City of Golden Shadow: A fascinating virtual world

City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

City of Golden Shadow (1996) is the first book in Tad WilliamsOTHERLAND quartet. The complicated plot, which is set in the near future, follows a large cast of characters all over the world who have some connection to a huge but secret virtual reality simulation that eventually becomes known as Otherland. The main characters are:

Renie Sulaweyo, a college instructor in Africa, is teaching Xabbu, a bushman from a remote African tribe, how to use the net. When Renie’s little brother Stephen, who spends a lot of time on the net, suddenly becomes comatose and the doctors can’t figure out what’s going on, Renie uses her research skills to try to discover what ails him and Xabbu offers to help.
Orlando Gardiner, a brittle boy who is dying from proge... Read More

Archangel: A grand sweeping love story

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

Gabriel is about to become Archangel. He is required to lead the annual singing of the Gloria on the Plains of Sharon in just a few months with his wife, the angelica, at his side. There is just one problem: Gabriel isn’t married. Faced with this dilemma, he goes to the oracle to find out who he is supposed to marry, and is given the name of a woman, Rachel, but he has no idea where to find her. With the months slipping away before his voice raised in song is the only thing that can turn away the wrath of the god Jovah, he crisscrosses the land, and finally locates her — an Edori slave girl who has no intention of marrying an angel and spending her life in a different type of servitude. To make matters worse, the current Archangel, Raphael, seems less likely every day to peaceably hand over his position to Gabriel.

Archangel is an amazing book. Sharon Shinn h... Read More

The Reality Dysfunction: A long rambling science fiction epic

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton

The Reality Dysfunction, first published in 1996 but just recently released in audiobook format by Tantor Audio, is the first book in Peter F. Hamilton’s NIGHT’S DAWN trilogy which is set in the 27th century in his Confederation universe. Technological and scientific advances have allowed humans to spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing and taming planets, and setting up thriving communities. People are healthy, long-lived, and happy.

For the most part they are at peace, though there are still religious and cultural differences that cause dissension and, of course, there are still people who prey on others. The major cultural divide is between the Adamists and the Edenists. The Adamists are regular ol’ humans whose technology has advanced (e.g., ... Read More

Ancient Shores: First contact – an antique coast washed by time

Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt

Fort Moxie lent itself to timelessness. There were no major renovation projects, no vast cultural shifts imposed by changing technology, no influxes of strangers, no social engineering. The town and the broad prairie in which it rested were caught in a kind of time warp.

A farmer works his land in the far reaches of North Dakota — just a few miles away from the Canadian border. Something pokes from the flat lands that he calls home. He lives in a large basin of prairie-land, farms and flat as far as the eye can see. “The plain stretched out forever.”

It’s manmade. Clearly not of the land. The farmer digs it up and finds that the cylinder is just the beginning. It’s connected to something even larger… a mast. Underneath is the rest of the sailboat. Buried in ground that’s been a prairie for millions of years.

The discovery of the ... Read More

The Sparrow: A deep space exploration of new worlds and the meaning of religion

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. ~Matthew 10:29

I thoroughly enjoyed this expansive story of space travel and first contact. The Sparrow (1996), a multiple award-winning novel from Mary Doria Russell and the first book in THE SPARROW duology, is wonderfully deep in its exploration of culture clash and how individual experiences, both spiritual and physical, shape those interactions. Russell is at her best in bringing her characters to life and deftly creating three dimensional imagery that are at once understandable, real, and relatable.

The story revolves around a Jesuit priest, Sandoz, who returns from a Mission to a far planet, alone, barely alive, and deeply changed from the man that left. Russell bounces back and forth between the 'current' Sandoz, and the back-story lea... Read More

A Game of Thrones: An impressive start to an excellent series

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is set in Westeros, a continent that was divided into Seven Kingdoms until the Targaryens and their dragons conquered it. Fourteen years before the story begins, Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, and Jon Arryn led a rebellion against the mad king Aerys Targaryen. Robert became king, Jon became the King’s Hand, and Ned returned north to govern his lands. Now, Jon has died and Robert demands that Ned come south to help rule the realm.

Unfortunately ruling the realm without dragons is easier said than done. The overwhelming majority of Westeros’ leaders imagine their role as a “game of thrones” rather than responsible governance. So no wonder Robert has led the kingdom into spiraling debt. Even Ned, who believes that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” makes decisions for the benefit... Read More

The Lost Years: Initial novelty has worn off

The Lost Years by T.A. Barron

Perhaps because it was a tad over-hyped for me, perhaps because since its publication there have been several other books and films that tell the story of Merlin's youth, but T.A. Barron's The Lost Years left me a little cold. I enjoyed it well enough, though certain segments dragged a little, but ultimately I think that much of its initial novelty has worn off. What was an innovative look at an unknown aspect of a legendary figure's life back in 1996 may feel like a somewhat generic fantasy-adventure by today's standards.

Told in first-person narrative by our young Merlin (who goes by the name of Emrys), the story begins with him and his mother being washed up on the shores of Wales. Unable to remember who he is or where he's come from, Emrys and Branwen make a life for themselves in a small village, though he eventually comes to suspect that the woman he ... Read More

The Golden Key: Hard to put down

The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott

Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott collaborate here to create a novel that is very hard to put down — despite its formidable length and flattish characters. What drew me in was the carefully designed world, the totally believable magic, the overall mood, and the centuries-spanning plot. This novel is set in Tirra Virte, an Italy-ish province where all official ceremonies and transactions are recorded not with words but with paintings. I thought for a moment — "Hey! that can't be reliable! The artist can paint something that didn't really happen!" But then it made me realize just how unreliable words, too, can be. A scribe can write lies as easily as an artist can paint them.

This art-centered world, of course, requires artists. This novel follows the rising and falling fortunes of one family of ... Read More

Wind from a Foreign Sky: Decent ideas, poor execution

Wind from a Foreign Sky by Katya Reimann

Gaultry is a young, beautiful, spirited huntress, who has been raised by her great-aunt, a hedge-witch, on the border of Tielmaran. One day, the outer world cruelly ends her idyllic life, as a squadron of soldiers seeks to abduct her, and she finds herself a key figure in a prophecy that will bless or curse the entire realm.

Katya Reimann creates, for the most part, a well-imagined world with some fresh touches. However, the kindest thing I can say about her telling of the story is that, this being her first novel, she shows glimmers of potential. To identify the major problems:

First, the story begins, for the sake of excitement, as Gaultry and the prophecy are about to collide; consequently, the plot is over-burdened with flashbacks and info-dumps about the history of Tielmaran — information that could have been much more gracefully integrated via an earlier starting poin... Read More

The Thief: A delightful mythic fantasy

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

“I can steal anything.” With that boast, Gen sets into action a course of events that could affect kingdoms. When he boasts that he can steal the King’s Seal, and then delivers on his promise, he is arrested and thrown into prison, where he languishes until the King’s Magus approaches him with an offer: freedom if he can steal Hamiathes’s Gift, a legendary stone that carries with it the right to rule the kingdom of Eddis.

Megan Whalen Turner writes a delightful mythic fantasy that takes the reader on a secret journey through a country whose culture and religion are loosely based on Ancient Greece. Turner’s land appeals to all the senses; The stench of the prisons, the heat of the sun, and the splendid views of ancient olive tree fields come off the page and play like a movie in the reader’s mind. The landscape, both physically and spiritually, is a vibrant part of the story.
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The Night World 1: For teen vamp stories, you could do worse

THE NIGHT WORLD: Volume 1 by L.J. Smith

"So This is the Night World…"

First published between 1996-1998, Lisa Jane Smith's NIGHT WORLD series was released as a ten-book series...only the final book never arrived. Smith took a ten-year hiatus from writing, leaving the final book unwritten and the steadily-building story incomplete. But now, finally, the end is in sight. Simon and Schuster are republishing the series in three-book omnibuses in anticipation for Strange Fate the last in the series that has left us hanging for over ten years.

Like so many, I was a teenager when I first began reading her books and it was a certain sense of nostalgia that brought me back again. Although her stories stretch a certain amount of credibility, they are undoubtedly superior to most run-of-the-mill supernatural teen books. The basis premise is a winner: "the Night Worl... Read More

The Lightbringer: Deserves more notice

The Lightbringer by Oliver Johnson

Oliver Johnson's The Lightbringer is a different sort of fantasy trilogy. For one thing, it involves vampires, and since vampire novels have spawned their own genre you rarely find them in true fantasy any more. However, this is not a vampire novel; it’s most definitely high fantasy. The next thing that makes The Lightbringer somewhat of a departure from the norm is that the hero is seriously disfigured and spends almost his entire time behind a mask designed to obscure his features. I actually quite liked the absence of physical attractiveness in the protagonist. Not only because it makes for a change, but also because it tests the writer's ability to make you admire the character for less superficial reasons. It's much harder for an author to do this well. ... Read More

The Willow Tree’s Daughter: Not your typical fairytale princess

The Willow Tree's Daughter by Pamela Freeman

It is a very sad fact that this book is so overlooked, as it is a rare gem that everybody should try to get hold of, filled with amazing characters, strange creatures and stereotypes that get twisted on their heads!

The most unique thing about this book however is that it does not as such have a clear plot structure, but rather each chapter relates an encounter or experience with its heroine Princess Betony. In fact, the story actually starts years before her birth when the Crown Prince Max, searching for an adventure comes across the dryad Salixia and falls in love with her. Their love story reminded me a bit of 'Aragorn-and-Arwen' or 'Romeo-and-Juliet' for children, as they too are star-crossed lovers: Max is trapped within the confines of his royal duties, just as Salixia is confined to the life of her willow tree and the rules of 'Wild Magic' that condones love between a mortal and ... Read More