2018.01


The Deep and Shining Dark: Intriguing enough to check out book 2

The Deep and Shining Dark by Juliet Kemp

The opening of a new series, The Deep and Shining Dark is a debut novel by Juliet Kemp, that for the most part avoids many if not all of the common issues of first books, making for a smoothly enjoyable read that falls just a bit short of a richly realized story.

The city of Marek is ostensibly part of the larger nation of Teren. It for some time now has operated as an independent city-state thanks to several factors: being a port city, having a strong trading relationship with the dominant sea-faring nation of Salina, and being the only place in Teren where magic doesn’t require blood.

This last is due to a century-old agreement made between the founders of the city and a spirit known since then as the cityangel. Now though, change is coming to disrupt the city’s long-standing stability — a plague has killed all but two of Marek’s sorcerers,... Read More

Minimum Wage Magic: A new DFZ series

Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron

My teenage daughter (Tali) and I enjoyed listening together to the audiobook editions of Rachel Aaron’s HEARTSTRIKERS series, so we were pleased to learn that Aaron wrote (and self-published) a spin-off series also set in the Detroit Free Zone (DFZ), which takes place a couple of decades after the end of Last Dragon Standing.

But you don’t need to read the HEARTSTRIKERS books first, so feel free to jump in right here with Minimum Wage Magic (2018).

The DFZ series, beginning with Minimum Wage Magic, stars Opal Yong-ae, a young mage who ekes out a living in the DFZ by working as a “Cleaner.” This nasty, bu... Read More

The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn: A fun heist story

The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides

Ardor Benn and his friend and partner Raekon Dorrel are con artists. They live in a world where a substance called grit (extracted from dragon poo) has magical properties.

There are different types of grit, depending on what the dragon ate, and they can be used to create various magical effects. Drift grit, for example, lets the user float in the air like a helium balloon, and barrier grit creates a temporary invisible wall.

Ard and Raek are clever and resourceful, pulling elaborate cons using grit. Ard calls himself a “ruse artist extraordinaire” but deep down he knows that his lifestyle is unhealthy. His mother and the woman he loves think he’s dead and he’s too ashamed to let them know the truth.

When Ard and Raek get a dangerous job offer that would pay enough to let them retire from their lives of crime, they decide to take it. It will... Read More

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: It’s not about aliens, it’s about us

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Disclaimer: As my students know, I’ve had a crush on Hank Green for years. I will try to not let this bias my review.

In the middle of the night when April May, a graphic designer, is on her way home from work in Manhattan, she’s the first person to notice a huge new statue on the sidewalk. It’s totally out of place, but she appreciates its artistry, so she calls her friend Andy and asks him to help her make a video about the statue (which she names Carl). When Andy uploads it to YouTube, it goes viral. When other Carls are discovered in other major world cities, April, the first person to report on the Carls, becomes famous and begins to relish her role as their spokesperson. Her fame opens many doors but also causes problems and, eventually, becomes dangerous.

An Abs... Read More

Dark Ark (Vol. 1): Forty Nights: A ship of horrors

Dark Ark (Vol. 1): Forty Nights by Cullen Bunn (writer) & Juan Doe (artist)

Dark Ark is a wonderfully disturbing horror story about the flood of forty days and forty nights. But this story is not about Noah’s ark. This is about a different ark — one that we have never heard of. Noah’s ark saved the natural creatures for the new world, but the dark ark saves the unnatural creatures. It’s a great premise that allows Cullen Bunn to put a bunch of vampires, monsters, and other unholy beings together in one place.

Issue one gives us the backstory, which explains why these creatures do not go ahead and feast on the animals in Noah’s ark: The counterpart to Noah on the dark ark is a sorcerer commanded by Satan, or some such demonic being, to build this ark. If he does not, he and his family will suffer eternity in hell. However, if he successfully builds the ark and saves the creatures aboard, maki... Read More

City of Lies: Appealing characters in this debut

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

Sam Hawke’s debut novel, City of Lies, is the first book in her POISON WARS series. It features two protagonists, Jovan and Kalina, who are brother and sister. They work for their friend Tain, a young man who has suddenly become the Chancellor of their country after his uncle was poisoned. As the Chancellor’s proofer, Jovan tests everything Tain eats or drinks. He knows how to detect most poisons, he’s inoculated against many of them, and he carries the antidotes. With a successful poisoner on the loose, Jovan’s job is more important than ever.

Kalina is trained in diplomacy, so her job is to advise Jovan in his interactions with his people and their enemies. This has also suddenly become an essential duty because an army has arrived at the gates and ... Read More

Legends of the Sky: Strong emotions, interesting politics, weird pacing

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan, first published in the UK in 2018 as Dragon Daughter and reprinted in the US in 2019, is set on the island nation of Arcosi. Dragons have long been extinct on Arcosi, but still play a powerful symbolic role in the culture. (For what it’s worth, I like the UK title better! I think it more effectively conveys both the importance of dragons and the revelations about long-lost family that the heroine, Milla, will experience.)

Milla is a young servant girl who witnesses a murder. The killer doesn’t find the prize they were looking for, but Milla does—a bag containing four dragon eggs. In time these eggs come to the attention of the Duke, who wants control of them to increase his power, but it turns out that dragon hatchlings bond strongly to one person and cannot thrive without that person. O... Read More

Semiosis: Oh, give me a home where the fippokats roam…

Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke’s 2018 debut novel, is a fascinating examination of culture, intelligence, and co-operation in the face of extreme hardship. A small group of high-minded and free-thinking colonists have left Earth for a planet they’ve named Pax, in honor of their Utopic dream of what the planet represents, though they quickly discover that peace is not easily achieved — especially when they discover that you can never go home again, but neither can you completely leave it behind.

Pax has breathable air and potable water, a higher gravity than Earth, and a terrifying menagerie of plants and animals offering constant reminders that expectations about how things will work can be deadly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the new residents of Pax, something they butt their heads against time and time again, is their assumed sense of superior sapient intelligence; just beca... Read More

An Easy Death: Sorcery and fast guns in an alternate-history America

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris

In An Easy Death (2018) the first book of her latest series, GUNNIE ROSE, Charlaine Harris introduces readers to Lizbeth Rose, a nineteen-year-old “gunnie” (gunslinger) living in what was once the United States of America — until Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated before becoming the thirty-second President, and the ensuing chaos fractured the country into different regions, each with their own laws and social codes. Operating with a crew as a gun for hire is lucrative work, should a body live long enough to receive payment, whether that’s guiding folks across the border from Texoma into New America, engaging in firefights with bandits, or hunting down the dangerous grigori (wizards) who flourish under the auspices of the Holy Russian Empire’s strongholds on the West ... Read More

Give the Dark My Love: A dark story for young adults

Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis

Nedra Brysstain is a new scholarship student at the Yugen academy in her country’s capital city. She comes from one of the rural villages in the north that have been suffering from the plague. She plans to study medicinal alchemy so she can learn how to heal people who’ve been infected with the plague.

Though most of the school’s wealthy students either ignore or attempt to ostracize Nedra, her talents and kind heart win her two important allies. One is the professor who takes her under his wing after he recognizes her potential. The other is a rich handsome student named Grey who is willing to look past Nedra’s low status.

As the plague continues to sweep the country, Nedra trains hard while she worries for her hometown, especially her parents and twin sister. As Nedra starts to become aware of her country’s political situation, and as the plague gets closer and closer ... Read More

Small Spaces: A delicious autumn read

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

I fell in love with Small Spaces (2018) from the first paragraph. Before I even realized this was the same Katherine Arden whose adult fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, and before I got caught up in the richly drawn characters and the spooky plot, I was smitten by this:
October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. ... Read More

City of Ghosts: A genial enough middle grade story

City of Ghosts by V.E. Schwab

City of Ghosts (2018) by V.E. Schwab is a Middle Grade book that, well, reads like a Middle Grade book.

In other words, it’s entertaining and engaging enough for that age group, but doesn’t have the depth or complexity in plot or characters to expand beyond that audience, which I’m clearly well, well outside of.

Ever since she almost drowned, young Cassidy Blake has been able to see ghosts, to “pull aside the veil” and step for a brief time into their world.

She’s also picked up a best friend — Jacob — a ghost of roughly her own age.

Cass is looking forward to a nice easy summer at the beach, but instead her author parents, who write about the paranormal (dad’s the skeptic, mom the believer), have been picked up for a TV sh... Read More

The Hills Have Spies: A good introduction to Lackey’s VALDEMAR universe

The Hills Have Spies by Mercedes Lackey

If, like I was, you’re utterly unfamiliar with Mercedes Lackey’s hugely popular and wide-ranging VALDEMAR series and the various interconnected novels set within that kingdom, The Hills Have Spies (2018) is a good entry point. The narrative flow is familiar in a retro, 1980s kind of way, evoking the fantasy genre I immersed myself in during my adolescence, with an appealing and likeable main character, various clever animal companions, a dastardly villain who spends most of the novel off-page, and just enough tension to keep me turning the pages to the comfortable, heartwarming conclusion.

Peregrine is the oldest of three children born to Mags (Herald Spy of Valdemar) and Amily (the King’s Own Herald), and Perry and his siblings have spent their childho... Read More

Priest of Bones: A brutal beginning

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Tomas Piety, a foul-mouthed army priest who recently promoted himself to captain after the death of the former captain, is on his way home with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Bloody Anne, and some of their soldiers. The war is over and Tomas is looking forward to returning to Ellinburg, his hometown, where he owns several small businesses such as taverns and brothels.

Actually, to call Tomas a businessman is slightly generous. In fact, he’s a mob boss and much of his wealth comes from selling protection to those who are weaker. He can be savage when necessary but, generally, he’s a nice guy who cares for the people he feels responsible for, including the citizens of his town. The men who work for him in Ellinburg are known as the Pious Men and Tomas has invited his remaining veterans to join them. (I’m not sure why they didn’t go back to their own hometowns.)

When Tomas and... Read More

Ink: Unique, gruesome premise

Ink by Alice Broadway

Ink (2018), by Alice Broadway, is the first book in a YA dystopian trilogy with a unique, if gruesome, premise. Everyone in the city of Saintstone has the events of their lives tattooed on their bodies. When a person dies, their skin is removed and made into a book, which is then judged at a ceremony that recalls the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian mythology. If the person is determined to have lived a good life, the book (and by implication, the person’s soul) is returned to their family to be remembered forever among the ancestors. If the book is found unworthy, however, it is thrown in the fire and the person is officially “forgotten.” People without tattoos, called “blanks,” are hated and have been forced out of Saintstone.

Leora is a teenage girl whose father has just died. His skin book is created, and Leora and her mother look forward to the day they can bring it h... Read More

Awakened: Camera-ready SF horror adventure

Awakened by James S. Murray & Darren Wearmouth

Grady McGowan has been logging lots of overtime, running a tunnel-boring machine beneath the Hudson River for the massive Z Train subway line extension that will link New York City to New Jersey with an underground express train. They’re even building a state-of-the-art underwater Visitors’ Pavilion in the middle of the Upper Bay. It’s hard work for Grady, but everything is going well … until a huge hole opens up underneath Grady and his machine.

Three years later, the mayor of NYC, Tom Cafferty, is in the Pavilion, presiding over the opening ceremony and inaugural run of the Z Train. The President of the U.S. is a surprise guest (though not a welcome one from Cafferty’s point of view) and Cafferty’s wife Ellen is one of the honored guests on the Z Train heading to the Pavilion from Jersey City. There’s a delay. A shriek over the loudspeaker. And then the train slowl... Read More

Kill the Queen: A YA type of fantasy with adult content

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is a member of the royal family (seventeenth in line for the throne of Bellona, to be precise) and has lived in the royal palace for fifteen years, since her parents were murdered when she was twelve. But this position of access hasn’t exactly translated into a life of privilege for Everleigh, or Evie. Partly because she lacks the powerful offensive magical powers that most royals have (she does have a super-sensitive sense of smell), Evie is treated just a few steps above a servant. She’s mostly overlooked unless there’s some boring or unpleasant duty that a royal has to perform, like making cranberry-apple pie for guests from the kingdom of Andvari or learning an intricate dance, the Tanzen Freund, for the visiting Ungerian delegation.

Evie does, in fact, have another magical power that she’s kept secret all her life, and it and her nose stand her in go... Read More

The Poppy War: Grimdark military fantasy in an Asian world

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Fang Runin (Rin) is a war orphan living with opium-dealing foster parents who physically abuse her and treat her like a slave, which is miserable enough. But when they arrange a match for her at age fourteen with a twice-divorced merchant three times her age, Rin has finally had enough. She comes up with an escape plan, managing to hold off her foster parents’ marriage plans for her for the time being through a combination of threats and promises. Rin spends every spare waking moment during the next two years studying for the Keju, a national test to find the brightest students in the empire to admit to the Academies, even burning herself with hot candle wax to keep herself awake and focused as she crams for the test. And it works: Rin does so well on the Keju that she’s admitted to Sinegard, the military school for the most elite students in the Nikara Empire.

It seems like a dream come true, but R... Read More

Embers of War: A pleasant but forgettable space opera

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Embers of War (2018), which is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, is the first book in Gareth L. Powell’s EMBERS OF WAR series. The story is set in the far future, after humans were welcomed into the Multiplicity.

In the prologue we meet Captain Sally (“Sal”) Konstanz and the sentient spaceship she captains, Trouble Dog. They belong to the House of Reclamation, an ancient organization that serves the Multiplicity by rescuing the crews and passengers of injured or stranded spaceships. Trouble Dog used to be a warship but after being ordered to nuke the planet Pelapatarn, killing a sentient forest and many people, Trouble Dog felt remorse and left the military.

Also aboard the Trouble Dog Read More

The Quantum Magician: A fun, light heist novel

The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician (2018) is kind of like one of those summer movies where if where you don’t think too much about what is happening, and aren’t looking for deep, moving character studies, you’re more than perfectly happy to glide along the surface and enjoy the ride as things go boom. And though, like a number of those same movies, The Quantum Magician goes on a bit too long, for the most part I happily skated through. And yes, things did go boom.

We’re set centuries in the future when humanity has colonized the stars thanks to a set of stable wormholes left behind by a long-dead civilization. These gates are fiercely, jealously controlled by a small number of powerful, dominating groups such as the Congregate and the Anglo-Spanish banks. What kickstarts the action is when one “client” culture, the Sub-Sahar... Read More

The Cruel Prince: Starts a new YA series by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

When they were young, Jude and her twin sister witnessed the murder of their parents by their older stepsister’s father, Madoc. Feeling some responsibility for the girls, Madoc took all of them to live with him in the High Court of Faerie. Bullied by the fae nobles, and made to feel like a worthless mortal, Jude learned that’d she’d have to fight to survive. Now she’s scrappy, ambitious, clever, and an opportunist. But she still has a soft side.

It took me a while to warm up to The Cruel Prince (2018), the first novel in Holly Black’s THE FOLK OF THE AIR series for young adults. There are two reasons for that. The first is that Jude is pretty one-dimensional for a significant part of the novel. She is angry. Very angry. Angry about her parents’ murders, angry... Read More

Exo: An exciting YA SF thriller

Exo by Fonda Lee

A hundred years ago aliens defeated and colonized Earth. For the most part, humans now live in peace with the aliens. A minority of humans have been chosen to go through the aliens’ hardening process when they are young. This gives them a type of exoskeleton that makes them very hard to kill. These Exos constitute a military upper class and they look down on “squishies” — those humans who can’t be, or refuse to be, hardened.

Donovan Reyes, the son of the Prime Liaison to the aliens, is an Exo. One of his jobs is to patrol his city, flushing out and arresting any dissidents who remain. When a raid goes wrong and Donovan is captured by a rebel group, his father refuses to negotiate with the terrorists. Donovan’s whole life is turned upside down and his loyalties are challenged.

Exo (2017), the first book in Read More

The Belles: Exciting despite characterization problems

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The history books say that the God of the Sky married the Goddess of Beauty and their children populated Orléans. But when Beauty started spending all her time with their children instead of her husband, Sky cursed the people of Orléans, giving them “skin the color of a sunless sky, eyes the shade of blood, hair the texture of rotten straw, and a deep sadness that quickly turned to madness.” So, Beauty created the Belles, special girls who have magic that can bring beauty and joy back to the people of Orléans.

Camellia and her five sisters are Belles. They’ve been training and practicing all their lives and now, on their sixteenth birthday, they are on their way to Orléans to be honored and assigned their Belle duties. Camellia knows that she is the most creative and gifted of her sisters and she expects to be named as the queen’s Favorite, which means that she’ll get to live in the pa... Read More

Kingdom of Needle and Bone: Preachy, but interesting

Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

Lisa Morris, Patient Zero, is only eight years old when she contracts a mutated and vicious form of measles, infects hundreds of other people while visiting Disney World, and dies. The disease races across the planet, killing millions, because “the virus always spreads.”

Lisa’s Aunt Isabella, a pediatrician who feels guilty about Lisa’s death, goes on a crusade to protect those who haven’t yet been exposed to the virus. Her pediatric clinic is targeted by anti-vaxxers, but she continues to champion — and try to explain — herd immunity. Then her youngest sister discovers something even more terrifying than the obvious initial effects of the new virus, making Isabella change course and launch an elaborate plan that may not be entirely ethical but just may save the human race.

Mira Grant Read More

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword: Charming and quirky

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

Peasprout Chen and her little brother Cricket have been chosen by the dowager empress to represent their province at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword in the famously beautiful city of Pearl. In exchange, the mayor of Pearl has sent two of his children to Shin, the poor rural area where Peasprout and Cricket grew up.

The Chen siblings were chosen because Peasprout is the best wu liu competitor in her entire province. She’s a celebrity there. But when Peasprout arrives at their new school, her classmates are not impressed. Right away, Peasprout and Cricket don’t fit in. They don’t have fashionable clothes or extra skates. Peasprout sets out to prove herself as the best in her class while she tries to protect her little brother, not nearly as accomplished in the martial art, from bullies.

Peasprout is a great skater, but she’s at a major ... Read More