Practical Magic: The superior book behind the cult film

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Like most people, I became aware of Alice Hoffman's 1995 novel Practical Magic through the nineties film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It's not a great movie, but it has a charm of its own, and it led me to the original story upon which it's based. It's striking to see the differences and similarities between the two.

The film leans more heavily on its magical elements, even becoming something of a supernatural thriller at some points, whereas the book is more interested in the three generations of Owens women and their lives, whether it be the tragedy of the aunts, the love stories of Gillian and Sally, or the coming-of-age rites of Antonia and Kylie.

As children, Sally and Gillian Owens were ostracized from their New England community due to the persistent rumour that they and their extended family were witches. Onc... Read More

The Star Fraction: A unique work of political science fiction

The Star Fraction by Ken Macleod

The back cover copy claims Ken Macleod’s debut The Star Fraction (1995) is like “modern-day George Orwell”, and there is some truth in it. But rather than an examination of totalitarianism, the novel is a thought experiment on technology in an environment as rife with subtly variegated politics as the scene Orwell covered in WWII Spain in Homage to Catalonia. Given the dry wit and experimental mode, however, I would say that Macleod is more Heinleinian. Regardless of classic parallels, though, the first of the four books which comprises the FALL REVOLUTION, The Star Fraction, is an astonishingly confident debut which examines poly-sci in a way neither author did: the Singularity.

Before jumping to the review, I think it is necessary to position the The Star Fraction within the ... Read More

Primary Inversion: I should have loved this

Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro

Dr. Catherine Asaro’s award-winning SKOLIAN EMPIRE series has long been on my TBR list because of its unusual blend of space opera, romance, quantum physics, relativity, genetic engineering, biomechanics, and computer science — all written by a Harvard-educated female physicist. That sounds like something I’d devour.

The saga is about the Skolian Empire and their long-time enemies, the Eubian (Trader) Empire. They are distant spacefaring civilizations that must have been seeded by humans from Earth many millennia ago, though we don’t yet know how that happened. The Skolian Empire used to be run by a monarchy called The Ruby Dynasty that has the psionic powers of empathy and telepathy. At this point the monarchy is mainly a figurehead while politicians run the empire, but the descendants of the Ruby Dynasty are still needed because they are the only ones who can control ... Read More

Wicked: A challenging revisionist take on the Wicked Witch of the West

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

After finally seeing the Broadway musical I felt it was well past time to track down Gregory Maguire's Wicked (the inspiration for the musical, which by this stage has probably eclipsed the book in popularity) and read for myself the origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Anyone who comes to the book out of a love for the musical is probably in for a nasty shock. Though the musical had its share of darkness and a bittersweet ending, it was generally a very light and comedic production that focused on the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda. Maguire's novel on the other hand is filled with violence, sex, murder and grotesquery, delving into the question of what makes a human being evil and whether or not they can escape their preordained fate.

Elphaba is born to missionary parents in lower-east Munchkinland, with unexplained green skin and ... Read More

Evolution’s Shore: Fascinating SF with African setting

Evolution’s Shore by Ian McDonald

In several equatorial regions of the earth, an alien plant has been growing. The “Chaga,” as it is called, came from outer space and destroys anything manmade that comes near it. Scientists are worried about what it might do to humans. They have not been able to kill it and it is advancing slowly but steadily each day, changing the landscape and covering villages and cities as it progresses. Not only are people’s lives being disrupted as they have to flee their homes and become refugees, but they’re also worried about what the Chaga is doing here in the first place. Is it benign? Is there an intelligence behind it? Is it a precursor to an alien invasion? Nobody knows.

The mystery of the Chaga and its effect on humanity have inspired Gaby McAslin, a feisty red-headed green-eyed Irish woman, to become a journalist so she can go to Nairobi and try to figure out what the Chaga is doing as it... Read More

Witchblade: Witch Hunt

Witchblade: Witch Hunt (issues 80-85) by Ron Marz (writer) and Mike Choi (artist)

This admission is really hard for me to make publicly, so I'm gonna just trust that you won't laugh, that you'll be nice to me (at least to my face), and that you'll reserve judgment for a few minutes while you read this review. Okay. Here it is. You ready? I love WITCHBLADE. There. I've said it, and I'm very uncomfortable. I feel like I just shouted, "I watch porn" in a crowded room, or admitted — just when there was a lull in conversation at a party — that I like reading Playboy — and not just for the articles.

In particular, I love WITCHBLADE starting with Ron Marz’s brilliant run that began in this volume: Witchblade: Witch Hunt. As a feminist, I'm concerned with what people with my ethical views... Read More

Hawkwood and the Kings: Best battle scenes in fantasy literature

Hawkwood and the Kings by Paul Kearney

Hawkwood and the Kings is an omnibus of Hawkwood’s Voyage and The Heretic Kings, first released in the mid-nineties to critical acclaim but limited commercial success. Paul Kearney is, to the detriment of readers of fine fantasy, one of those authors who ran into publisher difficulties. Had the publisher actively marketed the original releases of The Monarchies of God, the books would have sold well and would unquestionably be considered classics alongside other great adult fantasies like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Read More

Assassin’s Apprentice: An old favorite

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I read The Farseer Saga years ago and have since considered it one of my favorite fantasy epics. It's one (along with The Lord of the Rings and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) that I often suggest to new fantasy readers. But after more than a decade of reading deeper and further into fantasy literature, I've often wondered how well this saga would now appeal to my more mature (I hope) palate. When Tantor Audio recently released The Farseer Saga Read More

Merlin’s Harp: For fans of lush prose and coffee

Merlin's Harp by Anne Eliot Crompton

Reading Merlin's Harp, I realized something about novels that portray the interaction between the human world and Faerie. They usually don't tell the stories of fae folk in their own homeland. There are exceptions, of course, but authors tend to focus on faeries stuck in the human world, or humans encountering Faerie. I think I may know why that is. When writing about faeries living in Faerie, it's all too easy to have nothing happen.

Anne Eliot Crompton uses beautiful, if occasionally stilted, language to draw us into her take on Arthurian legend:
When I was yet a young woman I threw my heart away.

I fashioned a wee coracle of leaf and willow twig and reed, a coracle that sat in the hollow of my two palms. In this I placed my wounded, wretched heart, and I set it adrift on the rain-misted wavelets of the Fey river, and I... Read More

The Wayfarer Redemption: Distinctly average

The Wayfarer Redemption (BattleAxe in the UK) by Sara Douglass

Note: Amanda, who reviews this novel, lives in the UK where this book is titled BattleAxe. In the US, the title is The Wayfarer Redemption.

A thousand years ago the people of Achar drove the Forbidden from their land in the War of the Axe. They pulled down huge swathes of woodland in their fear and now live by the Way of the Plough under the benign guidance of their deity Artor. But troubling rumours are brewing. Winter has come — and stayed. Icy wraiths are appearing from the mist and killing soldiers at the border stronghold before vanishing. They are believed to be the Forbidden, massing in order to invade Achar and kill the Acharites.

Borneheld, War Leader and heir to the throne of Achar (son of Searlas and Rivkah), is sent to the border with reinforcements to hold ... Read More

Stalking Tender Prey

Stalking Tender Prey by Storm Constantine

Stalking Tender Prey draws on the legend of the Grigori, or Watchers. The Grigori are said to be angels whose over-entanglement with mortals led to their Fall. The central character in Stalking Tender Prey, Peverel Othman, is a Grigori who takes up residence in the small English hamlet of Little Moor, with life-changing results for the townspeople. His arrival precipitates an awakening of sorts, and a loss of inhibitions.

At first, what this means is sex. This is where some readers may be put off. I'll put it this way: it's not often that I say there's a lot of weird sex in a book. There's a lot of weird sex in Stalking Tender Prey. People sleep with their siblings; they sleep with anthropomorphic cat-men; they sleep with the Earth itself. The sex is relevant to the plot and to the character development, but there's a great deal of it, and it's not for th... Read More

The Book of Earth: I’m indifferent

The Book of Earth by Marjorie B. Kellogg

Erde, the daughter of a German noble, is suddenly and terribly thrust into a world of magic and fear when she is accused of a crime she did not commit. After fleeing her father’s wrath and the insane ravings of a power-hungry priest, Erde heads into the mountains to be joined by a small, clumsy, surprisingly un-fantastic dragon named Earth.

Earth knows that he is called to a higher purpose, he just does not know exactly what. Content to put as much distance between her father and herself as possible, Erde and Earth go on the run and are joined by an unexpected cast of characters including Hal, a knight past his prime with no lands to call his own, his mule who has an uncanny ability to choose the swiftest roads and “talk” to certain people, and an old she-goat who flatly refuses to allow Earth to eat her. The unlikely team must navigate their way through unknown obstacles and face man... Read More

The Book of Words: Never a dull moment


The Baker's Boy kicks off the exciting Book of Words trilogy. These are J.V. Jones' first published books and already she had pinned down all that we as fantasy lovers enjoy most about our genre: picturesque settings, dangerous cities, noble and mysterious heroes, three-dimensional villains, plotting royalty, charismatic rogues. And it's all seasoned with just the right amount of sorcery.

I was introduced to J.V. Jones with A Cavern of Black Ice, which I enjoyed so much that I found myself reading all her books. Jones has an unsurpassed story-enhancing gift for detail. Lovable peasants cook up mouth-watering meals in their cozy little cottages. Rowdy backstreet taverns make you thirsty for a cold one. Two-fisted action brings to mind Read More

Fortress in the Eye of Time: Different slant on an old story

Fortress in the Eye of Time by C.J. Cherryh

I loved Fortress in the Eye of Time. To be honest, the first half of the book doesn't move very fast, but you come to appreciate how C.J. Cherryh controls the flow of the story based on the progress of the main character. It's a very interesting technique that takes a little patience to enjoy.

The story centers around a young man who is called back from a distant past and who's soul has already lived a life. His challenges in adjusting to life with no real past are very well written and yet his native intelligence and personality begin to grow quickly.
The characters that surround the protagonist are fairly well written and far from perfect themselves. For me, the frailties of people are often neglected in most fiction unless it is overly depicted in the bad guy. In this case, Cherryh is very effective when describing the... Read More

The Golden Compass: Extraordinary, controversial, fascinating, infuriating

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (or, if you follow the British print-run, Northern Lights) is the first book of Philip Pullman's extraordinary, controversial, thought-provoking, fascinating, infuriating, allegorical trilogy His Dark Materials. Followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, the books have a huge range of ideas and meanings; from exploring the bond between the body and soul, to denouncing modern religious practices, to retelling Milton's Paradise Lost from a completely different point of view. Throughout, the story is compelling and beautifully told, the source of endless debates and discussions, and a narrative with such an extreme and unique message that (even if you don't agree with it) you... Read More

Sabriel: Intoxicating reading

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel is one of the best fantasy books out there, full stop. Although not up to the deep literary analysis of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Pullman's His Dark Materials, it is a realistic, fantastical, intriguing and thought-provoking novel that's right up there with the best of them. Garth Nix creates a dark, almost Gothic world that echoes with age and believability that is intoxicating to explore: the magically-imbued Old Kingdom that lies across the Wall from the more scientific-orientated Ancelstierre, which has the mechanics and technology of a post-Victorian Britain (by my estimation anyway).
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The Sword of Truth: This is a mean number of stars. I mean a statistical mean.

THE SWORD OF TRUTH (books 1-10) by Terry Goodkind

Terry Goodkind’s
first book, Wizard’s First Rule, was entertaining many years ago when I was a relatively new adult epic fantasy reader. Except for the actual First Rule ("People are Stupid"), which was... stupid. The story had some fascinating characters (mostly the secondary ones — I could never muster up much care for Kahlan) and Richard started out as a pretty good hero. The next couple of books of The Sword of Truth were also fun for someone who is not particularly demanding (which I wasn't at the time).

Then, Terry Goodkind totally lost it when Richard started preaching his Ayn Rand-ish humanistic philosophy -- constant rants about the nobility of the human spirit. It's not that I didn't agree with Richard, but that I didn't need to be continually hit over the head with i... Read More