The Court of the Midnight King: History with a twist

The Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington

The Court of the Midnight King (2003), by Freda Warrington, is an alternate history of England’s King Richard III with some supernatural elements. I’m kind of bummed that I didn’t discover it in 2003, because I’d probably have liked it even more. I was going through a big Plantagenet and Tudor phase, and if you could find a way to work Goddess religion into the plot, so much the better. As it is, I found the novel slow for a long stretch, but it won me over in the end.

Warrington tells the story primarily through three original characters. Raphael is an orphan who is taken into Richard’s service and is deeply devoted to him. Kate is the daughter of a pagan priestess and has a liaison with Richard in her youth, then later becomes a lady-in-waitin... Read More

Supernova Era: A disturbing vision of a world of children

Supernova Era by Cixin Liu

Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu has had a successful career in China for many years, winning China’s prestigious Galaxy Award nine times. But it wasn’t until 2014, when his 2007 novel The Three-Body Problem was first published in English, that he became well-known outside of Asia. Since then, some of his earlier novels, like Ball Lightning (originally published in China in 2004), have been translated and published in English. Supernova Era (2019, originally published in 2003 in Chinese, but written even earlier, in 1989) is one of Liu’s earliest works. ... Read More

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: Murder and mayhem at Disney World

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

I picked up Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) because it’s set in one of my favorite places in the universe: Walt Disney World. I grew up less than an hour’s drive from the Magic Kingdom, so I’m intimately familiar with the park and, though I’m now middle-aged, I never get tired of visiting. I love the idea of a far-future science fiction story set inside my favorite theme park.

Jules is a man who’s over 100 years old but looks to be in his 20s due to rejuvenation techniques and the ability to back yourself up with a clone. In this immortal post-scarcity society, people pretty much do what they want as long as they have enough “whuffie” — a kind of social credit that’s based on their current reputation. Jules (and others of his ilk) live inside Disney World and operate the same rides that have always been there. Jules’ territory... Read More

Demo: A stunning collection that I have read and taught for years

Demo by Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan

Demo is a collection of eighteen coming-of-age short stories about young people. It’s a giant collection of close to five hundred pages. Usually, but not always, one of the characters has a “super power,” but none of the stories is a superhero story. None of these characters tries to be “super” in any way — characters do not run — or fly — around saving others from villains, nor are there any global threats that need attending. In most instances, these stories deal with everyday issues, even if those issues seem a little more dramatic because of a power. In keeping with the everyday nature of the book, the art by Becky Cloonan is in black-and-white. The lack of colors aids in preventing this book from looking like a superhero comic. In looks and in feel, the stories of Demo are very much “indie” comics.

To give a few exam... Read More

Raw Spirit: The search for Scotch

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.

It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite detailed, but there is no index.
Read More

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kouno

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kouno (An Oxford College Student Review!)

In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I’ll be posting the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Grace Nguyen:

Grace Nguyen is a freshman at Oxford College of Emory University and is interested in sociology, law, and business. She was born and raised in Westminster, CA until she turned eight and moved to Macon, GA. G... Read More

The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare: A fun, diverting read from a solid author

The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare by Sophie Masson

I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books; to put it simply, her stories are imaginative and her prose is elegant. The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare is no exception, (though it's not one of my favourites of hers) inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and Twelfth Night, and containing all that those titles imply: adventure, romance, mystery, magic, mistaken identity, and of course — a voyage that ends in a shipwreck upon the shores of an exotic island.

According to her author's note, the name of the protagonist derives from her sister-in-law's anecdote about teaching Shakespeare with texts published under the imprint Hopewell Shakespeare. Naturally one of her students assumed this was a relative of William Shakespeare, and... Read More

The Time Traveler’s Wife: A haunting and bittersweet love story

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I'm certainly late to the party when it comes to reading Audrey Niffenegger's first novel — I remember it making a huge splash when it was first published, and was astonished to flip open my copy and realise it was released back in 2003. Time certainly flies, which is an apt idiom to recall when reading The Time Traveler's Wife.

Clare meets Henry for the first time when she's six and he's thirty-six. Henry meets Clare for the first time when he's twenty-eight and she's twenty. This is made possible by the fact Henry is born with a rare genetic disease that sporadically pulls him into his past or future, often depositing him in strange locations where he's left stranded and alone.

What makes matters worse is that time travelling doesn't allow him to ... Read More

AVENGERS The Red Zone: Strays into some dark territory

AVENGERS The Red Zone written by Geoff Johns, art by Olivier Coipel and Andy Lanning

I ended up with this story arc (this is the term I’m going to use as it appears when I search for this story) through a Reddit gift exchange over a year ago in which I was also delighted to receive some original art by my gifter. This context lent itself well to the reading of the story as I was very happy to receive it and more likely to overlook flaws – it may or may not be the first physical set of comic books I have owned.

First published in fall 2003, The Red Zone came out just after the first X-Men movie (2000) and the first Spider-Man movie (2002) were showing that perhaps the greater public could Read More

The Salt Roads: Complex and rewarding

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson 

Time does not flow for me. Not for me the progression in a straight line from earliest to latest. Time eddies. I am now then, now there, sometimes simultaneously.

Nalo Hopkinson published The Salt Roads in 2003. Originally the book was marketed as historical fiction, and sometimes as magical realism, if those categories matter. The concrete nature of the world-building and the attention to detail, especially in the sections set on the island of St. Domingue, make the book more grounded than you might expect in a story where, to all intents and purposes, a god is the main character. Somewhat ironically, the St. Domingue sections also contain most of the “fantastical” events.

Lasiren, or Ezili, is an African god and the book follows her bi... Read More

Blind Lake: Lockdown at an Interplanetary Observation Facility

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson

Of course I know what to expect when reading one of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels: a strange technology or entity has a localized effect that snowballs until it has the potential to completely change the world. We follow the ride primarily from the point of view of one everyman character, but he just happens to know both the scientists and the politicians that are responding to the strange technology. 300 pages later, the story is finished.

But that’s not how Blind Lake works — or at least not exactly.

Yes, there is a strange technology — the O/BECs. Are the O/BECs like telescopes? Well, they allow us to see distant planets, including one that hosts sentient life (aliens!). The center of these machines is referred to as “eyeball alley,” but perhaps the true center of these machines is their quantum technology and adaptive cod... Read More

Dreamer of Dune: A faithful portrait of a sci-fi legend

Dreamer of Dune by Brian Herbert

In 2003 Tor released Dreamer of Dune, a biography of Frank Herbert (1920 - 1986) written by his son Brian Herbert, who has written a number of novels as well. The best known of these are the DUNE prequels and sequels written in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. Dreamer of Dune is not the only book about Frank Herbert or his works but the others I am aware of are currently out of print. My copy had been sitting on a shelf for years before I finally picked it up after finishing Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain.

Dreamer of Dune covers Herbert's entire life from his birth in 1920 to his untimely death in 1986. Brian ... Read More

Veniss Underground: Jeff VanderMeer’s debut novel

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

Avoiding the trappings of fragile motifs, Jeff VanderMeer’s debut novella — err, novel — Veniss Underground shows every sign of a writer who is confident in his ability to put a fresh perspective on well-worn tropes. The framework of Veniss Underground is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but the setting and imagery remain wholly original. Scenery twisted like cyberpunk on acid, its details macabre to the bone — a surreal dream — VanderMeer seems poised to make a place for himself in fantasy of the 21st century.

Veniss Underground is a window of time in the lives of three characters: the twins Nicholas and Nicola, and Nicola’s ex-boyfriend, Shadrach. A far-future, unnamed city — called Veniss by Nicholas — is the setting, and technology, including genetic and biological engineering, have perm... Read More

The Etched City: Plenty of brains and courage, missing a heart

The Etched City by K.J. Bishop

The Etched City is a story about a deteriorating tropical city whose denizens include the monstrous, the deranged, and the metamorphic, circling each other in rainy alleys and hot cafes. It’s been lauded as an intelligent and alluring novel. Bishop has been compared flatteringly with Miéville and Moorcock. While The Etched City certainly has plenty of brains and courage, it may be missing its heart.

The book opens on the dusty fringes of civilization, in a desolate Western landscape distantly reminiscent of King’s DARK TOWER books. Gwynn and Raule, our not-heroes, were both on the losing side of a recent civil war, which has left them aimless a... Read More

Neil Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries

Neil Gaiman's Murder Mysteries adapted for comics by P. Craig Russell

P. Craig Russell's artwork is stunning in his adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Murder Mysteries. And since the story has all the other-worldly hallmarks of a Neil Gaiman Sandman story, Russell really gets a chance to show off his talent as he bounces from the angelic Silver City to the cityscapes of our mundane world.

This graphic novel is based on what was originally a short story by Neil Gaiman (and eventually a radio drama in the spirit of The Shadow); I read the comic before see... Read More

The Black Gondolier: Horror stories by Fritz Leiber

The Black Gondolier by Fritz Leiber

The Black Gondolier is a collection of horror stories by Fritz Leiber. I love Leiber’s LANKHMAR stories — they’re some of my very favorites in fantasy literature — and I’ve enjoyed several of Leiber’s short stories and one of his horror novellas, so I figured I might enjoy The Black Gondolier.

I found The Black Gondolier to be, as we so often say when reviewing a story collection, “a mixed bag.” I love Leiber’s style in all of these stories — he’s got a great ear and I love the way he uses language. But I found that many of the stories in The Black Gondolier managed to push one of my buttons, either as a feminist or a psychologist, and usually both. These stories are full of dumb blondes with big boobs and heaps of Freudian psychobabble. So much of the ol... Read More

A Study in Emerald: Gaiman pays tribute to Sherlock and Lovecraft

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman

A Study in Emerald is a Hugo and Locus Award winning short story by Neil Gaiman in which he pays tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

At first Gaiman’s story appears to be a straight Sherlock Holmes pastiche as a man who appears to be Watson relates how his new friend, a consulting detective who appears to be Holmes, is being asked by Inspector Lestrade to help solve a murder mystery. In fact, it completely parallels Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, which gets its name from Holmes’ comment that the murder scene is “a study in scarlet.”

You probably know where I’m going with this. There are a few clues that Gaiman’s world is not the England we know (e.g., it’s referre... Read More

Mirror Mirror: A genuinely creative take on the famous fairytale

Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire

The Eye Is Always Caught by the Light, but Shadows Have More to Say...

Gregory Maguire is best known for Wicked, his take on the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, but due to the fact that 2012 seems to be the year of Snow White (with two big-budget films based on the classic fairytale heading into cinemas) I thought that I'd start with his retelling of the girl "with skin as white as snow."

With a tale so familiar, it's always intriguing to see how a writer will approach the known aspects of the story. In this case our Snow White is Bianca de Nevada, who lives in the farming estate of Montefiore amidst the rolling hills of Italy in the year 1502. Her existence is happy enough, for her widower father Don Vicente dotes on her. Yet change is on the horizon with the arrival of two famous figures, the children of the pope: ... Read More

The Night Country: Far more than a ghost story

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

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.

To call The Night Country a ghost story or horror story does a disservice to both the author and the work. It's like calling The Odyssey a ghost story because Odysseus speaks to the shades. Yes, there are ghosts, but The Night Country aims to be far more than ghost story, and for the most part succeeds admirably and movingly.

The ghosts are the novel's narrators — a group of teens killed in a single-car crash exactly one year ago this... Read More

Changing Planes: The perfect book to read in the airport

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

Airports are horrible places — the boring waits, the noisy rush, the germy stale air, the ugly utilitarian décor, the nasty food. That is, until Sita Dulip, while waiting for her delayed flight from Chicago to Denver and noticing that “the airport offers nothing to any human being except access to the interval between planes,” developed a technique to change planes inside the airport. She discovered that in the airport the traveler is uncomfortable, displaced, and already between planes and can therefore easily slip into other planes of existence while waiting for a flight.

Sita Dulip’s technique has now been publicized and travelers everywhere are using it to alleviate airport boredom. Changing Planes is a collection of fifteen of their stories. A few of the stories are mainly anthropological or linguistic explorations of imaginary cultures, but read... Read More

Sunshine: Rebecca throws in the towel

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I do not know what I have given you tonight...

My strange and frustrating relationship with the books of Robin McKinley continues. Pretend that there's a picture hanging on your wall. Everyone who sees it raves about it: the colours, the texture, the composition, the style. People want copies of it so that they can pass it around. Everyone loves staring at it for hours on end. But as try as you might, and as much as you can recognize the skill that went into painting it, it just doesn't appeal to you. You're not even sure why, so you keep staring at it in a futile attempt to find out. Such is my relationship with McKinley's books.

I know she's a good writer. She's got the fans and the awards to prove it. Clearly I'm the person with the problem, right? And yet try as I might, and as much as I want to, I just can't connect with her characters or he... Read More

Aunt Maria: Would make a brilliant movie!

Aunt Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones once again combines eccentric characters, moral ambiguity, magic, time-traveling, shapeshifting and an uncanny ability to portray human behaviour in one of her best books: Aunt Maria. With all the twists and turns that we expect from Wynne Jones, Aunt Maria is one of the most re-readable and enjoyable books in her vast collection.

After the accidental death of their father, Naomi "Mig" and Chris Laker are reluctantly taken to Cranbury-on-Sea by their mother to visit Aunt Maria. Maria appears to be a cuddly old lady (though is constantly ringing up and meddling in their lives), but once they get to their house the siblings find that she is much worse. Behind her compliments and manners is an old lady determined to get her own way — for instance, when she says "I won't bother with breakfast, now Lavinia's not here... Read More

Wizard at Work: Not groundbreaking, but fun for young readers

Wizard at Work by Vivian Vande Velde

Wizards are supposed to be old men with pointy hats, so the young wizard professor at the center of this story makes himself look like an old man during the school year. He puts his disguise away at the beginning of his summer vacation and looks forward to a few months of puttering around the garden growing vegetables he won’t eat, when a chance encounter with a witch sets him off on a series of adventures to discover that appearances don’t always match reality.

Wizard at Work by Vivian Vande Velde is a collection of humorous takes on familiar fairy tale staples. Each chapter treats a different trope — Cinderella, dragons, magic mirrors, unicorns, and ghosts all put in appearances in some form or another — and together they form a sweet, simple, and gently funny collection of tales that will delight younger readers. Both characters and plot are... Read More

The Old Country: For YAs and adults who like folk and fairy tales

The Old Country by Mordecai Gerstein

Gisella lives in the Old Country, where “every winter lasts one hundred years, and every spring is a miracle.” In one tumultuous day, her brother Tavido is drafted into the army on the eve of war, even though they are Crags, a despised ethnic group. When she goes into the forest to hunt the fox that has been stealing her family’s chickens, she makes the mistake of looking into the eyes of the fox, and finds herself in the body of the fox, and the fox in control of her own body. When she makes it back to her farm, she finds that the war has come to her farm, and everyone is missing. Accompanied by the family cat, a chicken named April, and the sprite Quick, Gisella sets off on a cross-country adventure to find her brother, her family, and her own body.

The Old Countryreads like a folktale. With an evocative prose, Mordicai Gerstein takes us to a pseudo-Eur... Read More

Poison: Clever ideas, and style

Poison by Chris Wooding

The fantasy genre owes Chris Wooding a huge favour. In a genre awash with sad Tolkien knock-offs filled with magic swords, plucky heroes, wise wizards, princesses-in-distress and other tired clichés, Wooding continues to churn out exciting and intriguing stories that contain a rare force of imagination. Even though Poison is not quite as successful as some of his earlier efforts (especially The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray) it certainly deserves credit for its skill, style, fast-pace and clever ideas.

Which is ironic considering I was rather concerned on reading the first chapter. A young girl named Poison lives in the gloomy swamplands of the Black Marshes, together with a woebegone father and a nasty stepmother. An outcast in her own village (she chose... Read More