Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!: Cute aliens provide much entertainment

Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! (1998), by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson, has been on my TBR list for years and, thanks to Tantor Media, which just released the first audio edition, it has finally landed in my audiobook player. As I anticipated, this collection of stories about the cute fuzzy aliens known as the Hoka, were really entertaining.

The Hoka are creatures that look like large teddy bears and they’re known throughout the universe as being “the most imaginative race of beings in known space.” They have a fascination with human culture and they love to mimic it, often on a grand scale, but they’re not always able to distinguish fact from fiction when they read about humans. The Hoka develop e... Read More

Winter Lord: Old-school faeries with teeth

Winter Lord by Jean Brooks-Janowiak

Winter Lord (1983) was an impulse Alibris buy for me. Under a different name, Jean Brooks-Janowiak wrote a Tudor romance that’s been one of my comfort reads since I first read it in high school. That book had an eerie little vein of the supernatural running through it, so when I learned that Brooks-Janowiak had also written a fantasy novel, I decided to check it out. What with it being an earlier book, in a different genre, and sporting a rather uninformative cover, I went in with no idea of what to expect. As it turns out, I enjoyed it quite a bit, though with some caveats.

Jane O’Neill travels to the remote town of Winterburn, with her brother Brian and their friend Audrey, to attend the funeral of her ex-husband, Rob, who has drowned there under mysterious circumstances. Found with him were his ruined camera and a note with a cryptic quote from Read More

Blackwater: A unique horror saga

Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell originally published the BLACKWATER horror series in six volumes (The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune, and Rain) in 1983. Some of the installments go for a pretty penny on the Internet these days, so it’s great that Valancourt Press released an omnibus edition, Blackwater: The Complete Saga (2017). This edition is the most cost-effective way to get your hands on this sprawling tale.

Blackwater is set in the town of Perdido, Alabama and tells the story of a lumber dynasty, the Caskeys, between 1919 and 1970. It begins when the scion of the family, Oscar, finds a young woman, Elinor, stranded in the town’s h... Read More

The Woman in Black: A classic ghost story

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

So what does a young actor do after starring in one of the most lucrative franchises in cinema history? That was the precise dilemma facing the 22-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in 2011, upon the completion of his 8th and final Harry Potter film. The Potter series had brought in a whopping $7.7 billion worldwide over its 10-year run, firmly establishing Radcliffe as an international star. And so, the question: What next? Wisely, the young actor’s follow-up project was another in the supernatural/fantasy vein, and one that was also based on an already well-loved source. The film was 2012’s The Woman In Black, another successful film for Radcliffe, having been produced for $15 million and bringing in almost $130 million at the box office. The film was based on English author Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same n... Read More

The Gates of Eden: Interesting ideas about evolution and species diversity

The Gates of Eden by Brian Stableford

Lee Caretta is a geneticist who has been sent, along with a xenobiologist, to the newly discovered planet of Naxos to investigate the mysterious deaths of the first exploratory team to arrive on the planet. As far as anyone knows, there are no sentient species on Naxos, but Lee and his colleagues will learn that there is life on Naxos, and it is strange and dangerous.

But it’s not only the new planet that is hostile. There is some political and personal intrigue going on, too, and it might be just as deadly. Lee will be hard-pressed to discover the planet’s secrets, as well as the humans’ secrets, before it’s too late.

The Gates of Eden (1983) is an entertaining, tense, and pretty quick read. I was interested in the planet’s ecology and I wanted to know what killed the exploratory team. Lee has some thoughtful ideas about evolution, n... Read More

Sidney’s Comet: A too-ambitious debut

Sidney's Comet by Brian Herbert

A lot of Brian Herbert's bibliography consists of collaborations with other authors. There is Man of Two Worlds, written in collaboration with his father Frank Herbert, the Dune sequels, written with Kevin J. Anderson, and a couple of books written with Marie Landis. I haven't read Man of Two Worlds yet, although I do own a copy signed by Brian Herbert. I have read a stack of the Dune sequels, which range from entertaining to horrible, and I can't say I liked Hellhole, set in a universe created by Herbert and ... Read More

The Man Who Used the Universe: Unlikable protagonist makes it hard to enjoy

The Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean Foster

I picked up Alan Dean Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe because it was just released in audio format. It’s a stand-alone science fiction novel, set in the far future, about a man named Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. Kees is a brilliant tactician who is building a career and an empire for himself. When we first meet him, he’s the lackey of a local crime boss, but we watch for years as he works his way up, gaining riches and power as he rises. He even forms a trading alliance with a hated alien species called the Nuel.

But there are two strange things about Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. One is that he seems to form no real bonds with any individual human or alien. He doesn’t seem to care about anyone. The other, perhaps most surprising thing, is that his motive for gain... Read More

The Armageddon Rag: Nostalgic, but unfulfilling

The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

The Armageddon Rag is the book that almost destroyed George R.R. Martin’s career. It was meant to be the work that put him on the map: he’d been getting bigger and bigger advances for his previous novels, and this was the planned bestseller that would make Martin a household name. It didn’t sell. In fact, it was such a monumental commercial flop that Martin couldn’t even get a small advance for another book, let alone the six-figure deals he’d been seeing up until then. It’s hardly worth saying that A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE has pretty much achieved world domination. But what was it about this early work that fell short of Martin’s genius?

The book centres on Sandy Blair, an ex-hippie novelist who is disillusioned and going through a midlife crisis if his flashy n... Read More

The Winds of Change… and Other Stories: Another fine collection

The Winds of Change... and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov

The Winds of Change... and Other Stories is a 1983 collection of Isaac Asimov's latter-day short pieces; just one of the 506 books he came out with during the course of his incredibly prolific career. The 21 stories in this collection were, with two exceptions, written between 1976 and 1982, and all display the clarity of thought, wit and erudition that are the hallmarks of all of Doc Ike's work. Four of the stories in this collection — "About Nothing," "Death of a Foy," How It Happened" and "Sure Thing"— are short shorts, or "vignettes," as Asimov calls them. Most of these are mere setups to terrible puns; puns that do leave a goofy grin on the reader's face, however.

"A Perfect Fit" presents us with a world in which computers are so ubiquitous that the poor individual who is computer illiterate is quite unable to function; a world, perhaps, not so distant from where... Read More

Chessboard Planet and Other Stories: A wonderful collection from Kuttner and Moore

Chessboard Planet and Other Stories by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Chessboard Planet and Other Stories is a collection by science fiction's foremost husband-and-wife writing team, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. The collection is comprised of a novella, two longish short stories, and a short piece.

The novella, "Chessboard Planet," originally appeared under the title "The Fairy Chessmen" in the January and February 1946 issues of John W. Campbell's Astounding Science-Fiction and, in my opinion, is an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. In it, the United States and the European union known as the Falangists have been at war for decades, and as the story opens, the U.S. is in big trouble. It seems that the enemy has come up with a scientific equation that can completely preempt reality; a formula made up of variable constants, the solving of which is driving our best scientific minds insane. A team of men at U.S. Psychometrics i... Read More

The Dragon Waiting: Stands up through nearly three decades

The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

Here is a fantasy novel that stands up through nearly three decades and still delivers. John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting won the World Fantasy Award in 1984, and 27 years later it still offers readers an intricate and compelling story with complex, believable characters.

Ford sets his alternate universe fantasy in what would have been our fifteenth-century Europe. Since Christianity never emerged as a world religion and the Byzantine Empire rules most of Europe and Asia, the years are numbered differently, something that confused me in the beginning. Ford uses a strikingly episodic structure that conjures, in the beginning at least, the feel of strangers on the road sharing stories in front of a crackling fire, over a pitcher of ale.

Hywel is a Welsh wizard. Dimitrious or Dimi is a deposed Byzantine prince, now working as a mercenary. C... Read More

The Wind From a Burning Woman: Dated

The Wind From a Burning Woman by Greg Bear

I don’t think early Greg Bear and I are a good match. I did not finish The Wind From a Burning Woman, a collection of short stories from the late 1970s and early 1980s. That may be part of the problem. Maybe these stories are just dated.

Bear seems to be a “writer of ideas,” and several of these tales feature fascinating “what-ifs” or technological wonders, like an asteroid shaped into a deep-space vessel, a surrealistic cathedral in a world where God has definitively Died, or a walking city. Unfortunately, problems with characters and prose undercut the gadgets or the thought exercises.

There are six stories in the book. I read five:

In “The Wind From a Burning Woman,” a desperate woman threatens Earth’s draconian nanny-government with an act of global terrorism in order to force out the truth.
“White Hors... Read More

Lammas Night: Magical smack down on the Führer

Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz

Within neo-pagan circles, there is a persistent legend that numerous British witches and occultists banded together during World War II, using magic to keep Hitler from invading Britain. I’m not convinced there was a huge organized effort, but I’m sure there were occultists in Britain at the time, and it would surprise me more if no one had tried to lay the magical smack down on the Führer. Katharine Kurtz uses this legend as the basis for Lammas Night.

This historical fantasy centers on John “Gray” Graham, an intelligence officer who is also a member of a witch coven. The other major characters are people close to Gray, such as his son, who is currently in uniform; his High Priest and Priestess; and his best friend, Prince William, a (fictional) younger son of the royal family. Through their mystical arts, Gray and his coven lear... Read More

The Complete Book of Swords: There’s much better stuff to read

The First Swords (The Complete Book of Swords) by Fred Saberhagen

The First Swords is an omnibus edition containing the first three volumes of Fred Saberhagen's BOOK OF SWORDS series. This volume earns a generous 2-1/2 stars, mostly because of the very good premise with the Swords and the setup in the first few chapters of Book One (in which the writing is markedly better than in later chapters — deadline rush?). In essence, the god Vulcan forges 12 magical swords, each with distinctive powers, and lets them loose in the world, in the hands of mortals.

From then on, though, the story's a rapid, sometimes confusing yarn where things just don't seem to add up. And, perhaps most glaringly in the light of modern fantasy standards, there is no distinctive characterization. The char... Read More