Alta: Multiple plot problems, but I want to know what happens next

Alta by Mercedes Lackey

Alta (2004), the second book in Mercedes Lackey’s DRAGON JOUSTERS quartet, starts where Joust left off. Vetch, formerly a slave and more recently a “dragon boy” in the land of his enemies, has escaped with the dragon he raised from an egg. They are now in Alta, the land of his birth, which has been occupied by Tia, the land he just escaped from.

Vetch (now called by his real name, Kiron) arrives with much knowledge about how Tians train their jousters, and about how to best raise and train dragons. He hopes to meet the right people and convince them to try his training methods so that, in the future, Alta will be better prepared to win their country back. He worries a bit that someday ... Read More

Supreme Power: Powers and Principalities by J. Michael Straczynski

Supreme Power (Vol. 2): Powers and Principalities by J. Michael Straczynski

In this volume, the shinola hits the fanola. Turns out alien superbeings don’t like being lied to or manipulated in the way they were raised . . . Who knew?! In Powers and Principalities, the second volume of Supreme Power, Hyperion now knows that the government sponsored fiasco that he calls his childhood was all just a scam so the U.S. of A. could have a super-weapon in its back pocket. He’s not impressed. Add to that the awakening of a possibly schizophrenic super-woman who wants to help Hyperion take over the world and the fact that the government’s only other superhero, Joe “Doc Spect... Read More

The Prophet of Yonwood: Why Book 3 of 4 is rarely a prequel

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

Nickie is eleven years old when her aunt Crystal takes her to Yonwood, North Carolina. Their family has inherited a mansion, Greenhaven, from Nickie’s great-grandfather, and while Nickie loves the old building, Crystal is determined to sell it and get back to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

We see the house through Nickie’s eyes, and it is full of neat things, including her great-grandfather’s journals. Nickie also finds Amanda Stokes, who had cared for Nickie’s great-grandfather but who now has nowhere else to go. And there’s also a dog, Otis. Nickie agrees to help Amanda stay hidden in the house and they together create a soundproof room for Otis. (Crystal hates dogs.)

Nickie is a good natured kid and eager to help others. She sets three goals while at the mansion. She is determined to:

Keep Greenhaven
Fall in love
Help the worl... Read More

The People of Sparks: Darkness cannot drive out darkness

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Lina and Doon have led their people out from the subterranean city of Ember. Now, they encounter a world full of dazzling new things like birds, sunlight, and trees. For all its wonder, Lina and Doon have not entered a world of plenty. The humans before largely destroyed the world with their weapons and their insatiable need for revenge. Doon and Lina lead the wandering Emberites in search of a new home.

Instead of a home, however, they find Sparks, a town that has finally begun to realize tentative prosperity after years of struggle. Reluctantly, Mary, Ben, and Wilbur, Sparks’ leaders, agree to provide shelter, food and training to the people of Ember. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors that led them to destroy the world. Unfortunately, Sparks does not enjoy a large surplus of f... Read More

Darknesses: Not great but solid and well-paced

Darknesses by L.E. Modesitt Jr

First off, though this does stand as in independent story in what is called THE COREAN CHRONICLES, it will make a lot more sense to you and you'll be a lot more invested in the characters if you read the first book ahead of time. Darknesses returns to the same main character, Alucius, who remains as in the first a reluctant soldier caught up in battles and politics he'd rather not wage, preferring to set down his sword and his strange Talent and return home to be a herder with his new wife. This book roams further afield than the first book as Alucius is sent to various locales (helps to periodically check the map to keep all his travels and the stratagems behind them straight) and involves more characters, which helps prevent it from feeling stale.

As in the first, the world and especially the military world is presented in a gritty realism and while there ... Read More

Rebel Angels: Better than first book

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray

Rebel Angels is the second volume in Libba Bray’s trilogy about Gemma Doyle, a teenage girl who attends a finishing school in Victorian England. The magic she inherited from her mother, a member of the secretive Order, allows her to enter the Realms, a beautiful fantasy world where she is able to control her surroundings. In the first volume, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Gemma arrives at school after her mother’s death and deals with all the usual things you’d expect to find in a YA novel about a boarding school. At first she is shunned by Felicity and Pippa, the two most beautiful and popular girls in the school, from whom she must bravely and nobly defend her roommate Ann, the overweight unpopular scholarship student. (These characters are present in just about every YA boarding school novel I’ve ever read.) When Felicity and Pippa find out that Gemma can ta... Read More

RUNAWAYS, vol 2: Teenage Wasteland

Runaways: Teenage Wasteland by Brian K. Vaughan

Almost every teenager has a point where he or she decides that parents are either evil, or the lackeys of evil. In the case of six young people in Marvel’s RUNAWAYS, they discover to their shock that their parents truly are, and not just garden variety evil, either; the parents are costumed super-villains. At the end of the first volume of this comic book series collection, the Runaways have gathered information and weapons, and have gone into hiding in a secret hideout. Unbeknownst to them, though, one of them is still loyal to the parental crime syndicate called the Pride.

In Volume Two, Teenage Wasteland, the group begins to coalesce, although internal conflicts prove almost as big a problem as the external ones, problems such as parents, corrupt cops and, in the second se... Read More

Enna Burning: Rather disturbing for a children’s story

Enna Burning by Shannon Hale

Enna Burning is one of Shannon Hale’s BAYERN books — a set of four “companion” books set in the fictional country of Bayern. Each book can stand alone, but they have overlapping characters. I was glad I had read The Goose Girl, the first BAYERN book, before reading Enna Burning because I was already familiar with the world and its inhabitants.

Readers who’ve read The Goose Girl will remember Enna, best friend of Princess Isi. In Enna Burning, Enna acquires the power of fire starting. This dark power is seductive and though Enna hopes to use it to save her country from an aggressive neighbor, she struggles to keep from being pulled to the dark side. She deals with secrets, guilt, and jealousy, learns how lies can ruin relationships, and discovers that the path to destruction is a slippery slope.

It’s hard ... Read More

Marque and Reprisal: No time to grieve

Marque and Reprisal by Elizabeth Moon

After being kicked out of the officer’s academy, getting dumped by her fiancé, and taking a position as a captain in her father’s shipping empire, Kylara Vatta is not living the life she planned. She barely escaped the events in Trading in Danger and was considering severing ties with Vatta Transportation until tragedy struck. An unknown enemy has declared war on Vatta, bombed their buildings and killed most of the family. But Ky has no time to grieve. The enemy is after her, too, and she has no idea what to do or, more importantly, who to trust. As she learns in this installment, Marque and Reprisal, even family members can be enemies. (I so wanted to use the phrase “traitor trader” there, but I spared you.)

Marque and Reprisal picks up right where Trading in Danger left off and those who were pleased with the first installment of VATTA... Read More

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest: A beautiful book to read with a child

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint

From its charming dustcover to the muted two-page illustration at the end, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a beautiful book that I would love to read with, or to, a child. Charles de Lint and artist Charles Vess form a perfect collaboration here, with a wonderful, magical story for middle readers.

This novel is an expansion of de Lint’s novella, The Circle of Cats. De Lint uses as inspiration many of the Appalachian folk-tales, most prominently the strange old story about the King of the Cats, but stays close to his own roots, yarning about the old magic and new magic that imbues the American continent. Lillian is a little girl, an orphan, who lives with her aunt on a farm at the edge of the Tanglewood. Lillian plays in the woods; she scatters scratch for the wild birds after she’s fed the chickens, leaves saucers of milk for the feral cats ... Read More

The Confusion: Best novel in THE BAROQUE CYCLE

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

If Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, focused on events in England and continental Europe during the 17th century, The Confusion is Stephenson taking the time to provide a more global context. Or half of it is. The Confusion combines two novels from the cycle, The Juncto and Bonanza. The Juncto follows Eliza’s exploits in Europe, while everyone’s favorite vagabond, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, stars in Bonanza.

Eliza’s son has been kidnapped by Lothar von Hacklheber, and she employs every means at her disposal to ruin him. Eliza is the brains of this novel, and she manipulates the nobility, cryptographers, and philosophers to regain her son. Eliza is ri... Read More

The Weeping Werewolf: The perfect way to spend an hour with a child

The Weeping Werewolf by Bruce Coville

Moongobble has been assigned his second task to prove he should be a magician: he must get a bottle of tears from the dreaded Weeping Werewolf who lives alone in the forest. Fortunately, Edward, Urk the toad, the Rusty Knight, and Fireball the Dragon are willing to help. When they find the Weeping Werewolf, everyone is in for a big surprise!

This charming little series of short children’s novels, beautifully narrated and enhanced with cute sound effects by Full Cast Audio is the perfect way to spend an hour with a child on a Sunday afternoon. My daughters and I have enjoyed them immensely.

The Weeping Werewolf has some repetitive parts which remind children about the characters and the events so far, but the story moves quickly and comes to a sweet ending that will b... Read More

Year of the Flood: On the Edge

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

[In our “The Edge of the Universe” column we review 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.]

It is well documented that SFF readers love trilogies, prequel trilogies, tetralogies, and “cycles.” Some authors describe settings, but SFF authors “build” worlds and universes. For many SFF readers, the standard of a well-built world is whether or not it warrants a series.

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood tells the story of Crake, a brilliant scientist who decides to save Earth by wiping out humanity, including himself, and replacing it with a new species of beings. To say the least, Crak... Read More

Hercules: The best of McCaughrean’s retellings

Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean has written four retellings of Greek myths, fleshing out the personalities of various heroes and the circumstances that made them legendary. In her beautiful, fluid prose, McCaughrean hits the perfect balance in presenting the darker aspects of the myths without being either too gratuitous or too prissy. In this case, McCaughrean takes the figure of Hercules (who in a Greek setting, should technically be called "Heracles"). In his youth Hercules meets the personifications of Virtue and Vice, who offer him the choice of his destiny. Hercules chooses hardship and suffering over happiness — albeit somewhat accidentally — and so his fate is sealed.

The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Hercules is imbued with supernatural strength even in his infancy. Saddled with the burden of his phenomenal physical strength and his inability to control it, his early life is ... Read More

Spook Country: Weakest in Gibson’s Bigend trilogy

Spook Country by William Gibson

William Gibson’s Spook Country is set in the same universe as Pattern Recognition, but Hubertus Bigend aside, there is little here that recalls its predecessor. Spook Country is perhaps the weakest entry in Gibson’s Bigend trilogy.

Where Pattern Recognition was told from Cayce Pollard’s point of view, Spook Country is divided between three plotlines that only barely touch each other. Hollis Henry, who was once the lead singer of a rock band, is trying to make it as a journalist, and she has been hired by Hubertus Bigend to look into “locative art” technology. Milgrim is an addict and a translator of Russian. Trained in the Russian martial art systema, Tito delivers files to retired spies on behalf of his uncles.

These cha... Read More

The Golem’s Eye: Good sequel, lacks a bit of the spark

The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud

The Golem's Eye is a solidly enjoyable if slightly disappointing follow-up to The Amulet of Samarkand, which admittedly set itself a very high standard. The book returns to the same setting and characters first introduced in Samarkand, while expanding upon the first novel with a few new characters, one new setting (Prague) and a somewhat more complicated plot.

As in the first book, the major story involves a plot against the government which Nathaniel the young ambitious wizard must confront with his much more wise and experienced (and acidic) djinn, Bartimeus. Suspects are the Prague Council, a traitor within the British govt., someone bent on personal revenge, and the Resistance, including young Kitty from book one.

All the strengths of the first book remain, though diluted somewhat in execution. Stroud... Read More

Agents of Light and Darkness: Better than Nightside #1

Agents of Light and Darkness by Simon R. Green

Agents of Light and Darkness, the second book in Simon R. Green‘s Nightside, once again follows the almost always abstruse John Taylor, the private detective who is really good at finding things. In Something From the Nightside we learned that John is a former Nightside badass who developed a conscious during his time away from the Nightside and returned to help someone in need. Agents of Light and Darkness follows a similar premise, except on a larger scale. This time it's the Nightside itself that's really in danger. Heaven and Hell are at war and John is stuck in between. He must locate the Unholy Grail before time runs out and the Nightside becomes collateral damage.

I liked Agents of Light and Darkness Read More

The Dragon’s Son: Doesn’t accomplish much

The Dragon's Son by Margaret Weis

This typical middle novel concerns the twin sons born to Melisande: Marcus, the son of the King of Idlyswylde, and Ven (short for Vengeance), the son of the dragon who (in the body of the human Grald) raped her.

Most of the book focuses on the development of both boys from age 6 to 16. Neither of them know about the other. Ven is half dragon (his legs are dragon's legs) and is being raised by Bellona (Melisande died at the end of Mistress of Dragons). Bellona keeps Ven hidden from the world as best she can. He is, of course, frustrated and lonely and feels like a freak. Marcus is a bastard prince who lives in luxury but possesses some form of Melisande's Dragon magic, so he kind of feels like a freak, too. The rogue dragons Grald and Maristara are looking for the boys, but Draconas watches the boys from afar and occasionally intervenes when necessary, telling the boys not... Read More

Goddess of Spring: Light romantic fun

Goddess of Spring by P.C. Cast

I hesitated to read Goddess of Spring. I never did really get into P.C. Cast's first novel, Goddess by Mistake, and I love the Persephone myth and didn't want to be disappointed. But finally I decided to read Goddess of Spring — and liked it!

Lina, a baker from Tulsa, needs a miracle to save her bakery. She finds it in the form of a mysterious, mystical cookbook, which contains a killer pizza recipe — and an invocation to the goddess Demeter. Demeter is willing to help Lina for a price: Lina must trade places with Demeter's daughter Persephone and travel to the Underworld.

There, Lina masquerades as Persephone and meets Hades, the god of the Underworld, who is a hot Byronic sort of hero. The two begin to fall in love, but can their budding relationship survive both lovers' insecurities, o... Read More

The House of Storms: Not as strong as first book

The House of Storms by Ian R. MacLeod

The House of Storms takes place roughly a century or so and in the same world as MacLeod's The Light Ages. Though it could therefore be called a sequel, one needn't have read The Light Ages to jump into The House of Storms, as the characters and the culture aren't quite the same. The House of Storms is not as strong as the first book, though like The Light Ages it has fully developed vivid characters; a slow, methodical pace; a complex plot, a balanced look at the "good" and "bad" guys; and lush, poetic language. It didn't, however, maintain these strengths quite as consistently as The Light Ages did, creating I thought a noticeable flagging in the second half of the book.

The House of Storms Read More

Trickster’s Queen: Proves that Pierce is the master of YA fantasy

Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce

Trickster's Queen is the sequel to Tamora Pierce's Trickster's Choice and (so far) the first set of books that are not quartets, but a simple duet. It is also by far her longest book, and in her acknowledgements she credits that to J.K. Rowling due to the fact that the Harry Potter books are so thick. Both books take place in Pierce's Tortall universe, though are situated on the Copper Isles rather than Tortall as in the Alanna, Immortals, and Protector of the Small quarte... Read More

Inkspell: Funke’s best work to date

Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

I have to admit that I've found Cornelia Funke's works for the most part to be wonderful concepts whose execution never quite matched their potential. Dragonrider I thought was her most successful work so far, mostly because it didn't reach quite so high. With Inkspell, however, Funke has finally meshed concept and execution together perfectly, creating her best piece of work so far.

Inkspell picks up about a year after the events of Inkheart, opening with Dustfinger finally achieving his long desire to return to Inkworld, the "book" world of Inkheart. In short order many of the major characters from Inkheart — Basta, Mortola, Meggie, Mo, Farid, and Resa also are read into Inkworld, though at different times and pla... Read More

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane: Strong followup

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins

The Prophecy of Bane continues the strengths displayed in Suzanne Collins' first book in the series, Gregor the Overlander. The book moves along quickly and smoothly with few if any slow spots; the major characters, if not minutely detailed, have enough personality and reality to hold one's interest and concern; and the setting, which as in the first is probably the weakest element in terms of vividness, is at least interesting enough in general terms so that its lack of detail is not much of a flaw.

As in book one, Gregor enters the Underworld to save a family member. In book one it was his father; here it is his little sister Boots. One sees the freshness and originality early on in the book as the quest quickly changes from what the reader first assumes it will be — the search for Boots — to a more dark jo... Read More

Soul Stealer: Weaker than first book

Soul Stealer by Martin Booth

I have tracked down Soul Stealer, but I must confess that my search for the third book in this series will be even more lethargic than the search for this one. Despite a strong beginning, and excellent use of real history and alchemical knowledge in the shaping of his story, Martin Booth continually fumbles in his melding of ancient and contemporary times.

First, the good components: Booth creates a beautiful setting for his characters; an English countryside full of "autumn leaves, mist over the river, and red antlered stags". In fact, it reminded me a little of the utterly fantastic Children of Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston, in its dark and dreamy feel. Likewise, though the twins are still a little blan... Read More