2019.01


The Cunning Man: Interesting setting, heart-warming relationship

The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler & Aaron Michael Ritchey

Hiram Woolley, 44 years old, is a slightly melancholy widower who farms beets in Utah during the Great Depression. He and his adopted son, Michael, spend their free time taking food and supplies to people who are suffering more than they are. This includes the citizens, mostly immigrants, of a mining town where the mine has been closed due to a squabble between the members of the Kimball family who own it. The miners aren’t getting paid and they’re starving. They can’t get out of the situation because they rent their homes from the mining company. Some of the workers are scared because they think the mine is haunted. Hiram thinks the Kimballs are keeping a secret about the mine.

Hiram and Michael realize that it would be best for everyone if, rather than continuing to deliver food, they could help get the mine re-opened. That means someone needs to figure out what th... Read More

The Rage of Dragons: A classic style in new clothes

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

There's a vogue lately for fantasy inspired by cultures other than medieval western Europe or modern America, and to that I give a hearty cheer. To be clear, you'll hardly find a bigger lover of medieval Europe in particular than I am — I spent the last couple of weeks before Christmas grading papers on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example — but even I will admit that the neverending conga line of plucky yeomen rising up to shake wartorn kingdoms can sometimes get old. It's therefore nice to see new cultural ideas coming into play. That said, I have to wonder how far some of these stories are really straying from their predecessors in the genre. The Rage of Dragons (2019) is a good example: it features African-inspired names and themes, but it's also inescapably a story about a plucky yeoman rising up to shake a wartorn kingdom.

Still, Th... Read More

Catfishing on CatNet: A clowder of catastrophes, catalysts and catharsis

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

In this worthy Nebula (Andre Norton Award) finalist by Naomi Kritzer we meet Steph, a girl who has spent most of her life on the run with her mother. According to her mom, Steph’s abusive father is extremely dangerous and, after spending a couple of years in jail for arson, he’s stalking them. Steph and her mom keep fleeing to small towns, trying to get lost, but eventually her mom gets nervous again and wants to move on. This means that Steph keeps starting at new schools and never has time to settle in and make friends. Her mom, anxious and paranoid, is not a good source of comfort or companionship.

Steph’s only source of stability is CatNet, a social media site where users are assigned by the site’s administrators to chat rooms called Clowders. At CatNet, Steph is known as LittleBat and she has... Read More

Ninth House: Black magic in Yale’s secret societies

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy “Alex” Stern (the name courtesy of her hippie mother) seems an obvious misfit at prestigious Yale University. Wealth, athletic talent and academic stardom are nowhere to be found in Alex’s life. Instead she’s a high school dropout with a history of dead-end jobs and drug use, and the survivor of a traumatic multiple homicide. But she has a rare talent that to date has brought her nothing but grief: Alex sees the ghosts of dead people.

As it turns out, that talent is highly useful to Yale’s eight elite secret societies, and they’ve had their eye on Alex for a while. Each of these houses specializes in a different type of black magic — Skull and Bones, for example, performs ritual vivisections of living people, examining their inner organs to predict stock market changes — and these dark rituals attract ghosts. A nin... Read More

Anya and the Dragon: The magical adventures of a plucky young heroine

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

With just a month before her bat mitzvah, Anya’s life is mostly preoccupied with keeping her family’s goats out of the garden, her worries over being unable to see the hidden threads of magic connecting everything in the world, and staying out of trouble both at home and in the neighboring village of Zmeyreka, since the local magistrate is actively working to throw Anya’s family out of their home. If only her beloved papa would come home from the Tsar’s faraway war against Sultan Suleiman! But then she stumbles across a bright-red river dragon named Håkon, a brand-new family of fools (literally; they utilize fool’s magic, and the seven sons are all named Ivan) moves into town, and dangerous men in the tsar’s employ arrive in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually, Anya is forced into a terrible position: help her family by not involving herself in the sudden swirl of activity, or help her newfound... Read More

The Guinevere Deception: King Arthur’s a hot teen. Must be Tuesday.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

At this point, I think the teen heartthrob version of King Arthur might be displacing the venerable monarch version. Between that BBC Merlin series, Avalon High, and the seemingly never-ending Mordred in Leather Pants novels that just keep coming and coming like my own personal karmic retribution, people just seem to have a lot of interest in Young Arthur lately. It's probably a symptom of our youth-obsessed culture or something. I tell you, back in the good old days, young Arthur got shamed — shamed! — for his beardless face. Granted, in this case "the good old days" means Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so perhaps a bit of change is to be expected by now.

Grumpy Arthurian fanboy that I am, I sigh over the trend but also can't stop myself from reading anything Arthur-related that comes under my nose. Which brings us to Read More

King of Scars: Battling mortal enemies and demons in the Grisha universe

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars (2019), the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s NIKOLAI DUOLOGY and part of the ongoing saga in her GRISHA universe, begins not long after the events in Crooked Kingdom. Readers should ideally have read both the original SHADOW AND BONE trilogy and the SIX OF CROWS duology before picking up this book; there are a lot of references to prior events and previously introduced characters. We return to the country of Ravka, setting of Shadow and Bone, where Nikolai Lantsov is no... Read More

The Bone Ships: Slow start, spectacular end

The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

Joron Twiner, an ineffective drunkard with low self-esteem, is the shipwife (captain, basically) of Tide Child, a bone ship made of the bones of a supposedly extinct species of sea dragons. When we meet Joron, he’s in port, sleeping off the booze, when a fierce woman named Lucky Meas attacks and easily subjugates him. As the new shipwife of Tide Child, with Joron as her second-in-command, she plans to whip the pathetic crew into shape and to redeem the reputations of both Tide Child and herself.

When Tide Child is given orders to chase down the rumored sighting of a sea dragon and secretly work with enemies to escort it to safety, Joron wonders who his new commander is really loyal to. After acquiring a new crew of mostly prisoners and outlaws, Joron and the Tide Child set off on a (slightly) Moby-Dick-like adventure which will involve dangers that come f... Read More

Gideon the Ninth: Macabre & original

Reposting to include Tim's new review.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Necromancers and their sword-fighting cavaliers star in Gideon the Ninth (2019), Tamsyn Muir’s radically original debut novel, which has been nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award. This science fantasy novel, steeped in an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude, is a mix of space opera and a gruesome treasure hunt that takes place in a spooky, crumbling castle. At the same time, it’s set in an interstellar empire consisting of nine planets, each one ruled by a different House of necromancers.

Eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav is trying to escape her forced servitude in the particularly moribund Ninth House, where she’s surrounded by living skeletons and corpses and near-dead nobles and nuns who pray on knucklebones. Gideon’s escape plan involves sneaking off the entire Ninth planet in a space shut... Read More

The Beautiful: A vampire novel set in New Orleans

The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

It’s 1872 and Celine Rousseau, who’s seventeen years old, has just arrived in New Orleans with several other girls who will work in a convent until they can make matches with respectable young men in the city. Celine is from Paris, where she made gowns for the upper class. She had to flee Paris, and her father, after a tragic event that she won’t talk about.

The work at the convent is boring, but Celine has found a new best friend — Pippa from England — and she’s fascinated by the sultry city of New Orleans, especially after she and Pippa meet a group of gorgeous and mysterious young people in the upstairs room of an elite restaurant. Celine is drawn to their beauty, sophistication, and power, especially to the young man named Sébastien Saint Germain, who seems to be their leader, as well as the richest boy in the city. It’s obvious that Sébastien is also attracted to Celine, but she ... Read More

Silver in the Wood: A hopeful tale about renewal

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Silver in the Wood (2019) is an enchanting novella by Emily Tesh, who is a finalist for the 2020 Astounding Award. It is the first in Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY; the sequel, Drowned Country, will be released in August.

Tobias has lived alone for a long time. He’s a sort of guardian of the forest, keeping its assorted supernatural creatures from getting out of hand. (He’s also a couple of other things, which you’ll find out about later.) Tobias is shaken out of his routine when he has a meet-cute with Henry Silver, the new owner of the manor house at the edge of the wood.

I don’t think the word “England” is ever technically mentioned, but this feels like the folkloric English forest. Reading Silver in the Wood, the reader feels like one wrong turn might lead th... Read More

War Girls: War is hell

War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

Onyii is a battle-hardened soldier, weary of war.

She’s 15.

Her adopted sister, Ify, is even younger and a budding tech genius. The two live in a rebel compound of Biafran girls, hidden by a signal dampener from the Nigerian government. Tochi Onyebuchi gives the reader a little quiet time in the camp, to meet the characters and learn about the technologies they use — and then the camp is discovered, and a riveting battle scene begins. Onyii and Ify are separated, swept apart into two very different lives on opposite sides of the war, each believing the other dead. They will meet again four years later, as enemies.

War Girls (2019) is based on the real-life Nigerian Civil War, but moved forward into the 22nd century. There are cybernetic body enhancements, maglev ca... Read More

Ancestral Night: Asks interesting and relevant questions

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz grew up in an all-female community that she thinks of as a cult. After a bad experience involving a girlfriend, Haimey leaves her home, joins the Synarche, finds a business partner, has her body adjusted a bit (has her feet turned into another pair of hands), and starts a rescue and salvaging business.

Now Haimey and her partner, along with Singer, the sentient AI that drives the ship, travel through space, finding distressed or wrecked spaceships and either saving them or, if it’s too late, salvaging stuff. When we join them, they’re heading toward the source of a signal that seems to come from a ship that was lost a long time ago. Upon arrival, Haimey makes some unsettling discoveries and acquires some technology that somebody else wants. Now they’re being chased by pirates, including a really sexy one that Haimey knows she needs to stay away from.

Gradually Haimey... Read More

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City: My kind of war story

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Anything written by K.J. Parker is a must-read for me. I love his work and recommend it to anyone looking for exciting stories with unique, intelligent, and often unreliable, heroes. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (2019) is no exception.

Orhan is a master bridge builder who’s slightly corrupt (you have to be if you want to get anything done on time and within budget in this city). He arrived in the city when he was a child after his parents were killed and the enemy enslaved him. Now those enemies are his neighbors, colleagues, employers, and employees. While Orhan acknowledges that he is living among people he should hate, he is also thankful for the opportunities he’s been given in the city he now calls home.

Now that city is besieged by an ov... Read More

Strange Love: Light-hearted alien romance

Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

“This whole alien abduction thing isn't the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Ann Aguirre’s Strange Love (2019) isn’t the type of book I normally read, so keep that in mind. I picked it up because the publisher of the audiobook, Tantor Media, offered me a review copy of their recently released edition (April 2020) and I thought it would be nice to try something different.

The story is about an alien named Zylar who wants to marry but has been unsuccessful in the marriage challenges and is about to be relegated to a life of bachelorhood doing a menial job for his tribe if he doesn’t succeed in the next annual Choosing.

Zylar thinks he’s found a suitable mate from another planet (and species) but, on his way to meet her family and col... Read More

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe: A warm-hearted Cuban-inspired tale

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Sal Vidon has just started at a new middle school and he’s already been to the principal’s office three times. That’s because Sal is a magician, or so he says, and, indeed, very strange things happen around him. For example, he made a dead chicken suddenly appear in a bully’s locker, and he made his dead mother appear in his kitchen to cook up a feast of Cuban food one day before his father and stepmom got home from work.

Soon Sal attracts the attention of school council president Gabi Real, a smart industrious middle-schooler who notices Sal’s special skills and sets out to discover his secret. Eventually Sal explains: he can create holes in space-time and retrieve objects or people from parallel universes. There’s a price, though. As Sal’s physicist father explains, each time Sal brings something from another universe, some calamatrons come with it, and the build-... Read More

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse: A fun feminist SF fairytale

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason

Billed as “The Princess Bride meets Princess Leia” and “a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes,” How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (2019) is a science-fantasy starring the first princess born to the royal family of her planet in generations (usually they have boys).

At her naming ceremony, the fairies bless Rory with all the usual fairytale drivel: golden hair, blue eyes, sweet disposition, embroidery and harp-playing skills, and all the other things she’ll need to please a husband. The last two fairies, though, give her some actually useful skills: the ability to always see what is true, and the ability to always find a way out.

Childhood is easy for Rory until her father is assassinated and a war begins. To sto... Read More

Fate of the Fallen: Has its issues but solidly enjoyable

Fate of the Fallen by Kel Kade

Fate of the Fallen is the first book in Kel Kade’s SHROUD OF PROPHECY series and makes for an enjoyable if meandering invitation despite some issues. It’s going to be pretty impossible to discuss what Kade does here without an early spoiler, though since the event happens only 40 pages into the nearly 400-page book, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. That said, you’ve been warned.

The novel opens by introducing two close friends: charming, roguish, master swordsman/fighter Matthias and his “brother” Aaslo, a shy unassuming semi-reclusive “Forester.” In short order the two learn that Matthias is the “Lightbane” — the prophesied chosen one who is literally the only thing stopping all life in this world from being wiped out —and that “Grams” is actually the High Sorceress who has been guarding Matthias as well as surreptitiously train... Read More

The Line Between: Apocalyptic thrills and doomsday cult chills

The Line Between by Tosca Lee

The Line Between (2019) is a chilling and believable take on what happens when a long-extinct disease emerges from the frozen tundra in Alaska. Apparently free-range hogs will eat almost anything, including a disease-infested caribou carcass exposed by the melting permafrost (nod to global warming here). The prion-based disease promptly teams up with a modern flu virus. Invariably fatal cases of rapid early-onset dementia ensue.

These sobering events are seen through the eyes of twenty-two-year-old Wynter Roth, who, as the story begins, is escaping/being kicked out of her apocalyptic cult in rural Iowa. It's a combination of both: she did want out, but the method and timing were taken out of her hands, and she’s deeply torn because her older sister Jaclyn and her four-year-old niece Truly are still locked into the New Earth cult's life. Plus, Wynter has spent fifteen years ... Read More

The Nobody People: Interesting concept, but not a page-turner

The Nobody People by Bob Proehl

Avi Hirsch is an investigative journalist whose specialty is reporting on bombings. He’s obsessed with bombs and the people who make them. This preoccupation has led to the loss of a leg, but that doesn’t slow Avi down too much.

Avi’s latest obsession is with a video recording of a church bomber. There’s a couple of things that seem strange about it. One is that Avi has seen this same guy on two videotaped bombings and he should have died in each. The other weird thing is that matter seems to act strangely when this bomber is present. It’s almost as if the guy can nullify matter.

As Avi is on the bomber’s trail, some people come to visit him and tell him they’ve caught the bomber. These odd folks are faculty members at a school for kids with supernatural abilities. They call themselves Resonants and they want Avi to visit the school and write a news art... Read More

Steel Crow Saga: A big old basket of wild, zany fun

Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

Paul Krueger’s first book, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, was a quirky, fun urban fantasy in which magical bartenders saved Chicago from primordial evil. Based on that, I was eager to read his 2019 novel Steel Crow Saga. After I pre-ordered it, I began to read, on Twitter and other places (I follow Krueger on Twitter) that it drew heavily from the tradition of Japanese animation and the series/game Pokémon. Since I’m one of the six people in the continental USA who knows nearly nothing about either of those topics, I began to wonder if I would be the right reviewer for this book. I didn’t need to worry. This 512-page book does draw from Pokémon, gloriously celebrates anime, an... Read More

Lies of Descent: Solidly written but too familiar

Lies of Descent by Troy Carrol Bucher

Troy Carrol Bucher’s Lies of Descent (2019) is the first book in a new trilogy, FALLEN GOD’S WAR, set in a world of magic, fallen gods, clashing cultures, and internal conflict within cultures. While the writing is solid enough, and Bucher offers up a few unexpected turns, the book suffers from overly familiar elements.

Ages ago the gods of light (led by Parron) and darkness (led by Tomu) warred with each other and to prevent that war from wiping out all life, the gods of light sacrificed themselves to drag their foes down with them to mortal lands where their power, though still strong, could not destroy the world. Those mortal descendants with the blood of Parron can wield magic, and the two warring militaristic cultures of the world, the Esharii and Draegorans, both test their youth and then train them (though the Esharii do so... Read More

Enchantée: An addictive tale of addiction

Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Enchantée (2019) is a young adult historical fantasy set in Paris, just before the French Revolution. Camille is a teenage girl whose family was ravaged by smallpox a few months past. Both of Camille’s parents died, her younger sister Sophie is still frail, and their brother Alain has descended into drink and gambling. Camille has one trick up her sleeve — her late mother taught her the art of turning scrap metal into coins by magic — but lately the magic hasn’t been working properly. The coins are changing back into scrap metal too quickly, so that no one trusts Camille anymore, and Alain steals all the real money to pay his debts.

Desperate to keep herself and Sophie from becoming beggars or worse, Camille opens her mother’s forbidden trunk and finds the tools that will allow her to pass as a noblewoman using glamoire, the magic of changing oneself. This, ... Read More

Blood of an Exile: A well-executed quest with a welcome ecological touch

Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund

I confess that I picked up Blood of an Exile (2019) by Brian Naslund with the expectation that I’d be reading another fantasy about a roguish-yet-likable gritty swordsman and his band of gritty companions battling the odds to save their gritty world. And sure, the world is gritty. But as I often say, it’s not the familiarity of the tropes, but what one does with them. And Naslund executes them quite well even while subverting a few. Even better, he casts the entire story within a more original context that freshens everything, even the grit, nicely.

The country of Almira has a relatively unique way of punishing particular criminals. They tattoo a set of blue bars on their face, give them a low-born assistant known as their “forsaken shield,” and send them out to slay dragons, which are numer... Read More

Mapping Winter: A character and a world that will stick with me

Mapping Winter by Marta Randall

Mapping Winter (2019) is Marta Randall’s reworking of her 1983 novel, The Sword of Winter. (Randall talks more about the story behind the book here.) Its release as Mapping Winter was followed shortly by the all-new sequel The River South, with the two novels making up the RIDERS GUILD series. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, but without magic; I was about two-thirds of the way through the book when I realized, “Huh, I don’t think there’s been any magic!” What it does have is a nation poised between feudalism and industrialization.

The Riders are a venerable organization of messengers who travel around the country of Cherek. They bring the news, spread proclamations, and are responsible for... Read More