referrences to events in Tolkein’s orginal.
|,||Fantasy||Cultures,Top Ten,Adventure,Quest,Epic||Tolkien, J R R||2021-02-04T19:21:45.000Z|
This is what you read Gibson for: cyberpunk, post-singularity, augmented humans, AI, up-to-the-minute world events, seasoned with an eye for characters who are at least two standard deviations away from average. As expected, he pays attention to the role that information, branding, media, form and function play with our perceptions of the world. This continues from his novel The Peripheral, which was probably a stronger story.
|,||Science Fiction||Cyberpunk||Gibson, William||2021-01-24T03:29:12.000Z|
|The Way of Kings||Brandon Sanderson||
Epic is a word for lesser books. This is a 1200 page tome of culture and conflict in a very different world that is scoured by titanic storms every few days. Life is adapted to harsh conditions including the Chasmfiends (a giant crustacean) and Rockbuds (a plant), and so have the people. It’s a long road to reach the end of this book, but it pays off in the end.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Epic,Adventure||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:08:58.000Z|
|The Martian||Andy Weir||
Mark Watney is stranded on the surface of Mars during a deadly dust storm. He has to use every survival skill and all the science he knows to survive and get word to Earth that he’s out there. But the only rescue ship is months away.
|,||Science Fiction||Top Ten,Survival||Weir, Andy||2021-02-04T19:00:44.000Z|
|Lord Valentine’s Castle||Robert Silverberg||
Valentine’s memories start one day on the outskirts of a great city, as a festival begins to celebrate the reign of the new ruler. He remembers nothing before that day. Is it only coincidence that he shares a name with the new Coronal? Is it fate that brings him into the company of traveling jugglers, who can help him on his journey? Silverberg tells a compelling tale of Valentine’s journey, both across a wildly imaginative planet and through his personal quest to become himself once more, or perhaps more than he was. The art of juggling is woven throughout the story, a metaphor for balance, insight, teamwork, and much more.
|,||Fantasy||Quest,Character Arc,Top Ten,Epic||Silverberg, Robert||2021-01-22T14:22:17.000Z|
|The Silver Ship and the Sea||Brenda Cooper||
Six genetically modified children have been orphaned in a colony on an isolated world that abhors what they represent. Yet their reluctant guardians are morally bound to raise and care for them. As the children grow older they begin to learn more about their world, the colony, and themselves, and their new knowledge proves both thrilling and frightening. And just beyond reach, past the Grass Plains, lies the ever-present starship, shining silver, tightly sealed, waiting. A Young Adult tale by Brenda Cooper of adventure on a dangerous world.
|,||Science Fiction||Adventure||Cooper, Brenda||2021-01-24T22:45:19.000Z|
|The Rithmatist||Brandon Sanderson||
A steampunk world where magic is done with geometrical figures. You either are a Rithmatist – have the ability – or not. Joel is not, but he has a passion for the art and science of the craft. When young Rithmatists in training begin disappearing from the Academy, Joel feels driven to investigate, no matter the danger to himself.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Young Adult||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:22:29.000Z|
|Minor Mage||T. Kingfisher||
Oliver was 12 and knew three spells. But as the village wizard it was his job to go find the cloud herders and ask them to send rain to his drought-stricken village. He sets out with his sarcastic familiar and a big heart to do the job that needs to be done, learning that in a pinch, just two spells are enough. Clever, funny dialog keeps it lively, and the ending is satisfying enough, though somewhat rushed.
P.S. The blurb on Amazon almost didn’t convince me to pick this one up, being rather lackluster. The book is better than the blurb would lead you to believe.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Young Adult,Humor||Kingfisher, T.||2021-01-24T02:44:58.000Z|
|This is Not a Game||Walter Jon Williams||
Dagmar Shaw designs games for a living. Games that intrude into your everyday existence until the characters start leaving you phone messages asking you to go places and meet people. The stories are beyond immersive, they take over your life.
Now Dagmar has been pulled into intrigues that rival, then surpass her own games. But the stakes are much higher and the situations are deadly. This is not a game, and someone from her past is pulling her strings.
This is a really fun and multi-layered mystery wrapped in a thriller wrapped in a deadly serious game. I recommend it.
|Science Fiction||Cyberpunk||Williams, Walter Jon||2021-09-19T02:41:41.000Z|
|A Memory Called Empire||Arkady Martine||
The Teixcalaan Empire dominates all power and culture in its sphere of the galaxy, and steadily annexes new systems to push its borders outwards. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is summoned to the capitol to take the post left vacant by the death of her predecessor. She carries the memories of the previous ambassador in an implant in her head, but those are fifteen years out of date. She finds the Empire in tension, the old emperor in failing health and the power plays for the succession are a gathering storm. Everyone has secrets: the court, her aide, the Emperor, her own government, even Mahit herself.
This story is about identity on many levels. Independent systems like Mahit’s struggle not to be assimilated into Teixcalaan’s pervasive culture. But Mahit herself idolizes that culture, and wishes she was not an outsider — a barbarian. And with the voices of past ambassadors in her head, can she even be sure of who she is any longer? The story itself is a blend of court intrigue and non-stop action as the situation deteriorates and puts Mahit in danger.
|,||Science Fiction||Galactic Empire,Cultures||Martine, Arkady||2021-11-04T23:32:21.000Z|
|Otherland: River of Blue Fire||Tad Williams||
This is the second book of four in the Otherland series. (Otherland: City of Golden Shadow was reviewed last month.) The story has moved on from the “What the heck is going on?” stage to an almost-entirely virtual world struggle against the masters of the titanic simulation. Eight explorers have penetrated, and then become stranded in, the private worlds of the most powerful people on the planet. That it has purposes more sinister than a debauched playground for the rich has become clear, but the explorers struggle to peel away the layers to find the truth.
At times, the progress becomes the procession through Dante’s cirles of Hell, as the explorers fight through an entomologist’s simulation at 1/1000 scale, a dystopian Oz, H.G. Well’s martian invasion, and much more. None of the explorers had ever been before in Real Life, so they must establish a working trust based on their wildly different online identities. Highly recommended if you like a highly immersive and highly bizarre journey.
|,||Science Fiction||Cyberpunk,Adventure||Williams, Tad||2021-01-24T23:21:49.000Z|
|A Psalm for the Wild Built||Becky Chambers||
One day the robots achieved consciousness and walked out of the factories. They went out into the wilderness to find their own path, leaving humans to remake their society without them.
Centuries later, a tea monk named Dex becomes unsatisfied with a successful career of ministering to people and sets off into the forbidden wilderness to find their calling. Instead they find a robot, on a similar quest. Reluctantly, they go together to find an ancient hermitage. (Reluctantly, because aren’t hermits supposed to be, you know, solitary?)
This gentle and short tale is much-needed antidote to the avalanche of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction these days. Much like one of Dex’s fragrant mugs of tea.
|Science Fiction||Character Arc||Chambers, Becky||2021-09-19T03:00:51.000Z|
|Good Guys||Steven Brust||
The Good Guys are how the small supernatural crime-fighting unit describes itself, though not infrequently with a question mark. They’re part of the Spanish Foundation, a group that is dedicated to keeping magic secret and enforcing moral standards. Against them are the Mystici, a shadowy group that takes a more libertarian approach and is willing to employ much more questionable tactics.
Life in the unit is bound by bureaucracy, penny pinching, second-guessing supervisors, and rules that just beg to be bent to get the job done, especially when they’re on the track of a serial killer. The dialogue is snappy and sarcastic, the trail is twisty and laden with red herrings, and seems to be leading back inside the organization that they work for. The central question of the book is “Who are the Good Guys here?”
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Urban Fantasy||Brust, Steven||2021-10-18T12:36:35.000Z|
This story is a near neighbor of the Clocktaur War books. I came for the inventive settings, the amusing dialog, and the fun characters. I was ambushed by a Romance plot. (I’m not overly fond of romances; I think they’re tedious.) I still had a great time. The best part for me was the heroine’s superpower: the ability to confuse and confound any foe (and most friends) with stream-of-consciousness absurdities that almost make sense.
|Jackalope Wives and Other Stories||T. Kingfisher||
Jackalope Wives is a collection of short stories. The story of the title won the Nebula for short story, and deservedly so. This is a collection of homey, quirky, and downright funny stories set on the edges of backcountry legends. What happens if you catch a Jackalope without its skin on? (They take them off to dance in the moonlight.) What if Cinderella was a much more sensible girl? What about unicorns? Are we certain they have the same definition of virginity that we do? Sixteen evocative, poignant, homespun tales that will keep your attention. And did I mention that they‘re funny?
|The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means||John Scalzi||
What if murder were no longer possible? That’s the one impossible premise that John Scalzi makes to launch this noir-ish tale. Through copious amounts of handwavium, anyone who is murdered returns to life unharmed. You can still die of natural causes or suicide, just not from murder. Of course this is an invitation for people to get endlessly inventive with this new fact of life – and death.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher, licensed to legally kill people who are at risk of natural or unintentional death so they can come back for a second chance. If this sounds like it’s just inviting grey areas, you’re exactly right.
Take the red pill and accept the impossible premise as a given, because it makes for an entertaining tale when people around Tony start dying in “interesting” ways.
|,||Science Fiction||Noir||Scalzi, John||2021-06-05T19:54:13.000Z|
|Babel-17||Samuel R. Delany||
Visionary when it was published in 1966, this tale is as relevant today, if not more. In the midst of a galactic war, the other side unleashes a new weapon — a language that undermines the convictions of those who hear it. Captain Rydra Wong, the finest poet in the galaxy, is the only one with the talents to uncover the secret of Babel-17, if she doesn’t fall sway to it herself. This is an intense exploration of the power of language to shape thought, relationships, and outcomes.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc||Delany, Samuel R.||2021-01-24T22:30:28.000Z|
|Otherland: Sea of Silver Light||Tad Williams||
Book four of the Otherland saga draws the tale to a satisfying conclusion. Renie, !Xabbu, and the rest are stranded in a strange land with terrifying gods. There is no way out; the only way is forward or die. And if they die, so do all the young children the Brotherhood has used to build their simulated world. Jongeleur‘s henchman Dread has taken over the core of the simulation and things go from bad to worse. Their best hope is the badly burned and nearly immobile Sellars, who is almost out of time. Two things impressed me about this book. The first was that it had a cast of nearly thirty major characters, each of which had such a distinctive voice that you tell them apart just by their dialog. The second was that every single one of them contributed to their success. There were no huge acts of heroics, just many small ones.
|,||Science Fiction||Adventure,Cyberpunk,Cultures,Quest||Williams, Tad||2021-03-16T23:00:51.000Z|
|We Are Legion (We Are Bob)||Dennis Taylor||
The protagonist dies in chapter one. This is not a spoiler, since he is frozen and resurrected more than a century later as the intelligence controlling one of the first interstellar probes. His mandate is to explore the stars and make clones of himself to expand the search. He has to come to grips with his new existence, with Earth trying to control him, with hostile aliens, and eventually with an exodus from Earth.
This is unabashedly geeky, with tons of nerd culture references. It’s also a great tour of the current ideas for spacefaring explorers, terraforming, advanced weaponry and more. It’s a quick read, in a breezy style and short snippet chapters that jump viewpoint between all the various incarnations of Bob.
I had a lot of fun reading this book and the two sequels.
|,||Science Fiction||Aliens,Exploration,Galactic Empire||Taylor, Dennis||2021-04-21T14:05:51.000Z|
|The Spire||Simon Spurrier||
A distant calamity has left humanity shattered into dozens of forms, with the ‘pure’ humans living in a spire above the noxious fumes. Shå is the Captain of the police force, and a Sculpted, or in vulgar terms, a Skew. That makes her impure but gives her abilities that make her good at her job. She is a favorite of the old Marchioness, secretly the lover of the young princess, and at odds with the new Baroness. Her past is a mystery, even to her.
A series of murders threatens to expose old secrets and call into question who is human and who is ‘pure’. Both artwork and dialog are outstanding in this GN.
|,||Fantasy,Graphic Novel||Post-Apocalypse||Spurrier, Simon||2021-01-24T21:53:40.000Z|
|Castle in the Stars||Alex Alice||
The universe is made up of aether, and if a ship could be built that could fly in it, humans could explore outer space. Claire Dulac flew her balloon into the stratosphere as an experiment in aether propulsion and disappeared. Her husband, a brilliant engineer, is sure she is lost forever, but their son is not so sure. A year later, when they are summoned to Bavaria by a mysterious person who seems to have Claire’s logbook, they are launched into a dangerous, high-stakes adventure, in an effort to be the first to conquer the aether and fly to the stars. Written for children, this is an engaging, fun tale for all ages.
|,||Fantasy,Graphic Novel||Historical,Steampunk||Alice, Alex||2021-01-31T21:33:11.000Z|
|The 13th Witch||Mark Hayden||
Conrad Clarke, ex-RAF, learns magic is real when he gets a text from Odin. Yes, that Odin, and yes, he’s learned how to text.
Bound to Odin’s service, Conrad sets out on a quest to find and rescue a missing witch. To do that, he must get past a mole the size of a truck to reach a dwarf who resides beneath the Bank of England, find the hidden tower within the Tower of London, and convince the Constable of the King’s Guard that he should join their secret police force.
Between the British slang and the RAF lingo, you may be tapping your kindle for Google searches more often than usual. There’s also a backstory that’s mentioned often that made me realize that there was an entire trilogy before this one. It’s a separate storyline, though, and it’s not important to read it first. Despite those factors, this series is addictive, fast-paced, and darkly funny. I’m already into the fourth book, which is where things really become opaque — he introduces cricket to the mix.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Occult,Urban Fantasy||Hayden, Mark||2021-07-04T19:44:56.000Z|
|Eye of Cat||Roger Zelazny||
William Blackhorse Singer, the last Navaho on earth, is hired to protect an alien diplomat from another human with an agenda. He makes a deal with another alien named Cat, whom Singer captured years ago. In exchange for his aid, Cat will then get to hunt Singer through the canyonlands of the Southwest.
On one level, this is a tale of the hunted turning the tables on the hunter, but it’s also a journey through the mythology of the Navaho, as Zelazny did with Hinduism in Lord of Light and Greek mythology in This Immortal.
|Science Fiction||Cultures,Aliens,Survival||Zelazny, Roger||2021-09-19T12:31:27.000Z|
|Project Hail Mary||Andy Weir||
Ryland Grace wakes up on a small spaceship with two dead bodies, and wonders why. He was a junior high science teacher, not an astronaut. His mind has turned to mush after an induced coma that’s lasted years. Gradually he remembers: he is here at Tau Ceti to save the Earth from disaster.
This is from Andy Weir, the author who wrote The Martian, the best seller and hit movie. In this book he exceeds the benchmark of his first novel, and redeems himself from his somewhat disappointing second novel Artemis. It has the lone survivor, the desperate odds, and the constant innovation to survive one setback after another that was the hallmark of The Martian, and then it kicks it up a notch.
This may be the most entertaining SciFi book of the year. Make room at the top of your reading list and add this book right away.
|,||Science Fiction||Survival,Aliens,Exploration,Science||Weir, Andy||2021-05-18T23:46:03.000Z|
|Trail of Lightning||Rebecca Roanhorse||
After the apocalypse, the former Navaho reservation rises as the nation of Dinétah. The gods and monsters of their ancestral past rise along with them. The gods play a long game, and often damage the people who they raise up to champion them. The people need champions to protect them from the monsters. Maggie Hoskie knows both sides of this.
When sudden killings in remote towns coincide with a visit from Coyote, Maggie reluctantly takes up the role of her mentor, the Monsterslayer. The journey is perilous, not least because there are truths about herself that Maggie doesn’t want to face.
This is a richly-painted world and a mythology that may be less familiar to many. It’s not your usual apocalypse.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Cultures,Post-Apocalypse,Urban Fantasy||Roanhorse, Rebecca||2021-08-05T20:01:28.000Z|
|A Year and a Day in Old Theradane||Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear||
“I sometimes think that ‘friend‘ is just a word I use for all the people I haven‘t murdered yet,” says the capable and accomplished thief (retired) who is at the focus of this enjoyable tale. Getting angry enough to tell off the head wizard of Theradane (that their ruling body is named the Parliament of Strife should clue you in that isn’t a good idea), she is set a task by said wizard: steal the street of her rival! Yes, the whole street.
|Fantasy||Heist,Rogue,Humor||Lynch, Scott,Bear, Elizabeth||2021-01-24T02:39:17.000Z|
|The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox||Barry Hughart||
These are three novellas set in “a China that never was,” narrated by the peasant Number Ten Ox. The saga starts when Ox is sent from his village to find a cure for a mysterious illness that has paralyzed all of the children in his village. The only sage he can afford to engage is Master Li, who introduces himself as having “a slight flaw in my character.” Fortunately, the only sage he can afford is the sage he needs to unravel the mystery. They set off on a series of quests to find the most potent ginseng root in the world, meeting and outwitting a series of more and more malevolent opponents. The writing is witty and steeped in a brew of Chinese mythology and history. This was an enjoyable and entertaining diversion.
In the first tale, Bridge of Birds, the children of the village, but only those of a certain age, have fallen into a deep sickness. Master Li pieces together the clues, and determines there is only one possible cure. The pair are off on quest to retrieve the Root of Power which can cure them, But one quest leads to another, and one coincidence leads to another, as they unravel a plot that grows deeper with every step. Number Ten Ox is the Watson to Master Li’s Holmes, in a story that is both mystery and journey.
In The Story of the Stone, Master Li is called to examine the source of a forged manuscript, and the pair stumble upon a murder, in a valley once ruled by a mass murderer named the Laughing Prince. At first, the murder appears to have been staged to make it look as if the Laughing Prince had returned from the grave. Surely this is just a tactic to throw them off the track of the real perpetrator. Isn’t it?
Eight Skilled Gentlemen begins with a gruesome murder by a zombie-like creature. Master Li must consult his mentor, the even older Celestial Master, to dig into lore that stretches back to the aboriginal people of the land, who were displaced by the people who formed the Chinese dynasties. The high point of this adventure is a Dante-like journey through Hell to discover who is behind the murders. There’s rather a few too many lengthy digressions in this story, but it still has the witty dialog of the first two.
Final advice: there’s a certain formula that’s common to the three tales, and it may be worth spacing out the reading of the second and third so that this is less obvious.
|The Doomsday Book||Connie Willis||
Kirvin Engle is a historian, sent back in time to study the Dark Ages. But something has gone wrong and things are not as predicted. Despite extensive medical prep, Kirvin is immediately stricken with a deadly disease and is fighting for her life in the year 1320 while in the modern world, a strange pandemic takes hold that can’t possibly be connected to an event over 700 years in the past. Or can it? Note: despite being written in the early 1990s, this book contains detailed and realistic descriptions of a pandemic in the 2050s that has remarkable and haunting parallels with today.
|,||Science Fiction||Adventure,Character Arc,Anthropology,Historical||Willis, Connie||2021-01-24T23:23:42.000Z|
|Twelve Kings in Sharakhai||Bradley Beaulieu||
I don’t tend to read a series of books one after another. After 600 pages of exploring a fantastical world, I’m usually ready for something else before continuing on with more books in a series. After finishing Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, within 5 minutes I had acquired the next book in his “Shattered Sands” series because I couldn’t wait to learn more.
Sharakhai is a shining city in the desert, and a center of commerce and power, its history magnificent and literally the stuff of legend. But, as in so many things, a closer look reveals that not all is what it seems. Ruled by twelve immortal kings, who wield absolute power and dispense swift and cruel retribution against all dissenters, the city both bustles with activity and trembles with fear.
But after long centuries of oppression, multiple factions have begun questioning the status quo, each with vastly different motives. And far from the palaces in the opulent heart of the city, in the winding alleys of the slums, lives Ceda, a young woman gladiator who scrapes a living off the earnings from her bouts in the Pits and from running occasional nefarious errands. One night each month, on Beht Zha’ir, the Kings have decreed that no one shall venture forth, and during that night the monstrous Asirim roam the streets and take carefully selected victims. Caught out on this night trying to help a friend, Ceda has a terrifying encounter that sets her on a journey of discovery not only of herself and the mysterious and horrific death of her mother at the hands of the Kings, but also, if she can live long enough, of the truth that will shake the foundations of Sharakhai. Beaulieu’s vivid desert world is brutal and cruel, yet not needlessly so. Characters act for a reason, even if it’s not immediately obvious. I was also struck by the fact that gender is very rarely a motivator for people to be treated differently. Genders are always recognizable, but in the world of Sharakhai, even though it manifests as something of a medieval Arabia with subtle but powerful magic, the boundaries around gender roles are tenuous in an unexpected and welcome manner. Female characters are powerful elements in this story, sometimes in roles that are stereotypically male. Also very few characters are one-sided. Heroes have faults and villains have complexities and motives. Quite a few characters are difficult to classify as to whose side they are truly on.
Taking place in a richly imagined desert environment, the depth and details that bring the tale to life don’t bog it down, but unfold naturally along the way. The book tells multiple stories at once, through different chapters occurring at different points in history, which grow closer together and more intertwined through the book, a mechanism that I found intriguing but occasionally mildly confusing. However, I belatedly realized that the seal at the start of each chapter is a clue as to which plot line and time period the chapter pertains to in case it is not immediately clear.
The author himself aptly describes Twelve Kings in Sharakhai as a mix of Arabian Nights and Game of Thrones. It captures the feel of an epic tale, where it begins with small, barely significant moments in the lives of ordinary people, and builds, slowly, inexorably, as lines converge, conflicts build, tensions rise, and past and present align, to a tremendous conclusion. I found it a highly satisfying adventure and look forward to the next installment.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Top Ten,Epic,Adventure||Beaulieu, Bradley||2021-01-22T04:24:08.000Z|
|Lord Demon||Roger Zelazny, Jane Lindskold||
The demon Kai Wren lives in a Klein bottle. He designs them as works of art, and they are much coveted by other demons. All has been peaceful among the demons for thousands of years, until one day Kai Wren’s human servant is murdered.
This story was left as an unfinished manuscript when Roger Zelazny died, and it was subsequently completed and published by Jane Lindskold. It is out of print now and there’s no Kindle version, but it’s well worth finding a used paperback copy if you enjoyed the Amber series, or Lord of Light.
This is a story in the vein of Zelazny’s best works, including the tension between creative chaos and stifling perfection, a powerful protagonist who may have trusted the wrong people, an intricate plot, and a leavening of Zelazny’s signature puns.
|Fantasy||Character Arc,Magic,Humor||Zelazny, Roger,Lindskold, Jane||2021-04-05T12:32:54.000Z|
|Jack Four||Neal Asher||
Jack Four is a clone who realizes within moments of waking that he has knowledge and skills that the other nineteen Jacks do not. Someone has created him as a weapon. But who? And what have they aimed him at?
Jack is sold to the King of the Prador, who is horribly mutated by the Spatterjay virus. He and his fellows are to be engineered into nightmare killing machines. He escapes into a world populated by a collection of the most lethal species in the galaxy. He must find a way to turn them against his enemies, just as soon as he figures out who is friend and who is foe.
|,||Science Fiction||AI,Aliens,Cyberpunk,Galactic Empire,Survival||Asher, Neal||2021-07-04T19:30:26.000Z|
|In the Vanisher’s Palace||Aliette de Bodard||
An intense and emotional tale, set in a sci-fi world based on Vietnamese mythology. Yên is a young teacher, given to a dragon by her village in exchange for a healing. The dragon, Vu Côn, needs a teacher for her two children, to teach them the things she could not. Yèn and the dragon find a deep connection, and deep divisions. Yên’s future seemingly rests in the scaly hands of the dragon. But this is a twisting, inconstant world, and things may not always be as they seem.
The setting might be a fantasy world, with shape-shifting dragons, palaces with infinite rooms, spells and summonings, but it is also a world of gene-modding, isolation skins, and the remnants of technology so far beyond present-day that it becomes magic. A race called the Vanishers has broken the world and then departed, and those left behind must cope with the diseases and constructs they left behind. I hesitate to call it post-apocalyptic, because that belongs to a genre with certain expectations. Here, there is poverty and squalor in the ruins of a civilization, but one can also summon a dragon to beseech it to heal a dying child.
The Vietnamese mythology adds to alien nature of the world. It fits well to the fluid, non-euclidean spaces of the palace that the dragon inhabits. The imagery of trails of ink, calligraphed words flowing in shadows, and flowing rivers is evocative and rich. Scents – of tea, of cooking, of mold, of rivers – are often used to reflect the mood and emotion of a scene.
This is a rich and satisfying story, which addresses the difference between false power, such as that the village elders wield without wisdom or compassion, and the real powers that a dragon, or a teacher, may have.
I picked it up without reading the blurb that mentioned the Beauty and the Beast, and I didn’t make that connection while reading it. I’m glad that I was able to read it without the preconceptions that linking it to the fairy tale will inevitably induce. I think it’s stronger by itself.
|,||Science Fiction||Cultures,Character Arc,LGBTQ||de Bodard, Aliette||2021-01-22T14:15:47.000Z|
Strange raiders stalk the landscape of northern Britain nearly 2,000 years ago. In a realistic portrayal of military life along the most remote Roman frontier, Centurion Flavius Ferox must solve a mystery and fight to survive and prevent disaster.
|Irontown Blues||John Varley||
When humanity has been evicted from Earth for the good of the rest of the inhabitants, the remaining colonists on the eight worlds can cope by being Heinleiners, or by role-playing a seedy noir detective and solving mysteries. Chris Bach and his uplifted dog, Sherlock take a case from a woman who was deliberately infected with a disfiguring disease. The case leads them through the warrens of the moon, to Chris’s mother’s dinosaur farm, and into more and more ruthless opposition.
This is book four of the Eight Worlds series, and while there’s some background about the Big Glitch (when the central lunar computer went crazy) that is helpful, there’s enough narrative here to establishing the story for new readers. If you’re hooked, the earlier books are even better.
|,||Science Fiction||Cyberpunk||Varley, John||2021-01-22T04:28:07.000Z|
|The Raven Tower||Ann Leckie||
I enjoyed the unique narrative style, the never-quite-revealed depths of the focal character, Eolo, and the mysterious narrator. It begins with a really interesting narrative device: what amounts to a second-person narrative. An unseen and unnamed narrator addressing one of the characters as “you.” The story gathers momentum slowly, but is as unstoppable as an avalanche by the end.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc||Leckie, Ann||2021-01-24T02:27:57.000Z|
|The Goblin Emperor||Katherine Addison||
Maia is the disregarded son of the fourth wife of the Elvish Emperor, and half-goblin to boot. He lives in exile until the morning that he’s awakened with the news that his entire family was killed in an airship crash. He’s now the Emperor. As he’s thrust into court intrigue that he can barely understand, and without friends or counselors that he can trust, he decides to try an unorthodox strategy for an Emperor: kindness. He’s about to find out how well that works out for him…
This book has a cast of thousands, perhaps not literally, but with everyone known by their family names, their titles, their offices, their familiar names, and various honorifics, only the most dedicated reader will keep them all straight, and probably with a spreadsheet in hand. Nonetheless, the story is surprisingly fast-paced and tense, so just remember the most important names and let the rest flow past like the scenery. It’s an excellent story of growth, of tearing down barriers, and of making alliances. Despite its length, I tore through it in a couple of evenings.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc||Addison, Katherine||2021-11-04T23:42:07.000Z|
|I am Not a Serial Killer||Dan Wells||
John Cleaver is obsessed with serial killers. When one starts stalking his small town, he is the best-qualified to track him down, though that forces him to confront his fears that he might become one himself. This is a Young Adult horror novel with a 15-year-old protagonist but is still intense and gory. I loved the psychological thriller aspect, even though I normally don’t care for horror novels. Written by one of the Writing Excuses podcasters.
|,||Fantasy||Occult,Young Adult||Wells, Dan||2021-01-24T22:06:00.000Z|
|How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with it||K. J. Parker||
In the sequel to “Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City,“ it is five years later and the City is still under siege. It has become a way of life, even the subject of plays. One night Notker, an actor and avowedly NOT a playwright, is drafted to play the part of the ruler of the City, who is most inconveniently dead. Once he takes up the part, he finds it hard to let go.
>She wanted me to be a murderer and an extortionist, like my father
Notker is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He tells lies for a living. He’s a disappointment to his mother. And he knows the power of narrative.
In the end, he gets so wound up in giving everyone what they want, he almost forgets what he wants. Almost.
|,||Fantasy||Humor||Parker, K. J.||2021-01-24T03:54:28.000Z|
|A Canticle for Leibowitz||Walter Miller||
In a small monastery, 600 years after a nuclear war, the first stirrings of science are felt again. Three related post-apocalyptic stories that touch on the nature of humanity.
|,||Science Fiction||Post-Apocalypse,Top Ten||Miller, Walter||2021-02-04T19:14:11.000Z|
|Parable of the Sower||Octavia Butler||
In her walled neighborhood near Los Angeles, protected from the horrors of a 21st century that sometimes seems almost too real, Lauren Olamina dreams and writes of a religion called Earthseed, which believes that God is represented on earth by change. Her story is presented through diary entries over several years as her world spirals down into apocalyptic darkness. After her home is destroyed and her family and friends are lost, she makes her way on foot toward an almost mythical better place in the north. Can she become the prophet and leader that her nascent movement needs to draw a group of people willing to embrace a different way and dare to hope for a better future? This is the first book in a duology.
|,||Science Fiction||Post-Apocalypse||Butler, Octavia||2021-01-24T22:34:38.000Z|
|The Fifth Season||N. K. Jemison||
The land has been shattered. Every century or so an extinction level event called a Fifth Season strikes again. In between the populace struggles. Humanity is divided into castes, some of whom have the powers to stabilize the earth or destroy it. The Orogenes have the lowest status, but gradually realize they have the greatest power over their fate. Plan on reading all three novels in the trilogy in sequence; they pick up in the middle of the action with no recap, so you should have the previous ones fresh in your mind.
|,||Science Fiction||Post-Apocalypse||Jemison, N. K.||2021-01-24T22:27:43.000Z|
A rescue craft responding to a distress beacon finds a generation ship in flight. Something has built ad-hoc cryopods and frozen the entire crew. The ship’s AI is degraded and not very helpful. Back at the base when the passengers are thawed, things begin to get really strange.
I would categorize this as space opera, not hard sci-fi (due to the Star Trek level of physics errors). But it’s also an adventure, a psychodrama, a detective story, a conspiracy plot, and hopeful vision of the future. If it seems a little preachy on the surface about all the enlightened cultural values that the future holds, don’t fail to notice the dark shadows in the corner that indicates things aren’t quite as rosy as our unreliable narrator tells you.
|,||Science Fiction||AI,Aliens,Character Arc,Cultures,Galactic Empire||Bear, Elizabeth||2021-08-19T13:09:41.000Z|
|The Space Between Worlds||Micaiah Johnson||
The multiverse has been opened, and travel to the few hundred worlds closest to our own is now possible. The catch is, you can’t survive the trip to any world that has a version of you who is still living.
The most valuable world walkers — for exploration and trade — are the most marginal people in society. The people who had the deck so stacked against them that their survival is a miracle. Cara can travel to all but two worlds, but this version of her is determined to beat the odds.
Finding all the ways that she managed to die in the other worlds takes a toll on her, and she starts to question which reality she’s in. And everyone has secrets, the company she works for, her mission controller, and Cara herself. Her path to survival and happiness takes her through many different lives that could have been.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc,Post-Apocalypse||Johnson, Micaiah||2021-09-05T12:37:42.000Z|
|Brokedown Palace||Steven Brust||
The Palace is falling apart; the King and his three brothers are at odds what to do with it. The youngest brother journeys to Faery to seek his path, and finds an enigmatic talking horse as a guide. The Palace is an allegory: the house divided against itself, the old that stands in the way of the new, the death that must occur for new life to begin. The writing is haunting, and the little folk tales are gems throughout. Highly recommended.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Magic,Quest||Brust, Steven||2021-01-24T03:43:14.000Z|
|City of Blades||Robert Jackson Bennett||
In the sequel to City of Stairs, General Mulahgesh is sent to the country of Voortystan to determine if their dead god is really as dead as legend says. And if so, just who is raising an army of the dead in her place? Not as lyrical in language as the first book, perhaps appropriately, being about a much more practical main character. The tale says a lot about what being a soldier in a time of war really means.
|,||Fantasy||Magic||Bennett, Robert Jackson||2021-01-24T03:24:50.000Z|
|Ancillary Justice||Ann Leckie||
Breq is searching an icy world for a missing weapon. She is not sure why she searches or who she is. She feels that she was once something different. Something much larger…
|,||Science Fiction||Galactic Empire,Top Ten,AI||Leckie, Ann||2021-02-04T19:15:36.000Z|
|Operation Chaos/Operation Luna||Poul Anderson||
A werewolf and a witch battle evil in a parallel universe where scientifically-approached magic takes the place of technology. Published as a book in the early 70s and just recently released on Kindle, it’s stood up well in most respects, except for the sexism typical of the 50s. But if you look past the language, the women kick butt as well as or better than the men. Nice to re-read one of my old favorites.
|Science Fiction,Fantasy||Occult||Anderson, Poul||2021-01-24T02:31:04.000Z|
|The Wise Man’s Fear||Patrick Rothfuss||
In the sequel to The Name of the Wind, Kote the Innkeeper continues to tell the saga of Kvothe the Bloodless to The Chronicler. Kvothe leaves the University to seek the patronage of an imperious and dangerous nobleman, is sent to lead a band of mercenaries on a mission, spends an interlude in Faerie, and attempts to earn a sword, and friendship, from the taciturn and hardened Adem. Just keep in mind that Kote is an unreliable narrator.
Like his first book, the writing is lyrical and flowing. Rothfuss has an ability to choose exactly the right word, the most fitting image, and the best turn of phrase to keep the narrative fresh and interesting. This book is even longer than Name of the Wind, and I didn’t want it to end.
You should know that although this is labeled in the bookstores as volume two of two, there is more of the tale to be told. The story ends by wrapping up an arc, but not all of Kvothe’s story. There are questions still to be answered, and the enigmatic prologue and epilogue to each volume are yet to be explained. I hope that Rothfuss is forthcoming with more of the tale, and soon.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Magic,Rogue||Rothfuss, Patrick||2021-06-05T19:26:06.000Z|
Any book that has an occupation of ‘coincidence engineer’ has something going for it. Undertow has some interesting propositions to set up its world: instantaneous interstellar travel but only for non-sentient matter; people have to take the slow boat. Quantum uncertainty that can be manipulated on the macro level to create ‘luck’.
Those things got me hooked and kept me interested, but there were also a few things that left me unsatisfied. People’s reactions to events were sometimes puzzling. Even though you eventually learn why, the lack of any other characters questioning the dissonance was rather odd. The resolution also struck me as a bit magical, and not as satisfying as it could be. I’ve enjoyed Bear’s later works greatly. Despite a few flaws this is certainly worth reading.
|,||Science Fiction||Cultures||Bear, Elizabeth||2021-01-22T14:17:28.000Z|
|The Galaxy, and the Ground Within||Becky Chambers||
Three travelers from different walks of life (and different species) have checked in for a short stay at the Five-Hop OneStop Inn on Gora, a planet that has nothing to recommend it other than being on a crossroads to more interesting places. The innkeeper and her child make it a point of pride to offer something for every species that visits. Then a massive systems failure strands them on the planet for an unknown length of time.
Each traveler has urgent business elsewhere. Each has a history of decisions that has landed them at this crossroads, some with regrets. They come together in this backwater and tell each other their stories. But the force that unifies them comes from an unexpected direction.
For me there were echoes of Canterbury Tales in the setting and in the progression of the story. It’s both touching and heart warming. This is part of the Wayfarers series, though the series is loosely coupled enough that each can be read as a standalone tale. Start with this one, or start with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc,Aliens,Cultures,LGBTQ||Chambers, Becky||2021-07-04T19:39:52.000Z|
|Marvel 1602||Neil Gaiman||
The year is 1602. Steven Strange is physician to the Queen of England; Sir Nicholas Fury is her master of spies. But her hold on the realm is tenuous, and King James of Scotland is poised to take it from her. Gaiman brings together his favorite Marvel ensemble from the comics of his childhood in this paean to the Silver Age. See how many Marvel heroes you recognize in 17th century clothes. I’ll wager you miss a few.
|Fantasy,Graphic Novel||Historical||Gaiman, Neil||2021-01-24T22:13:48.000Z|
|Childhood’s End||Arthur C. Clark||
Aliens intervene as earth teeters on the brink of nuclear war. They usher in a new age of peace and plenty. But if they are purely benevolent, why won’t they show their faces?
|,||Science Fiction||Aliens,Top Ten||Clark, Arthur C.||2021-02-04T19:03:16.000Z|
|Roman Britain: A New History||Guy de la Bédoyère||
In 55BC, to Julius Caesar, Britain was a land of legend, beyond the edge of the known world.
Over the next 350 years the Romans left an enduring mark but never truly tamed this farthest frontier of the Roman Empire. An archaeological feast for those interested in this time period.
|,||Non Fiction||Historical,Archaelogy||Bédoyère, Guy de la||2021-01-24T14:55:23.000Z|
|Seven of Infinites||Aliette de Bodard||
Sunless Woods is a mindship that has made a long and illustrious career of being a thief. Vân is a poor tutor with a scandalous secret. When a visitor dies in the quarters of Vân’s student, Sunless Woods is drawn to the mystery, which might lead to more corpses. Much larger corpses. In this extrapolation of Vietnamese culture into space, memory implants are the honored ancestors and mindships are dragons – vast, ancient, wise, and unpredictable.
|,||Science Fiction||Cultures,Heist,LGBTQ||de Bodard, Aliette||2021-01-24T03:59:17.000Z|
|Network Effect||Martha Wells||
In the first full-length novel in the Murderbot series, Wells gives us relatable, human characters in the crews of two ships that are drawn into a land grab for alien technology, then makes the ship’s AI and Murderbot, the sentient Security Unit, the beings with the biggest, most caring hearts of all. Despite the fact that neither one possesses, you know, a heart.
|,||Science Fiction||Rogue||Wells, Martha||2021-01-24T03:31:05.000Z|
|The Lost Future of Pepperharrow||Natasha Pulley||
After enjoying The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I had to read the sequel. It did not disappoint. Thaniel and Keita travel to Meiji-era Japan, to witness the struggle of the newly-opened nation with the forces of colonialization. Keita’s clairvoyance, strange electrical experiments on the cliffs of Yokohama, and ghosts in the Embassy are a fantastical plot layered on the rich tapestry of a Japan just emerging from feudalism.
|Feynman||Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick||
A graphic novel about Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman? For real?
Yes, and it’s a wonderful story. This may be the only graphic novel you’ll ever read that will teach you about quantum chromodynamics. (It’s more approachable than it sounds.)
Feynman was a larger-than-life character, well suited for a treatment like this. More than physics, Feynman was involved in many projects from the Manhattan project to the Challenger disaster commission. And he loved playing the bongo drums. (There is math here; don’t sweat if you’re not into it. It’s in the background so you can skip it if you want.)
This is a review of the paperback edition. It may be more difficult to view on a kindle because of the details in the drawings.
|,||Non Fiction||Science||Ottaviani, Jim,Myrick, Leland||2021-04-04T21:04:13.000Z|
Richard Mayhew lived a normal life in London, until he helped a stranger on the street. Now no one can see him, or remember him. He’s entered London Below, a shadow city of everything fantastical, both good and evil.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Top Ten||Gaiman, Neil||2021-02-04T19:28:27.000Z|
|The Engines of God||Jack McDevitt||
Humans have found alien monuments on many planets. All different, all beautiful. And they just might hold the key to our survival.
|,||Science Fiction||Archaelogy,Cultures,Aliens,Exploration,Top Ten||McDevitt, Jack||2021-02-04T19:17:48.000Z|
|Midnight Robber||Nalo Hopkinson||
On the Caribbean-settled world of Toussaint, life seems a paradise, though a well-monitored one. Everyone has a job, automatons do the thankless tasks. Criminals are banished to the alternate dimension of New Halfway Tree. When Tan-Tan’s father is banished, Tan-Tan impulsively goes with him. There, impoverished and abused, she takes refuge in the Midnight Robber persona, a character from legend. Full of Caribbean patois, legends, Hopkinson has imagined a world richly different from our own.
|,||Fantasy,Science Fiction||Cultures||Hopkinson, Nalo||2021-01-24T22:32:57.000Z|
|Mary||Brea Grant, Yishan Li||
Mary is a regular teenager. Angsty, feeling a bit lost, having a hard time in school, family troubles… But Mary is also the descendant of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and every female member of her family since then has been a great author, so the pressure is on! But what if that’s not what SHE wants to be? Then, with the help of a group of wacky but loyal companions, she embraces a secret talent that has nothing to do with writing but everything to do with who she is.
|,||Fantasy,Graphic Novel||Magic,Historical||Grant, Brea,Li, Yishan||2021-01-31T21:31:44.000Z|
|Clockwork Boys||T. Kingfisher||
A forger, a scholar, an assassin, and a paladin, all misfits, are sent to stop an unstoppable enemy. A darkly funny story of people overcoming their differences to overcome impossible odds.
|Implied Spaces||Walter Jon Williams||
Implied spaces are those unintended elements that exist, just because something has to fill the void between the spaces that are deliberately created. This metaphor starts with architecture, but the swordsman and scholar Aristide extends it to the created worlds, societies, and pocket universes of post-singularity humanity. He discovers a plot emanating from the implied spaces that threatens to destroy all that he created, from a nemesis who can match or exceed Aristide’s nearly god-like powers.
|,||Science Fiction||Singularity||Williams, Walter Jon||2021-01-22T14:14:47.000Z|
|The Watchmaker of Filigree Street||Natasha Pulley||
Thaniel, a telegraph clerk, finds a watch on this pillow that forecasts a bomb blast six months in the future. After this proves be accurate, he makes the acquaintance of watchmaker Mori, along with his whimsical creations, which include a mechanical octopus. Set in Victorian London and Meiji-era Japan, the story is full of humor, quirky characters, and twisty plots. The writing is engaging, with many colorful turns of phrase. Highly recommended.
|Junkyard Cats||Faith Hunter||
In the ruins of America after WWIII, there is a scrapyard, guarded over by the woman formerly known as Shining Smith. She’s more than she seems, as are most things in the scrapyard, including the cats. Mess with them at your peril, as a biker gang finds out.
|Science Fiction||Cyberpunk,Post-Apocalypse||Hunter, Faith||2021-01-24T03:45:33.000Z|
|A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking||T. Kingfisher||
I haven’t had this much fun with a book since the last Terry Pratchett novel I read.
Mona is a wizard who works in a bakery. Her one skill is to get bread dough to do what she wants. But when the city comes under attack and almost all the other wizards are assassinated, Mona rises to the challenge.
With smart, slightly dark writing, witty characters, and a homicidal sourdough starter, this is a joy from start to finish.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Young Adult,Humor||Kingfisher, T.||2021-01-24T03:41:00.000Z|
|A Desolation Called Peace||Arkady Martine||
In book two of the Teixcalaan saga, the Empire confronts the deadly and non-communicative aliens on the far side of Lsel station space. Ambassador Dzmare of Lsel and Three Seagrass of Teixcalaan are summoned to attempt the impossible task of negotiating with an enemy that doesn’t talk. Since this is the Empire, politics is everywhere: in the ministries, in the fleet, and in the Palace. And Dzmare has lost the trust of both Lsel and the Empire by trying to do the right thing instead of what either side wanted.
The depiction of the Empire is as lush and detailed as the previous book, as it takes into corners we haven’t see before. The aliens area also a fresh and unusual take on how truly different a species can be. If the book has a theme, it’s how difficult it can be to communicate — between species, between cultures, between ideologies, and even between friends.
|Science Fiction||Aliens,Cultures,Galactic Empire,LGBTQ||Martine, Arkady||2021-11-18T13:17:14.000Z|
|The Martian Chronicles||Ray Bradbury||
When Earthlings venture to Mars, they find wonders and terrors, strange beings, and unimagined dangers. A classic collection of mystical tales of an enigmatic future.
|,||Science Fiction||Top Ten||Bradbury, Ray||2021-02-04T19:10:11.000Z|
|The Quantum Magician||Derek Künsken||
Singularity Cyberpunk, caged gods and their obligate worshipers, a satisfyingly complex con job and grand heist, and an epic space battle. The execution is outstanding, the pacing is excellent, and the characters have distinct and interesting voices. On top of all this are meditations on what it means to be human, carried on from the points of view of four engineered lines of specialized humans plus the baselines, to say nothing of the AI that believes it’s the reincarnation of Saint Matthew. The character arcs for the main players were all satisfyingly developed. A very satisfying read.
|,||Science Fiction||Singularity,Cyberpunk||Künsken, Derek||2021-01-22T14:08:36.000Z|
A short read – especially for Sanderson. A near-future police agency has the ability to replay a day in the life of the city in minute detail and insert detectives to investigate crimes that happened in the past. On this day, a troubled detective is assigned two cases with his partner, but he has an agenda beyond what he’s been assigned.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:23:55.000Z|
|Lord of Emperors||Guy Gavriel Kay||
In this two-volume tale, Guy Gavriel Kay assembles, stone by glittering stone, the tale of a master mosaicist, Caius Crispus, who is summoned to perform the commission of a lifetime by the emperor of Sarantium. Crispen journeys from a small, plague-stricken town that has claimed his family and his joy of life, to the glittering capital that is the analog of our Constantinople. He must make his way through Byzantine plots and tensions while maintaining his integrity and honor. Among those, how does he weigh the images of the official religion of the empire, against those pagan avatars that have more directly touched his life, knowing that those are considered as subversive by many in Sarantium. Kay’s prose is lyrical and rich, whether describing the way that a mosaicist perceives light and color in ways that you may not, or the way in which a chariot racer perceives the patterns in the dust and chaos of a chariot race. The two-volume set completes Crispin’s arc through his commission, his career, and his journey of self-discovery.
|,||Fantasy||Historical||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-22T14:07:53.000Z|
|The Graveyard Book||Neil Gaiman||
As a toddler, Bod takes refuge in a graveyard when a man named Jack comes in the night to kill his family. The kindly ghosts look after him, and teach him what they remember of life, and skills they have learned, such as how to Fade. They know that some day, Bod will have to leave the graveyard. And when he does, the man Jack will be waiting for him.
This is a beautiful and evocative story, about a coming-of-age that is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
|,||Fantasy||Occult,Top Ten,Young Adult,Humor||Gaiman, Neil||2021-01-24T21:58:36.000Z|
|Machine of Death||Ryan North||
Ryan North posed a question to his friends, assorted writers and cartoonists: “What if a machine could tell you how you are going to die, with complete accuracy?” This result is this book, thirty-four short stories taking on this theme. How would you change your life if the machine said ‘DROWNED’ or ‘OLD AGE?’ And what if there were more than one way to interpret that prediction?
These stories are funny, poignant, inspiring, and more. They explore how some people might use their foreknowledge to try to escape their fate, and others might use it to give meaning to their lives, or their deaths. Each story is a unique take on this premise, and they’re all worth reading.
|,||Science Fiction||Humor||North, Ryan||2021-06-17T02:03:02.000Z|
Hannu Rajaniemi imagines a world that diverged from our own, not into the brass technology of steampunk, but into a world where the dead can be communicated with by Marconi’s devices, a world of ectophones, ectotanks, and spirit cages.
Take that backdrop and mix it with a pre-WWII tale of espionage, and you have a story that keeps you guessing until the end. The two main characters weave a braided path through the narrative, each commanding the reader’s sympathies though often appearing to be on opposing sides. The world of the spy, where nothing is what it seems, is mirrored by the world in which it is set, where our history has been turned on its ear by contact with the land of the dead, yet still manages to play out most of the conflicts that marked our history. The story is told with a minimum of explanation; one of the pleasures and one of the challenges of this book is figuring out how this world works, how it diverged from our own, and how some of our historical figures would have reacted in these game-changing circumstances.
|,||Science Fiction||Historical,Cyberpunk||Rajaniemi, Hannu||2021-01-22T14:18:59.000Z|
|The Long Earth||Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter||
A genius has invented a simple device that anyone can build, powered by a potato. When activated, the holder can step into alternate earths, all of them completely empty of humanity. An explosion of settlement, exploration, or simply escape follows, disrupting every facet of life on the base earth.
The story focuses on Joshua, who hides that he can step between earths even though his device is broken, and Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, reincarnated as a supercomputer. Between the cutscenes of people settling the new earths and those left at home dealing with the aftermath (very much Baxter-style), the duo set off on a cross-multiverse journey to find the meaning of it all. (If the motorcycle repairman didn’t clue you in, this is Pratchett spoofing a book from the sixties.) I don’t if it was intended, but I got a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe from their voyage, with Lobsang in the role of the driven and slightly deranged Nemo.
Of course, there were the Pratchettisms scattered throughout, stamping it as one of his:
I waited this long to read it because of a few negative reviews that this was neither Discworld nor Moonseed. I think it’s something different and better, a melding of the two.
|,||Science Fiction||Adventure,Epic,Humor||Pratchett, Terry,Baxter, Stephen||2021-08-19T13:13:36.000Z|
|Stranger in a Strange Land||Robert Heinlein||
Michael Valentine Smith, raised by Martians, must learn how to be human. In the process, he teaches his family and followers how to be more than human. This classic from the early sixties is still relevant today.
|,||Science Fiction||Top Ten||Heinlein, Robert||2021-02-04T19:07:27.000Z|
|The Beekeeper’s Apprentice||Laurie R. King||
Young Mary Russell runs into the retired Sherlock Holmes on the downs of Sussex and proves to be as acerbic and sharp-eyed as the old master. They strike up a friendship that grows over time, as Sherlock gradually begins allowing Mary to assist in his cases. This Sherlock is a touch more human than Doyle’s; perhaps it’s the times, perhaps it’s the narrator. But this is Mary Russell’s story, and she’s a good choice to carry on the tradition.
|,||Fantasy||Historical||King, Laurie R.||2021-01-24T21:51:27.000Z|
|A Night in the Lonesome October||Roger Zelazny||
An old favorite of mine, which I pull out to read every October. Narrated by Snuff, the watchdog of an occult practitioner named Jack, the thirty-one short chapters chronicle the thirty-one days of a particular October. A group has gathered to play an ancient game with high stakes. The tale is told through the familiars of the (mostly) human players as they negotiate to alternately aid and confuse the other teams. But you can’t say which team you’re on until the last moment.
|The Golem and the Jinni||Helene Wecker||
The tale of two supernatural beings who meet where the Jewish and Syrian cultures rub up against each other in Manhattan in 1900 New York. It brings the times and places to life in a way that reminded me of Middlesex, while telling the tale of these two beings, whose lives are more intertwined than any could imagine. I loved the pace and texture of this story. Slow, yes, but everything is there for a reason.
|The Lions of Al-Rassan||Guy Gavriel Kay||
A physician and two warlords have their fates intertwined in the divided land of Al-Rassan.
|,||Fantasy||Historical,Cultures||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-24T14:43:44.000Z|
|The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth||John Garth||
Renowned Tolkien expert John Garth takes the reader on a surprising exploration of Tolkien’s life and how the places he knew, visited, and read about shaped his writings. The Shire, Rivendell, Mirkwood, Gondor, Mordor – many places and cultures in Middle Earth were inspired by real places across Europe as well as Africa and even America, and beautiful illustrations and photos help to bring the journey to life. Truly a treat for anyone interested in delving “under the hood” of Tolkien’s world, and even includes tantalizing tidbits from earlier versions of published works, from when Middle Earth was much more closely tied to England in Tolkien’s mind.
|,||Non Fiction||Historical||Garth, John||2021-01-24T23:16:08.000Z|
|The Haunting of Tram Car 015||P. Djèlí Clark||
In a slightly different Cairo, in 1912, the Djinn have been set free upon the land and magic is everywhere. So it’s a normal day when Inspector Hamed Nasr of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is assigned to investigate reports of a haunted tram car. What he finds is neither within his experience or his budget, so improvisation is the order of the day. It doesn’t help that the Station is packed with suffragettes that day, demanding the right to vote.
This is a richly-designed alternate world, with a middle-eastern steampunk vibe (call it magicpunk perhaps). It paints a picture of how the region might look if the northern European powers had been tossed out and the country left to chart its own course. It’s also a great example of what writers call a try-fail cycle, where everything the protagonists try blows up in their faces, but provides a clue to the eventual solution. This is a novella in a longer series; it has plenty of background to be a standalone story, and a good introduction to draw you into the series. I’ve added the next full-length novel to my reading list.
|,||Fantasy||Urban Fantasy,Magic,Alternate History||Clark, P. Djèlí||2021-11-04T23:26:57.000Z|
|Rendezvous with Rama||Arthur C. Clark||
A survey craft finds a alien artifact as large a small world as it slingshots around the sun. In a few short weeks they try to learn its secrets before it leaves the solar system forever. In the warmth of the sun, automatic systems awaken to do housekeeping. But where are the builders?
|,||Science Fiction||Exploration,Top Ten,Aliens||Clark, Arthur C.||2021-02-04T18:56:49.000Z|
It took me too long to pick up this book. The teaser on Amazon does not do it justice. The description is lackluster for a volume so full of ideas, philosophy, humor, and emotion. If you haven’t read it, get it today. Read on for why.
The setting is simple enough. A tsunami wipes out a village, leaving only a single surviving boy. It also drives aground an English ship, leaving only a single surviving Victorian-era girl. Together Mau and Daphne learn to communicate and to survive on the island. Gradually, the survivors of other islands trickle in. From the bits of many islands, they start to build a new nation.
What this misses (as does the teaser on Amazon) is the humor on every page, humor that not only delights but makes you rethink the things he makes fun of. It’s easy to say that the game of cricket is silly, but to really puncture it you need to read the scene where an Englishman tries to teach the game to the islanders. Imperialism, religion, propriety, and more are all skewered in this way.
The two protagonists are on the edge of adulthood when their futures are ripped away. They initially want to find a way to regain their future. As they grow and face their challenges, they find that what they need to do is find a better future, and let go of their preconceptions of what that future should contain.
In the end, this book is about belief. Not the belief that religion preaches. There are iconic representations of both western and island religions, that turn out to be insufficient to deal with the new world. Belief in themselves and in other people makes their new future worth living.
|,||Fantasy||Cultures,Young Adult,Humor||Pratchett, Terry||2021-01-21T13:32:11.000Z|
|City of Stairs||Robert Jackson Bennett||
The Continent was once ruled by seven gods, until one man found out how to kill them. Their miracles died with them, leaving all they built a crumpled ruin. Their very mention was outlawed and their history was rewritten. Now a historian has been murdered for finding what was forbidden, and Shara, grandaughter of the man who killed the gods, must unearth the plot. Fantasy mixed with espionage and murder mystery, beautifully written.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Epic,Quest||Bennett, Robert Jackson||2021-01-24T03:19:55.000Z|
|Downward to the Earth||Robert Silverberg||
The planet of Belzagor had two intelligent species. The Nildoror looked like elephants so the humans employed them as menial laborers. Eventually forced to relinquish the planet to the original inhabitants, a man named Gunderson comes back for a pilgrimage to atone for sins committed while under his watch. In learning more about the Nildoror and Sulidoror, he learns more about himself than he was prepared to learn.
This is the type of journey of discovery that Silverberg does so well. This particular gem was out of publication for a long time until it was finally republished.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc,Cultures||Silverberg, Robert||2021-01-24T02:34:03.000Z|
|Ghost Talkers||Mary Robinette Kowal||
The Spirit Corps gathers intelligence from the front in WWI – by summoning and interviewing the freshly-killed ghosts of soldiers. But the Germans may have learned of their existence, and planted a spy – or a saboteur. Historical fiction|romance|murder mystery|spy thriller|ghost story. This novel stirs all of that seamlessly into an entertaining tale, and also touches on the racism and sexism of that era without being preachy.
|,||Fantasy||Historical,Occult||Kowal, Mary Robinette||2021-01-24T03:11:40.000Z|
|Nine Princes in Amber||Roger Zelazny||
Amber is the one true realm, of which all others are shadows. Corwin, Prince of Amber, awakens from a coma in a hospital, and starts on the path the leads back to the throne of Amber. A pack of playing cards that can summon his allies and enemies is his first clue to his destiny.
|,||Fantasy||Epic,Magic,Top Ten||Zelazny, Roger||2021-02-04T19:23:35.000Z|
|The Big Score||K. J. Parker||
Saloninus has a problem. He faked his own death to escape his creditors, and suddenly his plays are worth far more than when he was alive. How to cash in?
He’s neither as dead nor untraceable as he had hoped when an old colleague finds him. She’s a forger and sometime romantic interest (who doesn’t appear to have a romantic bone in her rapacious soul). She enlists (coerces) him into her scheme that will make them that one spectacular score that will allow them to retire forever, despite the failure of their previous scores to live up to their equally high bidding. Saloninus’s main worry – how is she going to betray him this time?
Delightfully witty, sarcastic, and satirical, this short novella is a good way to spend an evening or two.
|Fantasy||Heist,Rogue,Thief||Parker, K. J.||2021-08-19T13:06:01.000Z|
|The Flaw in All Magic||Ben Dobson||
Tane Carver fakes his way into a University of magic despite having no abilities of his own, solely because he has an unparalleled grasp of theory. When he’s found out, he isn’t rewarded, he’s expelled. But then a murder occurs, and he’s the only one who can solve it.
Dodson has created a world of magical creatures and half-breeds that defy the usual stereotypes, starting with the female half-orc policeman who decides that Tane is going to be her partner, no matter what he says. The story is light and amusing and the twists are clever. This is good entertainment that has fun upending a lot of tropes.
The ash-covered land has been ruled with an iron hand for a thousand years. Now a band of misfits has rediscovered an ancient alchemy that gives them hope of overthrowing that rule. A heist novel, an epic fantasy, and one of the best magic systems ever invented.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Top Ten,Epic,Adventure||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-02-04T19:30:49.000Z|
|Homebody||Orson Scott Card||
From the author of Ender’s Game, a ghost story in modern-day Greensboro, NC. Don Lark is trying to get his life back together after the death of his wife and daughter and a mountain of ruinous legal bills. He buys houses, renovates them, and resells them at a profit, and the parallels with his life journey are not lost on him. His latest project is a (formerly) grand southern mansion with a long history. It also comes with modern-day baggage: a cheerful real-estate agent with a duplicitous partner, very sweet but odd neighbors who warn him about the house, and a squatter living in the attic. But then it seems that the house wants to object to his renovation plans…
I wouldn’t place this among Card’s top-tier works. For instance, there’s what seems a major plot thread in the beginning that just vanishes halfway through. It’s still an engrossing and properly spooky tale to read on a dark winter evening. Try to find a comfortable old house that creaks in the wind to read it in.
|Fantasy||Occult,Character Arc||Card, Orson Scott||2021-11-19T01:35:27.000Z|
|The Lost World of the Old Ones||David Roberts||
Desert philosopher, seeker of ancient civilizations, and expert rock climber David Roberts tells of his adventures of the last 20 years exploring remote archaeological sites from central Utah to Northern Mexico.
|,||Non Fiction||Archaelogy,Cultures||Roberts, David||2021-01-24T15:57:23.000Z|
|Quillifer the Knight||Walter Jon Williams||
Rogue, womanizer, son of butcher, and now knight of the realm. Quillifer carves himself a life in the court of the queen that he helped to the throne, and holds it against those who were born to the court and resent his intrusion. Quillifer will take on any challenge, but never in the way his opponents expect, preferring to win by wit rather than force. But will that work against his worst enemy, the goddess he offended who has sworn his ruin?
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Magic,Rogue||Williams, Walter Jon||2021-01-24T03:26:38.000Z|
|Monster Portaits||Sofia Samatar||
What are monsters? Do they come from our subconscious, or do they look at us from the mirror?
Sofia Samatar writes a series of dense, poetic portraits of creatures from mythology accompanied by illustrations by her brother Del. Her language has layers of meaning to unpack as you decide whether she is speaking of the myth, society, or oneself. (Often all three.) Each piece is short, one to two pages, giving you time to consider before turning to the next.
I enjoyed this, but acknowledge it’s not for everyone. Take a look at the free preview on Amazon and decide if it’s for you.
|I Shall Wear Midnight||Terry Pratchett||
Tiffany Aching is a young witch, learning the tedious, simple tasks that her community depends on. When a shadow falls over the land, Tiffany has strength that even the elder witches do not. Not the first book in the Tiffany Aching series, but the finest of them all.
|,||Fantasy||Young Adult,Magic,Humor,Top Ten||Pratchett, Terry||2021-02-04T19:26:21.000Z|
|American Gods||Neil Gaiman||
Shadow is employed by the mysterious Mr Wednesday after he is released from prison. He tells Shadow that the old gods are gathering, and there is a reckoning coming. Shadow is skeptical, but the pay is good. But strange things keep happening wherever Mr Wednesday goes…
|,||Fantasy||Cultures,Magic,Top Ten,Character Arc||Gaiman, Neil||2021-02-04T19:20:16.000Z|
Redshirts starts off like a bad SciFi novel. And that‘s the point. Andy Dahl realizes that a posting to the Universal Union‘s flagship isn‘t the opportunity he thought it was. Why does the bridge crew always lead the away teams personally, and why does some low-ranking ensign always end up dead? Why do officers make snap decisions that make no sense, other than they‘re dramatically appropriate? And why are the laws of physics suspended just in time to save the ship? Most of the crew just ducks any hazardous assignment but Andy and his crewmates are determined to find a reason for the madness. Their journey becomes even stranger than one of their away missions. Redshirts is a wickedly funny satirical sendup of popular but flawed SciFi shows of today and yesteryear.
|,||Science Fiction||Humor||Scalzi, John||2021-03-17T12:17:28.000Z|
|Ekho: New York||Christophe Arleston||
Fourmille Gratule is on a flight to New York when a strange creature accosts her with a request. When she lands in New York, she is no longer in a 747. She disembarks from a dragon into a strange and magical Manhattan in a world called Ekho. Her seatmate Yuri, a computer nerd whom she had never met, is dragged along in her vortex. The grumpy Yuri just wants to go home but ends up helping the vivacious Fourmille on her quest.
The world is full of magical creatures, but little squirrels called Preshauns seem to run the place. Their dark secrets seem to be tied up with the role that Fourmille has been given to play out. They try to sideline her but haven’t counted on her own brand of chaos.
The dialog is bright and humorous and the artwork is gorgeous. Buckle up for a wild ride.
|Fantasy,Graphic Novel||Magic||Arleston, Christophe||2021-02-02T00:55:24.000Z|
|The Mote in God’s Eye||Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle||
Humanity’s first contact with aliens – three-armed beings bottled up on their world by an accident of cosmic geometry. They’re inventive and charming, and quite possibly dangerous.
|,||Science Fiction||Aliens,Adventure,Top Ten||Niven, Larry,Pournelle, Jerry||2021-02-04T19:12:08.000Z|
|Good Omens||Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett||
The apocalypse is next week, after teatime. The forces of darkness and light are both pushing for it, because that’s what it’s all about, after all. Plans have been in motion for eons.
For the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale, it’s not so black and white. Crowley has had to keep the plan on track by doing what could be called, in the right light, good deeds. And Aziraphale has had some orders that don’t sit well with him either. They both agree that there’s a lot to like about these humans, once you get close to them. The Four Horsemen are riding, and the traffic jam of doom stands between them and the Antichrist. Who, in an embarrassment for both sides, seems to have been misplaced.
Two masters of understated and dark humor join forces to prophesy the end of the world. Even if you’ve seen the miniseries that was made from this, pick up the book as well.
|,||Fantasy||Humor,Occult||Gaiman, Neil,Pratchett, Terry||2021-07-19T14:22:18.000Z|
|The Devil You Know||K. J. Parker||
As an old man, Saloninus summons a devil to make a deal: give him 20 more years of life and serve his every wish, in exchange for Saloninus’s mortal soul. Since Saloninus is the world’s foremost playwright and inventor, the devil thinks this a good deal. But Saloninus is also the world’s foremost con artist. As the twenty years drag on, the devil becomes more and more worried about the things Saloninus is asking for.
The book is full of Parker’s biting humor and signature tricksy protagonist. If Saloninus seems full of himself and too good to be true, remember that he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator – a playwright. In his own words, “I can write the most profound things without actually meaning them. I can persuade people of things I don’t believe myself, or (more usually) simply don’t care about.”
Amazon and Goodreads disagree on the order of the series of three novellas that this is part of, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all quite independent.
|,||Fantasy||Heist,Rogue,Thief||Parker, K. J.||2021-08-19T12:58:53.000Z|
|The Twelve Dragons of Albion||Mark Hayden||
Someone has stolen a dragon’s egg, which is pretty close to saying someone has stolen a thermonuclear device. Conrad has little magic of his own (he can dowse, and that’s about it), and his magical weapon has been impounded until he can get safety training. Still, he’s the best candidate for the job, along with his partner Vicky. They set off across the Welsh countryside to answer the question, “Who would steal a weapon that no one can control?”
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Occult,Urban Fantasy||Hayden, Mark||2021-07-04T19:48:57.000Z|
|Harmony Lost||Stella Jorette||
London, 1969. Pam Davis wakes up in a hospital with a sense that nothing’s familiar, not even her own body. It’s like she was beamed in from somewhere else. She also finds that remnants of the previous resident of the body are still there, and she’s angry.
Pam finds she’s married to a rock musician who is playing small gigs and dreaming of making it big. With a sensible, project-management attitude and a large dose of kindness-never-hurts, she takes over the band management to make those dreams reality. Her first hurdle is the band, because that’s not at all who she was before ending up in the hospital. Along the way she runs into sexist industry managers who won’t give her anything more than a leer, corrupt club owners, and a vindictive show organizer who will do anything to make them fail. The mystery of Pam unravels slowly through the book as she finds there are others like her, each with a different clue.
The writing reflects the raw, chaotic London music scene and the cultural turmoil of that era, even though it’s not quite our 1969 either. The caricatures of British bands and their denizens are good fun, and their antics are appropriately madcap. Overall, a very enjoyable read.
|Fantasy||Time Travel,Alternate History||Jorette, Stella||2021-11-19T02:56:07.000Z|
|House of Rain||Craig Childs||
House of Rain is one of those rare books that may change you forever. It’s not destined to have that affect on everyone, but for those with even a passing interest in the ancient Anasazi culture of the American Southwest (think Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon), this book is a page-turner. While archaeology can seem like a dry subject, Craig Childs is a different kind of archaeologist. Part scientist, part adventurer, and occasional mystic, he seems driven by a passion not just to discover and understand, but to FEEL.
He uses the power of archaeological research and analysis mixed with his remarkable knowledge of the desert itself to build up an understanding of ancient people like layers on a painting, giving them the details that are often missing from a purely scientific approach. He seeks out their motivations, joys, sorrows, aspirations, and tragic ends. Is he absolutely right in all his inferences? Sometimes yes, other times perhaps not, but that may not be the point. There are many sources of information about the Ancient Puebloan cultures that stick strictly to known, established data and analysis. The true value of this book is in the intelligent, informed questions it asks and the unique literal and figurative paths it explores through Childs’ almost lyrical writing. His theories aren’t completely out there, but he isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers with unorthodox thinking and his style of writing is engaging and thought-provoking, liberally sprinkled with vivid descriptions and entertaining tales of his adventures in the desert backcountry.
House of Rain has a structure that is almost a story within a story, which ties the various anecdotes and vignettes together as he slowly builds his case for the explanation of the mysterious vanishing of the Anasazi around the 13th century AD. As a long-time archaeology fanatic (who actually minored in archaeology as an accompaniment to my anthropology major) and with a longtime interest in the Ancient Puebloan peoples of the Southwest, I found the final chapters of this book almost breathtaking. Childs looks deeper at the holes in the ground and the scant remains of a past civilization, as well as the environment in which they lived to discern amongst the detrius, fleeting glimpses what their lives were truly about.
|,||Non Fiction||Cultures,Anthropology,Archaelogy||Childs, Craig||2021-01-22T04:22:09.000Z|
|Catfishing on Catnet||Naomi Kritzer||
One of Steph Taylor’s few escapes is CatNet, a place to share pictures of cats and socialize with other teenagers. Steph isn’t allowed to really make friends outside, since her mother picks them up and moves to a new town every few months, telling Steph that her abusive ex-husband is tracking them.
CheshireCat is the benevolent moderator of CatNet, who seems to always be online, always available, and capable of finding out nearly everything. CheshireCat may not be a person at all, or at least not a human-type person. When CheshireCat starts helping the teenagers with some real-world hijinks, Steph’s cover is blown and they’re on the run again. But this time she has friends and a very capable mentor. But CheshireCat has secrets and a different kind of vulnerability, and the friends have to help CheshireCat as well.
This is a story of friendship, belonging, helping out, and winning causes. It explores what it means to be a person, and why it’s important to fight for the inclusion of everyone, no matter how different. Plus it’s just downright fun.
|,||Science Fiction||AI,Humor,Young Adult||Kritzer, Naomi||2021-05-19T00:37:49.000Z|
|Under Heaven||Guy Gavriel Kay||
This is now my favorite book this year. Set in a fantasy realm analog to Tang Dynasty China, minor noble Shen Tai carries out a two-year vigil and is rewarded by a princess with a gift of 250 magnificent horses. The question is whether he will survive the gift. The assassin arrives two pages later. Tai navigates the undercurrents of the court, the ambition of powerful men and women, and the enmity of his brother. If he doesn’t keep his balance …
|,||Fantasy||Historical,Cultures||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-24T04:01:25.000Z|
Otherland starts out with threads that are each fascinating, but seem unrelated. The main one follows a professor in a South African university, whose brother is comatose after an encounter in virtual reality, launching her into an investigation of powerful forces shaping the world for their own gain. Hang on, because some of these threads don’t tie together until nearly the end, but tie in they do, in unsuspected ways.
|,||Science Fiction||Cyberpunk,Quest,Adventure||Williams, Tad||2021-01-24T03:58:03.000Z|
|The Hollowing||Robert Holdstock||
Book 3 of the Mythago Wood Cycle travels further into the seemingly small yet impossibly vast haunted woodland of Ryhope, where space and time turn back on themselves and dreams (and nightmares) become reality. This time a young boy loses himself in the forest and is believed dead. Years later his father learns that his son may still live, preserved as a young child in the strange timeline of the wood. With the help of explorers studying the wood, he mounts a search for him. But the boy’s own powerful imagination has conjured sinister “mythagos” to protect him.
|In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns||Elizabeth Bear||
In the city of Bangalor, India, fifty years in our future, a murder is committed. Sub-Inspector Ferron is called in to investigate. This is the simple beginning to this short tale, which proves to be neither simple nor short by the end of its 77 pages.
In Sub-Inspector Ferron, Bear conveys a three-dimensional character, not by dumping a page of backstory as so many authors do, but by weaving a tapestry whose threads extend off the page, connecting her to her mother, her relatives, her career choice, her culture and colleagues, and even her choice of name. This is done with economy of words; after the first paragraph describing the highly unusual crime scene, Bear drops in wryly, “Ferron was going to be late visiting her mother after work tonight.”
As the fairly standard investigation of this non-standard crime proceeds, Ferron’s relationship with her mother forms an important thread. Everyone who has dealt with parental disapproval of career or lifestyle choices, parental addictions, or parental insolvency, will recognize the patterns, though the thread from which they’re woven is new and unfamiliar. We would consider cell phones, internet service, and cable TV necessities today, which would seem as strange to someone from fifty years in our past as the needs of these characters seem to us. Are the true necessities of life timeless, or a product of our times?
The culture of India is the backdrop to this story, taking few words but adding the flavoring of cardamom and coriander to the mixture. The icons of Ganesha, Aryamen, and Varuna in various locations, the Hindu names of the constellations, and the names and forms of address all add an exotic flavor (unless, of course, that happens to be the culture you hail from).
All of that is skewed by the placement fifty years in the future. That not only makes the crime possible, but carries an implicit history of our future that gives hope that we will solve many of our problems. The populace lives an energy-frugal life, with integrated vertical farms in residential buildings, solar powered buses, pedicabs, and the mentioned but never quite explained “pedestrials”. Gratuitous travel has been curtailed so much by telepresence that having someone fly in for the case is a momentous event. And of course the bio-engineered pets that could have come from a Japanese anime form a whimsical but pivotal point in the story.
The final dimension, the axis that spindles through all of these layers, is the flickering star in Andromeda that provides the opportunity meditate as to what this all might mean from the perspective of billions of miles and millions of years.
When I began by saying that the story was neither simple nor short, despite the small page count, I meant that there is much that is implied, that extends beyond the edges of the page, or that fills in the gap between our time and that one. It left me with a number of points to ponder for the next few days. What more could one ask of a story?
|Science Fiction||Cultures||Bear, Elizabeth||2021-01-22T14:20:34.000Z|
|Penric’s Demon||Lois McMaster Bujold||
Going to the aid of a dying traveler on the road, a young lord finds himself suddenly bequeathed the demon that had possesed her. The demon brings powers, the memories of the twelve hosts it has had before, and new responsibilities and dangers that change his life forever. This is the beginning of the Penric and Desdemona saga, which spans eight novellas. Each is an evening’s reading, and each is a new chapter in the evolving relationship of Penric and his demon.
|,||Fantasy||Magic,Character Arc||Bujold, Lois McMaster||2021-01-24T22:40:02.000Z|
|Rainbow’s End||Vernor Vinge||
In a world enlarged by augmented reality, where smart clothes and smart lenses add layers of context and metadata to your experience, those who came to this experience late in life are at a disadvantage compared to the younger generation. Our foil in this story is Robert Gu, recently cured of Alzheimer’s, who is struggling to re-integrate with this society. His children and their friends introduce him to this world, with mixed results. One symbol of this change is the effort to digitize all the works in the University Library – an effort that will free the world’s knowledge to be used by all, at the cost of destroying the books themselves.
|,||Science Fiction||Cyberpunk||Vinge, Vernor||2021-01-22T14:04:58.000Z|
|The Foundation Trilogy||Isaac Asimov||
Using the mathematics of Pyschohistory, Hari Seldon predicts the downfall of Galactic civilization, and how to reboot it. Seldon establishes a Foundation to guide the Galaxy through the dark ages, preserving knowledge for the eventual renaissance. But there are more layers to Seldon’s plan than anyone knows.
|,||Science Fiction||Exploration,Top Ten,Galactic Empire||Asimov, Isaac||2021-02-04T18:52:01.000Z|
|A Brightness Long Ago||Guy Gavriel Kay||
Guy Gavriel Kay weaves a tale of an almost-Italy. Amid warring city-states and political intrigue, a young scholar, son of a tradesman, witnesses the rivalry between two of the most prominent mercenaries of the day. Beautifully written, with a pensive tone, this is a standalone extension to his Sarrantine history. His exquisite descriptions of several horse races that occur during the tale are worth the read all by themselves.
|,||Fantasy||Cultures,Historical||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-21T13:25:11.000Z|
|Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City||K. J. Parker||
The army and the navy are away from the city when the invasion force shows up. Standing between them and the ruin of the city: an engineer, a liar, a crook, and a forger. These all happen to be the same man. Orhan, a milkface who cannot be a citizen in this land, rallies his corps of engineers to the defense. A fascinating look at a siege from the engineers who make all the defenses and the siege weapons, as well as wicked social satire.
|,||Fantasy||Character Arc,Humor||Parker, K. J.||2021-01-24T03:48:01.000Z|
|Quillifer||Walter Jon Williams||
Quillifer is a silver-tongued law student who has a penchant for talking himself out of, or more often into, all sorts of scrapes and predicaments. At first he is concerned with little more than getting into and then out of the chambers of the latest girl to strike his fancy. Then his town is sacked and he must accept a new life, even becoming a soldier and a sailor. Even here, he employs his charm more than his sword, though he does find that you disappoint a goddess who you have charmed at your own peril.
|,||Fantasy||Quest,Character Arc,Rogue||Williams, Walter Jon||2021-01-22T14:13:22.000Z|
Can a biologist who studies the spawning habits of salmon in the Pacific Northwest help solve the mystery of the great lifeless void in the galaxy? If you’re Dr. Mackenzie Connor, the answer is, “Hell no, leave me alone with my fish.” Even when the request comes from the first representative of the alien Ohryn race to visit Earth. Unfortunately for her research, Mac isn’t given a choice.
Her research station is destroyed and her colleague Emily is kidnapped, dragging Mac into the conflict between the Ohryn and the Ro, creatures not entirely of this dimension. As Mac uncovers lairs of the mystery, it turns out that a biologist is exactly what they needed. It all comes down to the biological needs of each species. Salmon must swim upstream, and … something … is impelled to devour whatever it finds.
|,||Science Fiction||Aliens,Cultures,Survival||Czerneda, Julie||2021-06-05T21:50:24.000Z|
|The Last Continent||Terry Pratchett||
It‘s a Discworld novel, so anything‘s fair game, including all the tropes from Down Under. (No, a trope is not a marsupial.) The Wizards of Unseen University go in search of a missing colleague, who seems to have a portal to a beach in his bathroom. They meet the god of evolution, hard at work but missing the point of natural selection. Then they wash up on the continent of Fourecks, nearly on the rim of the world. Rincewind and the Luggage have also landed there, and the two groups are bound to meet, even though they have arrived thirty thousand years apart. On the way to that meeting, Pratchett skewers all the popular cultural images of Australia, from crocodiles and their hunters, to the beer, the opera hall, and more. It‘s a grand romp. No worries.
|The Kingdoms||Natasha Pulley||
The Battle of Trafalgar was a pivotal moment in English history. Life would have been very different if the French fleet hadn’t been trapped and sunk in that engagement. When Joe Tournier steps off the train at Londres, Gare du Roi, he has no memory of his past, but does have a conviction that the world isn’t right. His only clue is a postcard with a picture of a lighthouse on the North Sea, off the coast of Lewis Island. It’s a pivot point of history.
Joe has to stay out of mental asylums, escape from slavery, and work his way back through the memories of the past. Except there may have been more than one of those.
This is great historical fiction and alternate history besides. I look forward to each of Natasha Pulley’s new books, and this has been no exception.
|,||Fantasy||Historical,Time Travel||Pulley, Natasha||2021-08-05T20:06:16.000Z|
|Dragon Pearl||Yoon Ha Lee||
A YA adventure in a universe peopled by creatures out of Korean legends: fox spirits, dragons, tigers, and ghosts. Min is a fox who runs away on a space freighter to find her lost brother and clear his name. She learns that she’s a good gi engineer, but can use some practice in trusting the right people.
|,||Science Fiction,Fantasy||Cultures,Heist||Lee, Yoon Ha||2021-01-24T21:47:00.000Z|
|The Bedlam Stacks||Natasha Pulley||
Before the events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (*****), Merrick Tremayne is sent to Peru to attempt to smuggle cuttings that produce quinine out of the country, to break their stranglehold on this life-saving drug. Among the remains of the Incan culture and the Spanish conquest, Merrick finds old legends, stone men, and an impossibly old priest with a secret that involves generations of Merrick’s own family.
|Terra Incognita (Ythaq #1)||Christophe Arleston||
A luxury space liner crashes on an uncharted planet, stranding two crew members and a hyper-entitled passenger in the wilds. They begin their trek to find a way home, evading mercenaries, evil rulers, and fanatically litigious villagers. Tired tropes (the capsule eaten by the giant undersea worm … I’ve seen that somewhere) are magnified into satire, while the world begins to look like Gulliver’s Travels. This is a fun romp from French graphic novel publisher Soleil.
|Science Fiction,Graphic Novel||Adventure||Arleston, Christophe||2021-09-05T12:43:47.000Z|
|The Calculating Stars||Mary Robinette Kowal||
In a slight variation from our history, a meteor lands on the East Coast of the US in 1952, wiping out most of the coastal cities. Elma York, a WASP pilot, mathematician, and lightning calculator, has the good fortune to be on vacation that day, and so survives the blast the destroyed her home.
Elma soon realizes that the climate will change rapidly and that humanity’s chance of survival depends on colonizing other planets. Kickstarting the space program a decade earlier than our timeline, they race to get people in orbit, then to the moon, then Mars. There’s one trouble: brilliant though Elma is, she’s a woman, and people don’t believe women can be astronauts.
The book explores how the space program could get off the ground before electronic computers, before miniaturization, and before the other advances that seemed necessary to us before an existential threat made it a do-or-die proposition. Just as much it explores how women, people of color, and people of other cultures have to fight to contribute and to have their contributions recognized.
|,||Science Fiction||Exploration,Survival,Science||Kowal, Mary Robinette||2021-05-19T01:02:27.000Z|
|Beholder’s Eye||Julie Czerneda||
A shapeshifter breaks the first rule of her kind and allows a human to learn what she is. It’s fortunate that she did, because she’ll need that friendship to sustain her when a predator threatens to make her the last of her kind. Julie Czerneda’s universe is full of a wonderful biological diversity and she connects her characters’ motives to their biological imperatives in a way that few other authors do.
|,||Science Fiction||Cultures||Czerneda, Julie||2021-01-24T02:36:52.000Z|
A generation ship left earth 500 years ago. Now damaged, it is filled with modified humans, angels, demons, and a manufactured religion. The warring factions must be united to repower the ship before the star goes nova. A young angel named Sir Perceval and her sister Rien are in the center of the war to retake the ship. A mix of biblical and Arthurian imagery, which mostly works but is sometimes jarring. Probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it
|,||Science Fiction||Cultures||Bear, Elizabeth||2021-01-24T03:06:30.000Z|
|Chaos on Catnet||Naomi Kritzer||
In the sequel to Catfishing on Catnet, Steph and her friends find that there’s another AI lose in the world. While their friend ChesireCat is all about helping people, this new AI seems bent on creating anarchy and conflict.
The friends become suspicious of popular new games, one social and one religious, that take on sinister undertones when the games lure the players into increasingly questionable actions. This thread demonstrates the power of peer pressure and misinformation to motivate people to act against their inner convictions.
As violence in the city escalates, CheshireCat and Steph race to find the other AI, and why two AIs from the same code base behave so differently. The story is set in Minneapolis, and Kritzer writes in the afterword how eerie was to be proofreading the nearly-finished book as the George Floyd incident incited the real-life Minneapolis riots.
|,||Science Fiction||AI,LGBTQ,Young Adult||Kritzer, Naomi||2021-06-17T02:25:39.000Z|
|Prince Ombra||Roderick MacLeish||
The apocalypse put me in mind of another favorite story. Prince Ombra is the lord of nightmares. He has brought war and strife to the world a thousand times. Each time, a hero is born to oppose him.
The thousand and first hero is born as usual, but this time Prince Ombra strikes early, when Bentley Ellicott is only nine, hoping to tip the balance forever in his favor.
This tale combines familiar elements — a hero, a companion, a wise elder advisor — with much that is unique and surprising. It’s a story that I’ve enjoyed through multiple readings. It appears to be out of print now, but used copies are still available.
To give you a flavor, here is how it begins:
This is a solid sequel to Skyward (reviewed in the November newsletter). Spensa continues fighting the aliens that have imprisoned humanity on the world of Detritus. When she has the opportunity to infiltrate the enemy as a pilot trainee for the other side, she seizes it with her usual lack of forethought. With her angsty AI M-Bot and pet Doomslug, she takes on the entire alien bureaucracy. I felt a few wisps of Douglas Adams-level satiric absurdity along the way to a satisfying conclusion
|,||Science Fiction||Young Adult,Character Arc||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:18:10.000Z|
|To be Taught, If Fortunate||Becky Chambers||
This is a beautifully-told tale of an exploration ship sent out to find new habitable worlds that Earth could settle, who continue long after their mission has been forgotten back home. There isn’t much plot, what there is is more of a meditation on why we explore the universe.
|,||Science Fiction||Exploration||Chambers, Becky||2021-01-24T03:36:35.000Z|
Spensa’s father was the best pilot of his time, but everyone knew that he ended his career in an act of cowardice. Spensa is determined to be an even better pilot and clear the family name, but no one wants to give her a chance. As she doggedly pursues her goal, she starts to find out that not everyone is her enemy, and that stories that everyone knows may not be true. A coming-of-age tale with lots of humor.
|,||Science Fiction||Young Adult,Character Arc,Post-Apocalypse,Quest||Sanderson, Brandon||2021-01-24T03:03:14.000Z|
|The Hands We’re Given||O. E. Tearmann||
In a future America — The United Corporations of America, that is — Aidan Headly is given the Wildcards as his first command. A famously unconventional band of misfits in the resistance forces, the Wildcards are now dysfunctional and insubordinate. As a new commander and a closet trans, is it a good idea to be drawn into a romance with a subordinate? Of course not, but this is the Wildcards, who specialize in taking bad ideas and making them work.
|,||Science Fiction||Post-Apocalypse,LGBTQ||Tearmann, O. E.||2021-01-24T03:52:21.000Z|
|The Encircling Sea||Adrian Goldsworthy||
Flavius Ferox, a British tribesman and Roman centurion is back in book 2 of the Vindolanda series about ancient Britain during the time of Emperor Trajan. Hibernian kings visit hoping to gain favor from the Romans, while reports suggest that supernatural cannibalistic creatures are raiding along the coast. Ever the questioning sort, Flavius has suspicions that all is not as it appears. When those dear to him are kidnapped and he must go to Hibernia (Ireland) to rescue them, pieces begin to fall into place. As with book 1, The Encircling Sea accurately depicts situations and warfare of the first century AD, and includes significant amounts of violence and gore.
|Name of the Wind||Patrick Rothfuss||
Kote is an innkeeper in a remote village. He was once someone quite different, but here his identity is a secret known to only one other, a situation much to his liking. But these lands are not safe and when Kote saves a stranger from a demon attack, the man recognizes him as the great and powerful hero he once was. As events transpire, it becomes necessary for him to agree to tell the story of his life, an event that, in the telling, will change his life yet again.
|River of Stars||Guy Gavriel Kay||
After being blown away by Under Heaven, reviewed last month, I had to immediately dive into the second book of the series. This is not quite a sequel; the characters of the first book have passed into legend, forming the backdrop for this tale several hundred years later.
The first book told the story of the beginning of the fall of the Tong Dynasty. This one tells the end of the fall of the Sung Dynasty. While the first was more heroic, this one is more elegiac. Ren Daiyan is an outlaw who rises to army general convinced that he can reclaim lost territories from the horsemen tribes to the north. Lin Shan is the best poet of the generation when women don’t write poetry, and an archaeologist, and increasingly a favorite of the emperor for her unorthodox views. (Being a favorite at court is not necessarily the safest thing to be.) They each try to save what they can from history’s river in lives that often intersect but seldom run together.
|,||Fantasy||Historical,Cultures||Kay, Guy Gavriel||2021-01-24T04:02:38.000Z|
|The Lies of Locke Lamora||Scott Lynch||
Locke Lamora is a name of convenience for the orphan who didn’t know his parents. He is the leader of a ragtag band of highly skilled thieves. They’ve graduating from common pickpockets to running elaborate scams and confidence tricks against wealthy merchants and nobles. In Camorr, crime isn’t just organized, it’s regulated and taxed. Locke and his gang risk reprisals through schemes outside — way outside — the boundaries of the system. In the thick of an elaborate ruse, a new player threatens to topple the entire system, using Locke as a lever.
This is a detailed and imaginative world, built on the ruins of an older civilization. The characters have deep backstories that drive their skills, their quirks, and their decisions. Lynch has given them such distinctive voices that you never have to wonder who is speaking. Twist after improbable twist keeps you guessing, but each one seems inevitable once it’s sprung. It’s brutal in places, but that underscores that the stakes are about as high as they can get. One thing is a constant; Locke Lamora lies about everything to everyone, including himself.
At a hospital in Denver, a young psychologist studies near-death experiences (NDE). Are the experiences reported by patients visions? Dreams? Or are they confabulations born from the leading questions of unethical practitioners? Many people warn young Dr. Lander not to get involved in research so tainted by the occultists.
Dr. Lander believes there is a layer to the human mind to uncover, a layer that might help her treatments. She haunts the emergency room to get interviews with patients as soon as they’re revived. Eventually, she agrees to a proposal from a fellow doctor to experience a simulated NDE of her own. From there, things spiral rapidly into unexpected territory.
Half an exploration of of the fringe of science, half a tense mystery, it’s entirely a book that will leave you with plenty to think about. And it wouldn’t be a Connie Willis novel if there wasn’t a comically inept and overbearing bureaucracy to skewer.
|,||Science Fiction||Science||Willis, Connie||2021-07-19T22:56:11.000Z|
|This Immortal||Roger Zelazny||
They call him Kallikanzaros, Karaghiosis, and Konstantin. He calls himself Conrad. His wife is Cassandra and his dog is Bortan. The legends of ancient Greece have resurfaced in the radioactive ruins of earth, or perhaps they never left. The current owners of the planet are Vegans (their origin, not their diet). Conrad conducts one Vegan and a motley crew on a dangerous tour. He must decide whether to protect the Vegan or kill him.
|,||Science Fiction||Character Arc,Cultures,Post-Apocalypse||Zelazny, Roger||2021-01-24T02:42:14.000Z|
|Toad Words and Other Stories||T. Kingfisher||
I enjoyed the last book from Ursula Vernon, aka T Kingfisher, so much that I had to squeeze another one in my schedule this month. This one is a collection of retold fairy tales that are by turns creepy, a bit morbid, whimsical, or just plain strange. But all funny. There’s the alternative Red Riding Hood (and what sort of person who lives in a cottage could afford red dye, anyway?). There’s the other side of the little mermaid from the perspective of an unbiased (hah!) observer. Then there’s Snow and her cruel stepmother, and seven … well, they weren’t dwarves. No, not at all.
|Obsidian and Blood||Aliette de Bodard||
A trilogy set at height of the Aztek empire, telling the tale of Acatl, High Priest for the Dead. As High Priest, Acatl must protect the boundary between his world and the worlds of the Gods, Gods who can manifest to their chosen priests when offered sufficient quantities of blood. But when you summon a God, they may have their own designs on you and your world. Acatl often seems to be more of a detective than a priest, piecing together the plots of the different Gods and their factions for dominating the world.
|,||Fantasy||Cultures,Historical||de Bodard, Aliette||2021-01-22T14:10:42.000Z|