2020.01


The Extraordinaries: Superheroes and extraordinary friendships

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klume

TJ Klune’s 2020 novel The Extraordinaries is only the second-best YA/superhero/coming of age/Spiderman movie parody/neurodivergent/ queer rom-com I’ve read this year. I’ll explain at the end of the review why it only came in second.

Nicholas Bell is sixteen, gay and out to his father, friends and school. Nick lives with ADHD. His mother was killed a few years ago, and he and his cop dad share a loving but uneasy relationship. Nick’s life is further complicated by his crush on one of the two of Nova City’s superpowered, or Extraordinary, people—Shadow Star. Nick writes voluminous fanfic about Shadow Star and obsesses over him daily. It’s easy to obsess over Star and his nemesis, PyroStorm, because the two Extraordinaries seem to clash more and more frequently, their battles are becoming dangero... Read More

The Unspoken Name: An interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name
(2020) is the first in A.K. Larkwood’s SERPENT’S GATE series, and it’s an intriguing opener that creates a fascinating world and introduces more than a few interesting characters, though the book had a few pacing issues and overall didn’t quite fulfill I’d say its full potential. That said, having read book two, I can say that those issues disappear in the sequel, so readers should feel fine jumping in and knowing the journey is worth it.

The main character, Cswore, is the chosen one of a cult that worships a nameless god (the Shrine of the Unspoken Name). While Chosen One often means the hero of a tale, here, unfortunately for Cswore, it means she’s been selected as a child to be sacrificed to the god when she comes of age (at 14). The story has a bit of... Read More

The Bone Shard Daughter: A fast-paced, enticing adventure

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter (2020) by Andrea Stewart is a fast-paced, enticing read, with an attractive world and a magical system that grabs the imagination with both hands and doesn’t let it go.

Stewart’s debut is the first book of a series, THE DROWNING EMPIRE. In an archipelago empire, the imperial Sukai dynasty defeated the powerful Alanga, who ruled it. The current emperor, Shiyen, uses bone shard magic to protect his citizens from the possible return of the Alanga. Shiyen runs his empire using constructs, chimera-like beings animated by chips of bone taken from every citizen of the empire, usually when they are children. At events called Festivals, chips of bone are chiseled out of each child’s skull, sometimes with fatal results. Those chips, later implanted... Read More

Black Sun: A strong start to a new series

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (2020) introduces a new series set in an ancient Mesoamerica that is a mix of partly-familiar cultures and original fantasy elements, creating a heady brew that rolls along smoothly even as it moves back and forth in time and amongst a quartet of POVs.

Those POVs belong to:

Naranapa: the young Sun Priest based in the holy city of Tova, head of the religious order that has kept peace for three centuries.
Serapio: a young boy groomed since his childhood as the “vessel” of the Crow god, bent on vengeance for his people’s massacre in Tova years ago at the Night of Knives.
Xiala: a ship’s captain and member of the Teek, a (seemingly) all-female people... Read More

Unconquerable Sun: Needs more context

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun (2020) is the latest YA novel from Kate Elliott, the first novel in THE SUN CHRONICLES, and is nominated for a 2021 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel. The conceit is that Elliott has gender-flipped the historical narrative of Alexander the Great, adding a space opera setting full of galaxy-spanning politics and military battles, along with the complications created by unimaginably wealthy and privileged people.

Unfortunately, this one was not a success for me. Unconquerable Sun is told from three points-of-view: Princess Sun, daughter of queen-marshal Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia; Persephone Lee, a military cadet with a complicated family history; and Apama At Sabao, an enemy combatant whose importance to the g... Read More

Legendborn: YMMV

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn (2020), the first book in her LEGENDBORN CYCLE, wasn’t on my radar until I saw it on this year’s Locus Awards finalists list for Best Young Adult novel. I grabbed the audiobook and one of the YAs that lives in my house (Tali, my 18-year-old daughter) and we listened to Legendborn together as we worked a jigsaw puzzle. We agreed to give Legendborn a rating of 3.5 which is quite a bit lower than the book currently rates at both Amazon and GoodReads, so keep that in mind (YMMV). The bottom line is that we found the story entertaining and wanted to know what happened, but there were too many issues for us to fully endorse Legendborn.

Bree Matthews is a young black high school student who is smart and successful enough that she gets admitted, along with her bes... Read More

Raybearer: Deserves its accolades

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Tarisai, who has the magical gift of being able to perceive the memories of objects and people, has always lived a sheltered life in her mother’s large house. She rarely sees her mysterious mother and is taken care of by unfriendly servants and tutors who are rigorously educating her for some unknown task. Lonely, Tarisai longs for companionship, travel, freedom, and a sense of purpose.

When she is 11 years old, without any explanation, Tarisai’s mother sends her to the capital to compete to be one of the crown prince’s 11 counselors. If she is chosen, she will live with the other young counselors and the Prince for the rest of her life, as they rule their country together through a magical bond called the Ray. However, Tarisai’s mother, who wants revenge for something the royal family did to her years ago, has placed a geas on Tarisai -- as soon as Tarisai is sworn in as one of the counselors, s... Read More

A Deadly Education: Fantastic originality

Reposting to include John's new review.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.

El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies, and spac... Read More

Finna: It’s a LitenVärld after all

Finna by Nino Cipri

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated wandering through the endless maze of rooms that is IKEA, it’s not hard to imagine that there are hidden passages that lead, not to a secret shortcut to an exit, but to another world entirely. Nino Cipri’s Nebula Award-nominated novella Finna (2020) takes that concept and adds to it a timely set of social concerns, ranging from gender identity to the evils of capitalism generally and low-wage retail jobs in particular.

Ava is a sales associate at LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), the fictional equivalent of IKEA, down to the gigantic parking lot and blue-and-yellow box-shaped exterior, not to mention the labyrinthine interior layout. Ava is disgruntled because she’s been called in to work on her day off, when her only desire is to stay home, binge on Netflix and Florence and the Machine, and try to recuperate from her... Read More

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro: An indomitable queen fights for her throne

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

I judged this book by its cover and steered clear of it for more than a year, until by a strange, convoluted road I ended up reading it.

The cover of 2020’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, written by K.S. Villoso, is beautiful, featuring a gorgeous woman in profile, wearing body-hugging leather armor, with a sword over one shoulder and a decorative cut on one perfect cheekbone. This, combined with the blurb from a well-known fantasy writer and the back cover-copy which starts, “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf…” made me think I was taking on a gory military (or quasi-military) fantasy where a deposed queen hacked and slashed her way through enemy armies for some reason. At the time (pandemic?) I just wasn’t up for that. (The series is called THE CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN on Goodreads, although Amazon may show ... Read More

Over the Woodward Wall: Follow the improbable brick road

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall (2020) began its life as an imagined book, existing merely as a set of excerpts “quoted” at the end of certain chapters in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. But these excerpts were compelling enough that McGuire decided to use them as the building blocks for an actual fantasy series, using the pseudonym A. Deborah Baker (the alchemist credited with authoring this book in Middlegame).

Avery and Hepzibah (“Zib”) are two “very different, very ordinary” children who live on the same ordinary street but don't know each other at all. They’re as far apart as A and Z in their personalities: Zib is free-spirited and adventurous, with a... Read More

The Bright and Breaking Sea: An entertaining sea-faring adventure

The Bright and Breaking Sea by Chloe Neill

Kit Brightling, who grew up in a home for orphaned girls, is now the captain of her own ship. She’s a good leader, has a great crew, and her magical ability to influence water makes her especially formidable.

Kit works for Queen Charlotte, a benevolent monarch who doesn’t quite feel secure on her own throne. That’s because there are rumors that its previous occupant, the exiled emperor Gerard Rousseau, has been secretly corresponding with disgruntled nobles and may have plans to return with an army and/or a secret weapon.

Queen Charlotte asks Kit and her crew to investigate the rumors and some suspicious activities that may be associated with Gerard’s plans. The queen also assigns Kit a new partner — a nobleman named Rian Grant who, because he’s a veteran, has some expertise that may be helpful in Kit’s mission.

Kit hates Rian Grant immediately,... Read More

Bloom: A scary plant pandemic that now seems possible

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

Three kids battle an invasive plant in Kenneth Oppel’s latest middle grade fantasy. Bloom (2020) is mysterious and thrilling all the way through. Our heroes are:

Anaya, who’s allergic to almost everything.

Petra, who’s allergic to water. She used to be Anaya’s best friend until Anaya betrayed her.

Seth, the new kid in town who’s being fostered by farmers.

When black weeds appear suddenly and grow tall overnight, nobody knows what they are, even Anaya’s botanist father. The townsfolk pull out and chop down the weeds but they just come back the next day. Nothing kills them.

It’s soon discovered that these weeds are growing all over the planet and causing severe... Read More

The Last Smile in Sunder City: Let’s give Fetch some more time

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Fetch Phillips is a “man for hire” in Sunder City, a place that used to be full of magic until The Coda — the day the magic disappeared. Now all of those magical creatures — elves, wizards, gnomes, faeries, dragons, etc. — are left without the source of their livelihood and longevity and they are quickly deteriorating. Humans in Sunder City are suffering, also, because magic fueled the lights, heat, and other sources of comfort.

Fetch feels guilty about all of this. That’s because, as we gradually learn throughout his story, humans are responsible for destroying the magic. That’s also why Fetch doesn’t work for humans. He wants to help the creatures whose lives have been ruined by his kind.

Fetch’s current case involves finding a missing vampire who teaches at a local private school. Soon he discovers that one of the vampire’s students, the daughter of... Read More

Ink & Sigil: Starts a fun new IDC spin-off series

Ink & Sigil by Kevin Hearne

Fans of Kevin Hearne’s popular IRON DRUID CHRONICLES will be thrilled to learn that Hearne has a new spin-off series: INK & SIGIL. The first novel, Ink & Sigil (2020), introduces Al MacBharrais, an older widowed gentleman who has a unique talent. He uses special inks to create sigils that hack the brain through the ocular nerve. For example, the Sigil of Porous Mind makes the target open to suggestion, the Sigil of Certain Authority makes the caster appear to have the authority to do whatever they’re doing, and the Sigil of Quick Compliance makes the target want to do whatever the sigil writer asks.

Al is ready to retire, but every time he’s got an apprentice nearly trained up, the apprentice dies in some freak accident. As Ink... Read More

Hunted by the Sky: Engaging characters in a vivid alternate world

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena

Hunted by the Sky (2020) is the first book in Tanaz Bhathena’s YA fantasy duology THE WRATH OF AMBAR. Bhathena is an award-winning YA author, and Hunted by the Sky is her first foray into YA fantasy. Set in an alternate world based on medieval India, the story held my interest with its magic, suspense, and the conflicts the two main characters face. The descriptions of settings delighted me.

Gul has spent her life in hiding and on the run, because of a star-shaped birthmark and a prophecy. When her parents are murdered by Shayla, a Sky Warrior known as The King’s Scorpion, a group of women rebels takes Gul in. Gul lives for only one thing, revenge against Shayla and against Raja Lohar, the king.

Cavas is the son of two non-magical people, who are treated as second-class citizens and relegated... Read More

Deal With the Devil: Didn’t distinguish itself enough

Deal With the Devil by Kit Rocha

If I’m told that a new series is titled MERCENARY LIBRARIANS, that sets up certain expectations in my mind — namely, that librarian-ing is going to feature prominently in the introductory novel, or at least be a driving force behind the primary plot. And while the treasure-trove of the Rogue Library of Congress is how the heroine of Deal With the Devil (2020) is enticed into making a deal with the leader of a mercenary squad known as the Silver Devils, Kit Rocha spends far more time and attention on set pieces cobbled together from any handful of post-apocalyptic dystopian movies and television shows.

Furthermore, Nina’s job title doesn’t encompass her actual responsibilities: she’s more of a community organizer, and from all evidence, a damn good one. In her corner of Atlanta, she and her friends Maya and Dani ensure that people... Read More

The Ghosts of Sherwood: Too short, but has good heroic characters

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

The Ghosts of Sherwood (2020), a novella by Carrie Vaughn, was for me a frustrating story, with several strong aspects but also some elements that drove me crazy, leaving me overall disappointed but hopeful for its follow-up, The Heirs of Locksley.

As the titles make clear, Vaughn is working in Robin Hood territory here. More precisely, she picks up the story many years later. Robin of Locksley and his wife Marian live on the edge of Sherwood Forest with their three children: Mary, John, and Eleanor (in that order) and have thrived in relative peace after Robin oh-so-painfully swore fealty to King John after the death of King James. While bowing the knee gave him influence within the po... Read More

The Year of the Witching: A creepy religious dystopia

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching (2020) is the story of a young woman, Immanuelle, growing up in the religious dystopia of Bethel. (It’s never stated, but I interpreted the setting as a post-apocalyptic America.) The dominant religion, the faith of the Father, contains some elements of Christianity, but in a twisted form; for example, a real lamb is slaughtered during services. The threat of burning at the stake is used to keep people in line. Bethel is patriarchal in the extreme; it’s common for older men to take multiple younger wives. It’s also racist. Immanuelle’s late father was one of the darker-skinned Outskirters, which — along with the rumors that her mother was a witch — means she has lived under a cloud of suspicion all her life.

When Immanuelle chases one of her sheep into the mysterious Darkwood at the edge of the village, she meets a frighteni... Read More

Woven in Moonlight: A tapestry with some loose threads

Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez

Woven in Moonlight (2020) is a lushly imagined YA fantasy based on Bolivian history and culture, and featuring a creative form of magic based on weaving. The plot is exciting, filled with twists and turns and betrayals. For me, though, I also found that it had some elements that distracted me from the story, and some others that made less sense when I thought about them later.

Ximena is a young girl who lost her family when the indigenous Llacsans rose up against the colonizing Illustrians.  The only survivor of the Illustrian royal family was Condesa Catalina. Ximena, who resembles the Condesa, was picked up off the streets and raised as a decoy for Catalina. Now everyone thinks she’s the Condesa, and when the Llacsan ruler Atoc demands the Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena who must travel to his palace for the wedding. She’s hoping that she can find At... Read More

Scarlet Odyssey: Promising new series by a promising new author

Scarlet Odyssey by C.T. Rwizi

Scarlet Odyssey (2020) is the debut novel by C.T. Rwizi and the beginning of a new series, RED PLAINS. It’s an epic fantasy set in a world based on sub-Saharan Africa, featuring a group of young people who might have the chance to stop an evil plan — or might unwittingly put it in motion instead.

The central point-of-view characters are Musalodi (“Salo”), a young man who wants to learn magic even though his people forbid that study to men; Ilapara, a young woman who rebelled in the inverse way, by becoming a female warrior, and starts the novel working as a mercenary; Kelafelo, a woman whose village is destroyed by a brutal warlord, and who apprentices in sorcery in the hopes of taking vengeance on him; and Isa, a spoiled princess who will have responsibility thrust upon her unexpectedly. Also among the POVs are several shadowy charac... Read More

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians: Left me wanting both more and less

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (2020) is a sweeping fantasy novel that takes major events during the Age of Enlightenment — the French Revolution, the Haitian slave revolution, and the madness of King George — and overlays them with a skein of magic, investing the three major players with various powers: France’s Robespierre is a necromancer, Britain’s Prime Minister William Pitt is a mesmerist (among other things), and Toussaint Louverture is a weather mage (albeit a weak one, the focus in Haiti is really on a more powerful woman named Fina). The three, though, are actually dancing to the tune set by an immensely powerful and mysterious figure manipulating things to his own intended goal, which threatens ruin and destruction not seen for centuries. The concept has some potential, and occasionally that potential is m... Read More

The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A literary puzzle-box

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Cleric Chih and their hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, are on a journey to the capital — both to view the next month’s impending eclipse and to be present at “the new empress’ Dragon Court” — and along the way, the two make a stop at Lake Scarlet, where an old woman invites the pair to stay and catalogue, for the first time, the treasures held there. Chih soon discovers that the old woman, named Rabbit, has a fair number of stories to tell as well: stories of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, who came from the mammoth-filled north and wielded great power despite her exile, eventually changing the Ahn empire forever.

Nghi Vo’s debut novella is painstakingly crafted, slowly teasing out crucial information with richly-layered and gorgeous prose. The method by which the story of Empress In-yo is told echoes the ways in ... Read More

The Girl and the Stars: The underground icy setting is the best part

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Stars (2020) is the first book in Mark Lawrence’s BOOK OF THE ICE series. It’s about a society that lives in an extremely harsh icy climate. They have a spiritual leader called “the regulator” who looks for children who are “broken” — children who are too weak or who have character traits that will not benefit the survival of their tribes when they become adults. Every few years, to cull the herd, the regulator identifies these kids and has them thrown into a hole in the ice where, presumably, they die.

When Yaz’s brother is assessed by the regulator, he is found lacking and pushed into the hole. Distraught, Yaz jumps in after him. She is surprised when she doesn’t fall to her death. Instead, she’s saved by a group of other ... Read More

The Book of Koli: Has pretty much everything I want

The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey

Koli lives in a far-future post-apocalyptic England. He has never been beyond the walls of Mythen Rood, his tiny village, because outside are wild animals, vicious plants, and who knows what other dangers. The leaders of Mythen Rood are the Ramparts, a small group of people who have magic that allows them to work the salvaged technology of the ancient humans who used to be masters of the Earth (that's us).

When kids in Mythen Rood turn 15 years old, the Ramparts test them to see if they have the magic to work the technology. If they do, the kids join the Ramparts. If not, they’re relegated to lower jobs. After Koli fails to pass the test, he discovers a secret the Ramparts have been hiding from the villagers. Then, after stealing some technology from the Ramparts, Koli is banished from Mythen Rood.

Koli is completely unprepared to be in the wilderness on his own -- he has no idea wha... Read More