The Two Princesses of Bamarre: An entertaining magical adventure

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

Addie, the 12-year-old Princess of the kingdom of Bamarre, is a sweet but cowardly girl. She comes by it honestly – her father, the king, is also a coward. Addie’s sister Meryl, however, is adventurous and courageous and she wants to save their kingdom from evil magical beasts and a plague they call the Grey Death. Addie adores and admires Meryl and she knows she’ll never be brave like her sister.

When Meryl gets sick, Addie is desperate to save her but, because her father’s efforts are timid and ineffective, eventually she realizes that her only hope is to do it herself. Armed with several fabulous magical gifts, such as a tablecloth that always presents a delicious feast when unfolded, and a pair of boots that lets her cover seven leagues in one step, Addie sets out to save her sister and her kingdom.

During her quest to find a cure, she’ll have to batt... Read More

Summers at Castle Auburn: A lovely YA romance

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn (2001) was my first exposure to Sharon Shinn's fantasies, and it was pretty much insta-love for me (I like to think that Shinn returns my affections in a distant and anonymous fan-appreciation kind of way). It instantly set me off on a search for more of her books.

Corie is the teenaged illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who died before the story begins, but the royal family is still keeping close tabs on her. Most of the time she lives with her grandmother in a remote village, learning medicinal herbs and a bit of witchery from her. But her summers are spent with the royal family in Castle Auburn.

We follow Corie over the next several years as she hangs out with her half-sister Elisandra; Bryan, the stunningly good-looking ― and knows... Read More

The Octagonal Raven: Be patient with it

The Octagonal Raven by L.E. Modesitt Jr

His fantasy, in particular the RECLUCE saga, is a lot more popular but L.E. Modesitt Jr. has also written quite a few science fiction novels. I've read a number of these now and they are usually an all or nothing read for me. Some I enjoyed tremendously (Flash, Adiamante, The Forever Hero), others I will never read again (The Ethos Effect, Archfrom: Beauty). The Octagonal Raven has the unusual distinction of combining these two feelings in one book. I have never come across a book that is so much in need of some serious editing in the first part of the story, yet managing such a thrilling climax that I read the second part of the novel in one sitting.

The main character in The Octagonal Raven is ... Read More

The Chronoliths: Monoliths from the future

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Scott Warden, known to most as “Scotty,” kept his wife and daughter, Janice and Kaitlin, in Thailand after the coding contracts dried up. Scotty now spends most of his time aimlessly “just living” in the ex-pat beach culture. Scotty’s broke, but at least he doesn’t deal drugs like his buddy, Hitch Paley. Drug dealer he might be, but Scotty figures that Hitch is basically a good guy, deep down.

It’s Hitch that takes Scotty along the back roads to see the first Chronolith.

The Chronolith is impressive and mysterious. Where did it come from? It marks the first victory of Kuin  — except that it’s dated twenty years in the future. When Scotty returns from seeing the first Chronolith, he discovers that his daughter got sick and had to be hospitalized. Janice tried to contact Scotty but couldn’t find him. It’s the last straw for her, and she returns to her h... Read More

Ship of Fools: This dated award winner still has some influence

Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo

Richard Paul Russo published Ship of Fools in 2001 and it won the Philip K Dick Award for that year. I read it when it came out but only remembered two or three scenes from it (powerful scenes, though, I should say). The re-read surprised me and maybe disappointed me slightly. One thing seems clear. In 2001 Russo was playing with concepts that would show up in later writers’ work with regularity in the intervening fourteen years; the “generation ship” and the idea of  a social and economic underclass is addressed by Brenda Cooper in her YA series RUBY’S SONG, and more pointedly in the graphic novel and movie Snowpiercer. I think Russo even influenced Joss Whedon, because some s... Read More

Sputnik Sweetheart: The world’s most depressing love triangle, after Twilight

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by an elementary school teacher we know as “K.” K is in love with Sumire, an aspiring young writer who never feels sexual attraction for others until she meets Miu, an older woman and a wine dealer who is incapable of feeling love for others.

It’s the world’s most depressing love triangle, after Twilight.

In many ways, actually, Sputnik Sweetheart feels like a typical Haruki Murakami no... Read More

The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson by E.F. Benson

I had read E.F. Benson's The Horror Horn to start with (a collection of 13 of his best ghost stories), after seeing that it was considered one of the Top 100 Horror Books of all time in Newman & Jones' excellent overview volume. Each of those 13 stories was so good that I just had to have more, and so picked up this collection — The Collected GhostStories of E.F. Benson (2001) — of every single one of Benson's spooky tales, 54 in all. This collection certainly did not disappoint; I loved every single one of these ghost stor... Read More

Stranger Things Happen: Kelly Link’s weird stories

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

Stranger Things Happen is Kelly Link’s debut collection of weird stories, some of which won major awards. This was my first experience with Ms. Link’s fantasy fiction. Overall I was impressed with her imagination and style. While I admired all of the stories and liked several of them, the emotion I felt most often while reading Stranger Things Happen was unsettled. Link’s stories reminded me somewhat of the work of Peter Straub, another brilliant writer who I admire but don’t naturally gravitate toward. Here are the stories in Stranger Things Happen:

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” — (originally published in Fence magazine in 1998) A dead man writes to his beloved wife whose name he can’t remember. This story has a ... Read More

Dust: Some lovely moments

Dust by Arthur Slade

If Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes met Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in the world of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, you might end up with something like Arthur Slade’s YA novel Dust. Or at least, you might end up with the basic premise, setting, and tone and style. Falling short of these classics is no great fault, but unfortunately I’d say Dust falls a bit short even in less rarefied company. It isn’t a bad book by any stretch — it is in fact quite solid and has some lovely moments — but overall it fell a bit flat for me.

Set in the Canadian prairie during the Dust Bowl... Read More

Dr. Franklin’s Island: A suspenseful story that isn’t preachy

Dr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam

Dr. Franklin’s Island, by Ann Halam (who also writes as Gwyneth Jones), is a YA updating of The Island of Dr. Moreau. In this version, three teenagers survive a plane crash and wash up on a tropical island.

It is not a spoiler to say that the two girls in the story, Miranda and Semirah, or “Semi” as she calls herself, become victims of genetic manipulation. That’s on the back cover of the book. The suspense is not whether they will escape before the evil Dr. Franklin completes his experiments on them; it is whether they will be able to retain their humanity once he is finished.

Dr. Franklin’s Island is a quick read, about two hundred fifty pages. The action starts on Page 8. Semirah, Arnie and Miranda wash up on the beach after the plane ditches into the ocean. The first few c... Read More

White Time: Unique YA story collection

White Time by Margo Lanagan

In the collection White Time, Margo Lanagan writes with a clear, distinctive style that doesn’t spoon-feed, but rather challenges the reader in a good way. Her text is multi-layered and works on multiple levels to create interesting speculative fiction stories, some using the tropes of science fiction and some those of fantasy.

White Time features ten stories, and each is unique and different. The eponymous story, "White Time," is the opener for this publication. Lanagan combines a strong sci-fi concept with grounded, complex characters. This piece sets the mood for the rest, as it shows that one of Lanagan's strengths is writing compelling characters and human drama. Another favorite is "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn," which takes place in an urban setting. The protagonist has a particular trait that sets her apart from other people. Aga... Read More

Drinking Midnight Wine: I love the characters, but where’s the Mysterie?

Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R. Green

Simon R. Green lives in Bradford-on-Avon in real life, and I'll wager a guess as to how Drinking Midnight Wine came to be written. I think Green has met some eccentric folks and seen some weird places in the time he has lived in that town, and so it occurred to him to make up magical explanations for them, and build a fantasy novel around them.

Green does a great job of creating engaging characters and vivid scenery. Our hero is Toby, a thirtysomething bookstore clerk who loves books and the pretty lady on the train, and hates exercise and mornings. We also run into the lady-on-the-train herself, aloof Gayle, and her half-crazy sister Luna, both of whom are more than they seem, as well as a minor Norse god, a reluctant werewolf, a gossipy yet mysterious gypsy called the Waking Beauty, and a colony of hippie mice. They are set in a town where that s... Read More

Echo: Teenage angst in a fairytale setting

Echo by Francesca Lia Block

For anyone who's ever read Francesca Lia Block before, you'll know what to expect here. Riddled with teenage angst, fairytale settings and dense, poetic language, Echo provides another glimpse into the mind of tortured, restless adolescence. As always, Block's novel stands outside any particular genre; is it fantasy or drama? Poetry or prose? Magic realism or something else entirely? As always, her trademark style is the use of her intoxicating language, which again defies description, but is best compared to fantasist Patricia McKillip. Like McKillip, reading Block for the first time is always a little confusing, for the language is layered so thickly over narrative and character that it's difficult to keep track of what's happening and who it's happening to.

This is especially true i... Read More

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray: It’s all wonderfully new

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

If you enjoy the atmosphere and imagination of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, or Philip Reeve, then you're sure to like Chris Wooding, a YA fantasy author who does not feel the need to fill his fantasy world with elves, dwarfs, wizards, dragons and every other fantasy cliché that's been done to death since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings.

Some authors are willing to explore new territory, and Wooding is one of these. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray... Read More

The Firebird: Russian folklore fantasy

The Firebird by Sophie Masson

The Firebird is a story made up of a range of Russian folklore, from the gnome-like 'leshis' to the greedy tsar to the Firebird itself. It reads like a fleshed-out fairytale, and contains much of the imagery and themes associated with such stories — everything from the persecuted younger brother to the quest narrative to the malevolent ruler of the land to the magical helpers and objects. For this reason, the story may sound rather predictable (and often it is), but as Russian folktales are not often delved into by Western writers, it is worth tracking down for a read.

Ivan is the youngest son of Tsar Demyan, and bullied by his two elder brothers, the brutal Yuri and the sly Igor. Tsar Demyan has the greatest garden in all the world, the centrepiece of which is the apple tree from Avalon on which grows a single golden apple. This apple is said to give the one who eats it im... Read More

The Hob’s Bargain: Too short, but not bad

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs

I think that the ability to create a world that is filled with magic and unknown places is perhaps too great a task to do in one book. There is a degree of detail that we, as readers, have come to expect due to the growing trend of long multi-volume series.

In The Hob's Bargain, Patricia Briggs does a good job of telling a story within the constraints of a single volume. The heroine is interesting and relatively likeable, but not terribly believable. That's probably because there simply isn't enough space in a single short volume to do much in the way of character development.

The setting is a small village that goes through several disasters in a short time. The heroine loses her new husband and her family and is plagued by an onset of magical power in a community that equates magic with evil. Add to this mix the return of mythical magi... Read More