Thomas M. Wagner (guest)

THOMAS M. WAGNER, one of our guest bloggers, launched his science fiction and fantasy book review website SF in July 2001, and it now features about 700 titles. Thomas, who lives in Austin, TX and is a regular panelist at Armadillocon and other regional conventions, began reviewing in fanzines as far back as the 1980′s, and claims Roger Ebert as a main influence on his reviews today.

Carpathia: A ship full of vampires

Carpathia by Matt Forbeck

So it's April 1912, and here I am aboard R.M.S. Titanic, on her maiden voyage. By heaven, she's a lovely ship! Big, too. But I'm a little worried we're getting rather close to that iceberg. Oh I say, we've struck it! Not to worry, old man, everyone knows this ship is unsinkable. What's that? We're sinking anyway? Dash the luck! Off to the lifeboats then. What do you mean, there's no more room? Blimey. Rest assured I'll write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about this! Alas, I suppose there's nothing for it but to dress in my evening best, order a brandy, and prepare to die like a sir. Could be worse, I suppose. At least we aren't being attacked by vampires. What's that? We are being attacked by vampires! Of all the bloody cheek!

You could read Matt Forbeck's Carpathia a lot like this: as an extended sketch rather than a novel. Forbeck is a writer... Read More

Elidor: Thin

Elidor by Alan Garner

There are those who consider Alan Garner, an intriguing figure who was so sickly as a child he was twice legally declared dead, to be Great Britain's master fantasist. I am not among them. Elidor, his best-known book, does have quite a lot to admire, even if it does fall far short of other acknowledged young-adult "plucky kids transported to a magical land" classics — to wit, C.S. Lewis's Narnia series and Susan Cooper's magnificent The Dark Is Rising sequence (let alone Read More

The Fifth Sorceress: Clutters rackspace

The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

This ambitious debut novel is set in a realm in which two kingdoms are divided by an impassable sea. Over 300 years prior to the story's opening, a vicious war led to the exile of a coven of evil sorceresses whose lust for power would have led to the utter destruction of peaceful Eutracia had it not been for the intervention of the noble Directorate of Wizards. The book's startlingly blunt sexual politics, in which the heroes are all male and the villains female, is only one of its dubious qualities. Robert Newcomb has delivered a first novel that, while competently written, ends up little more than an amalgam of fourth-hand ideas borrowed from better books.

In The Fifth Sorceress we have, once again, a reluctant protagonist prophesied as the "Chosen One" who must face Overwhelming Evil in a battle to the finish with the guidance of his own personal G... Read More

The Empress of Earth: I’m going to miss Silence Leigh

The Empress of Earth by Melissa Scott

I wish — oh, how I wish — I could say that Melissa Scott's Silence Leigh trilogy ends on its highest possible note. While The Empress of Earth does at long last offer the long-awaited payoff of the journey to Earth, that payoff may disappoint some readers. Some tedious and labored writing and a surprisingly conventional approach to space opera kept me from appreciating the book as well as I did its two prequels, particularly the rousing Silence in Solitude. The appeal of Scott's trio of lead characters is still solid, however. Readers who've made it this far will want to know Silence's destiny. And it's precisely that sort of character appeal that carries you over the novel's lulls.

Having finally won from the Satrap of Inarime, now the new Hegemon, the right to use his ancient portolan guide to find the long-lost star roads back to mothe... Read More

Silence in Solitude: Splendid space opera escapism

Silence in Solitude by Melissa Scott

Silence in Solitude smartly continues Melissa Scott's Roads of Heaven (Silence Leigh) trilogy, keeping the storyline fresh and invigorating by taking readers down unexpected new paths. This sophomore entry opens with Silence in training on the planet Solitudo Hermae to become the first female magus in history. Her sponsor, the magus Isambard, has agreed to train her in exchange for her taking him along once she discovers how to reach long-lost Earth.

Just to recap, Scott has developed an interesting, but sometimes too complex for its own good, notion of space travel utilizing metaphysical concepts. Spaceships are powered by "harmonics," and must be properly tuned like musical instruments so that they can leave the confines of the material universe and travel throughout "purgatory" (a concept similar to hyperspace). Though hard SF watchdogs will no doubt bristle, it's a... Read More

Five-Twelfths of Heaven: A trilogy worthy of rediscovery

Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott

The first volume of Melissa Scott's highly-regarded Roads of Heaven trilogy is an unusual SF novel in that it treats indistinguishable-from-magic science pretty much as if it were magic. It's the sort of thing that makes scientific purists (and guys like me) roll our eyes much of the time. If I have a pet peeve, it's when a "science" fiction story hits me with paranormal, unscientific concepts. If that's what you want to write, then just write paranormal fiction. Scott avoids the claptrap trap, however, by defining her ground rules — precisely how these arcane concepts work within her milieu — early on in her story and then assiduously following them. The end result is an imaginative, compelling story for which even hard SF devotees shouldn't have trouble suspending disbelief. Throw in a believable trio of protagonists, solid space opera action, and some surprising social relevance ma... Read More

Night Child: Unoriginal, but lots of heart

Night Child by Jes Battis

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. All of these paranormal investigator potboilers coming down the pike are more or less the same. It's all a question of how well each one rearranges the furniture. Some do it sufficiently well so as to avoid the easiest of criticisms, that the book in question is little more than a CC of the latest Laurell K. Hamilton/Jim Butcher/Kim Harrison opus. Some manage to establish their own voice adequately, then fail to do enough with it to rise above the para-pack. In 2008 at Armadillocon, there was a panel on a closely-related subgenre, paranormal romance (which they didn't put me on, wisely), which asked the q... Read More

Children of Amarid: Enjoyable and unpretentious

Children of Amarid by David B. Coe

The fantasy debut of historian David B. Coe is a highly readable adventure with a freshness and appeal that too many modern fantasies lack. I found the tale enjoyable, unpretentious, avoiding obvious Tolkienisms, with characterization superior to most of what is being sold and touted these days as the best of the best. Yet it has what you could term some routine first-novel flaws. Its pace is too languid, its narrative not always well focused. And it's loaded with predictable "surprises" that flatten suspense when it should be peaking.

Children of Amarid roots itself in that perennial Campbellian trope: a youth of humble origin who is destined for greatness. The peninsula of Tobyn-Ser is governed by the Children of Amarid, a benevolent order of mages. They generally keep a low profile... Read More

Aurian: Fine popcorn entertainment

Aurian by Maggie Furey

Aurian is a highly entertaining story that, with a boundless sense of "sky's the limit" confidence, unapologetically runs the gamut from heroic high adventure to bodice-ripper (which is, I'm told, a very pejorative term amongst the romance set, but hey). It’s a great guilty pleasure. Don't think I'm belittling this book, people. Sure, it's about as arch and melodramatic a novel as you're likely to find without the Silhouette imprint on the cover. But Maggie Furey, in what was her debut novel, works it like a seasoned pro. Aurian is perhaps the ne plus ultra of the trend towards fantasy-romance crossover. I enjoyed myself immensely the whole time, in the way one only can when confronted with entertainment so shameless in its sentiment and energetic in its appeal to your limbic system that your only two choices are to set the thing on fire or giv... Read More

Vellum: Empty, pretentious twaddle

Vellum by Hal Duncan

Forty pages into Vellum, I was dazzled. Hal Duncan's debut novel appeared to be every bit as phantasmagoric as the tidal wave of advance hype was claiming it was. A hundred pages in, my initial delight was morphing into skepticism. Yes, Duncan is a remarkably assured stylist, but is there any direction here? Is there ever going to emerge a cogent narrative to involve me beyond the author's obvious gift for lovely and visually evocative prose? By about 175 pages, I figured I had my answer.

I remember attending a critics' panel at a local convention several years ago, before I launched my site, listening to Bruce Sterling. I love Bruce to death, especially when he prattles on in that showoffy way of his, demonstrating how much more well-read and intellectually promiscuous he is than you. He was in fine form this day, casually dropping the names of obscure easte... Read More

Dorsai!: A badly dated affair

Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson

Dickson's Childe Cycle future history series is one of SF's most venerable, and is considered to be the most influential body of work in the sub-genre of military SF, whose most enthusiastic practitioners today include such familiar names as David Drake, David Weber, Rick Shelley, John Steakley, Simon R. Green, S.M. Stirling, John Ringo and many more. Yet this antique first novel in the cycle is a badly dated affair that, though rea... Read More

Navohar: Too many first-timer’s typical poor choices

Navohar by Hilari Bell

You might have a hard time swallowing much of Navohar, the debut of Denver author Hilari Bell. But Bell produces easygoing, accessible writing that gives her book a degree of light-reading appeal. If only the whole affair weren't so pat and predictable.

Navohar is set towards the end of this century, after the people of Earth have thwarted an invasion by ruthless slave-trading aliens by knocking them out H.G. Wells-style with a horrid genetically-engineered virus. Tragically, this backfires, infecting human DNA as well and causing nearly an entire generation of kids to grow up with an incurably fatal genetic condition.

The people of Earth now live a fearful existence beneath domes, while a stalwart few venture out into the cosmos in an attempt to reconnect with the few human colonies that escaped the... Read More

Ariel: A real prize back in print… with a sequel

Ariel by Steven R. Boyett

It's unusual for obscure mass market paperback originals from a quarter century ago to get a second life. But when the books in question are lost little gems that richly deserve such a life, it's most welcome. And it ought to serve as a wake-up call to all of you: just how many hidden gems are on the racks right now that you haven't noticed? More than you might think. Look deeper.

Ariel was first released in 1983, when mass market originals were a much more common format for first-time publication than they are today. Back then, pricey hardcovers and trade paperbacks were largely rationed to established names dropping surefire bestsellers. To those lucky enough to discover it at the time, Ariel was a real prize, the kind of book that makes rummaging through the racks and taking a shot on something unfamiliar worthwhile. But it didn't have more than a cou... Read More

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