Reviews

Not quite Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters

Safely You Deliver — Graydon Saunders
Commonweal, book 3

Graydon Saunder’s 2016 Safely You Deliver continues the Commonweal series that began with The March North. It is a direct sequel to the second book in the series, A Succession of Bad Days.In fact, a reader could treat both of the later books as two halves of the same story. I generally don’t suggest back to back reading for series novels, but in this case it may be necessary.

The Commonweal’s experiment turning Edgar, Chloris, Dove, and Zora, a collection of humanoid potential existential threats—what superhero comics and movies might call “persons of mass destruction”—is still on-going. As the book opens, the end point of the experiment is still unclear.

What is clear is that Reems, one of the Commonweal’s neighbours, takes the Commonweal’s school for PMDs seriously enough to see it as a threat. He is worried enough to launch a pre-emptive attack, in the hopes of killing a potential dragon before it hatches out of the egg.

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“Fuck off,” snarled the author

Options — Robert Sheckley

1975’s Options ended an eight-year drought in Robert Sheckley novels.

Forced by equipment breakdown to set down on an alien world, Tom Mishkin is at first optimistic. There should be a convenient cache of spare parts nearby. He discovers, to his great distress, that the cache had been cannily dispersed. If an ailing space craft crash lands, only a small fraction of the cache will be lost. The part he needs is only a few miles away; however it is a few miles through an alien realm for which Tom’s terrestrial senses are poorly suited.

This is an entirely predictable problem and one for which a known fix exists. Tom will be accompanied by a helpful Special Purpose Environmental Response robot, an intelligent machine programmed to understand and deal with the challenges of Darbis IV. Which would be great if the robot and Tom were on Darbis IV and not where they actually are, that is, the planet Harmonium.

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Did I mention it won a Hugo?

Redshirts — John Scalzi

I’m about to review John Scalzi’s 2012 standalone Hugo-winner Redshirts and I have a problem. I do not have much of a sense of humour, which makes me a bad fit for a book widely known to be funny. You may therefore expect a review that concentrates on the metaphysical underpinnings of the book than on the jokes. Incidentally, you can also look forward to the first ever James Nicoll review cliff-hanger!

The Intrepid is the Universal Union’s flagship, a mighty vessel to which only the most important missions are given, a ship whose command crew have earned the highest accolades. Kudos to seminary-student-turned-ensign Andrew Dahl for warranting such a plum assignment.

There’s just one catch.

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Blake’s 7 without Blake

Sarcophagus — Tanith Lee
Blake's 7, book 35

Tanith Lee wrote the script for the 1980 Sarcophagus, a third season episode of Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7. Before I talk about the episode, let me explain Blake’s 7.

Blake’s 7 was a British science fiction television program. It was broadcast on BBC1 from 1978 to 1981. Unlike Star Trek, in which the Federation was supposed to be a force for good in the galaxy, Blake’s 7’s Federation is explicitly dystopian and oppressive. It may not be coincidental that B7’s Federation uses a symbol that is essentially the Trek Federation’s Starfleet symbol turned on its side1.


The episode opens with a lengthy funerary ceremony, during which odd images are shown (their significance will become clear only later). At the end of the ceremony, the entire structure in which the rites were held is shot off into deepest space.

Many centuries later…

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A Young Woman and Her Armin

Daughter of Mystery — Heather Rose Jones
Alpennia, book 1

I have known Heather Rose Jones on Livejournal for some years, but only now have I read one of her novels: the 2014 Daughter of Mystery: a Novel of Alpennia. Review tout court: I enjoyed it.

Dutiful relatives took the orphaned Margerit Sovitre into their household, offering her the very best bourgeois upbringing. Despite this, her prospects are not especially golden, save for one thing: the wealthy Baron Saveze is her godfather. Her bourgeois kin have great hopes that he will do something for her; she herself is not inclined to place too much dependence on the Baron’s future largesse. He is in delicate health and may not have much of a future in which to bestow largesse.

It comes as a tremendous surprise when the Baron dies and leaves his vast fortune to Margerit. It is even more of a surprise to discover that the Baron has also willed Margerit his armin. An armin is not a what but a who, a personal bodyguard. In the Baron’s case, his armin was a young woman named Barbara.

These revelations are not greeted with universal joy by all involved.

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The Stranger on the Couch

Archer’s Goon — Diana Wynne Jones

In Diana Wynne Jones’ 1984 standalone novel Archer’s Goon, thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes returns home to discover a stranger in his home. Rather alarmingly, it’s a very large stranger, the very goon of the title, and he’s not going anywhere until Howard’s father Quentin delivers the two thousand he owes someone named Archer.

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What these people need is Kwisatz Haderach!

Dune — Frank Herbert
Dune, book 1

Frank Herbert’s 1965 fix-up novel Dune is the first novel in his ongoing (and thanks to necrolaboration, undead) Dune series. While the original novel may be overshadowed by the feculent dribblings of Brian Herbert and pen-for-hire Kevin J. Anderson, in its day Dune was pretty highly regarded. Awards include

Place

Year and Award

Category

Win

1966 Hugo

Best Novel

Win

1966 Nebula

Novel

Win

1974 Seiun

Best Translated Long Story

1

1975 Locus

All-Time Best Novel

1

1987 Locus

All-Time Best SF Novel

1

1998 Locus

All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990

Not bad. So how does it stand up more than a half century later?

The planet Arrakis! Also known as Dune! Sole source of Spice, the mysterious substance that grants longer life and enhances awareness, even allowing a lucky few to see into the future itself! Life extension alone would make it valuable, but its role as psychic steroids makes it a necessity for interstellar trade. Without spice, ships would be lost to unforeseeable dangers in the interstellar deeps.

Whoever controls Arrakis control the Spice. Whoever controls Spice controls trade. Whoever controls trade controls the Empire itself.

That’s the theory, anyway. As the Atreides family is about to find out, theory and practice often differ.

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Backtracking

The Winter Players — Tanith Lee

You might think after my experiences scrambling to find the books I wanted to review for the Fifty Nortons in Fifty Weeks project, I would have learned to acquire all the books needed for grand projects before I launched them. Nope, which is why I am reviewing Tanith Lee’s 1976 standalone fantasy The Winter Players now, in May 2016, and not back in late 2015 as planned.

Bronze-haired Oaive is the latest in a long line of priestesses, each trained by her predecessor in the arts of magic. Their duties are to protect their village and to guard the three sacred relics hidden within the shrine: the Ring, the Jewel and the Bone.

Sixteen-year-old Oaive has been priestess for just two years when the grey-haired stranger comes to town. He ends a way of life that has persisted beyond memory and history.

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The Empty Cities of Muina

Stray — Andrea K. Höst
Touchstone, book 1

For the life of me, I cannot remember how Andrea K. Höst’s 2011 Stray, the first volume in her Touchstone trilogy, got into my to-read queue, but I am happy that it did.

Cassandra Devlin’s plans involve high school graduation and one last party with her friends. They do not include somehow stepping from her native Australia to an unfamiliar alien world. Guess which option she gets?



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The Empty Cities of Nevermore

Forgotten Suns — Judith Tarr

The people who chose my reading for me between 2001 and 2014 only ever sent me Judith Tarr’s historical fantasies, so that’s the genre I associate with her. 2015’s standalone novel, Forgotten Suns, isn’t a historical fantasy at all. Instead it’s a science fantasy that could almost have been written by middle-period Andre Norton1.

Nevermore used to be home to a civilization. Now only nomads call the world home. Five thousand years earlier, something brought Nevermore’s civilization to an abrupt end. Much to the frustration of Aisha’s archaeologist parents, on Nevermore for the first real scientific study of the catastrophe, whatever that something was left no hint as to its nature. It is almost as though the inhabitants of the entire planet packed their bags and left … which would seem to be impossible, because the locals had not yet achieved conventional spaceflight.

Results so far: lots of questions and no answers. Consequence: funding for the expedition will probably dry up. Aisha is faced with leaving Nevermore, the only world she has ever called home. Her solution: borrow a small quantity of explosives and carry out her own one-woman exploration.

Of course, it helps if, unlike Aisha, one reads the instructions on the explosives first. One might avoid discovering the hard way that what seemed like a small amount of explosives was in fact gross overkill.

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Just one more chip

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō — Hitoshi Ashinano
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, book 4

I should just admit to myself I have no self control when it comes to binging on series (novels or comics). But will I? NO. I am going to kid myself (again) with “OK, just one more volume of Hitoshi Ashinano’s Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō and then I will stop. Really.” Because that could totally happen.

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Blame Heinlein

Orphans of the Sky — Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein’s 1963 fix-up novel, Orphans of the Sky, was originally published in two parts, Universe and Common Sense, in 1941. I have chosen it for my 100th Because My Tears are Delicious to You review both because it was extraordinarily influential on a very specific subgenre, but also because it happens to be an important book to me. More on both later.

Hugh Hoyland has lived his entire life in the Ship. Indeed, he cannot imagine a life elsewhere, because as far as he and his people are concerned, the Ship is the whole of the universe. An inquisitive young man, his curiosity and native intelligence win him a place as a Scientist, one of the aristocrats of the Ship. Lucky for him, because the alternative destination for inconveniently curious young men is the converter, where their dissolution will provide power to the Ship.

Hugh’s curiosity proves his undoing; his exploration party is ambushed by Mutes and he is left for dead.

His story does not end there.

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Reconsidering the Queen

The Queen of Attolia — Megan Whalen Turner
Queen's Thief, book 2

I last read Megan Whalen Turner’s 2001 novel The Queen of Attolia on January 1st, 2003. I know because I still have the report I wrote for the SFBC. I also know—now—how grateful I should be to Andrew Wheeler for not making my reports generally available1. “Unduly harsh” is the kindest thing I can say about my thirteen-year-old review of The Queen of Attolia.

An explanation but not an excuse: I read Queen without reading The Thief, the book to which it is a sequel. This is fine for some series books (I cannot say my (non)enjoyment of whichever Time of Wheel book I read or that Throne of Games book where people did nasty stuff was in any way affected by not having read the preceding books) but not for this one.

How often can one talented thief, even one as talented as Eugenides, the Queen’s Thief of Eddis, sneak into the Queen of Attolia’s heavily guarded buildings?

One time more than he can successfully sneak back out.

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Inexplicably Obscure

Women as Demons: The Male Perception of Women Through Space and Time — Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee’s 1989 Women as Demons: The Male Perception of Women Through Space and Time is, like Red as Blood or The Gorgon, a single author collection. Oddly enough, I had never seen this one until my niece Amy bought it for me. This may be because the collection has, as far as I can tell, had exactly two editions in the last quarter century. More on that later …

The title is pretty descriptive: Lee is writing about women as figures of malign, terrible power. Will she embrace the trope? Will she subvert it?

She certainly ranges across the full scope of speculative fiction.

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Between the Millstones

Burn For Me — Ilona Andrews
Hidden Legacy, book 1

Ilona Andrews’ 2014 Burn For Me is the first volume in their1 Hidden Legacy series.

PI Nevada Baylor isn’t the logical choice to nab a dangerous killer like Adam Pierce. After all, the cops are already trying to track down and kill Pierce for murdering one of their own. She is, however, the ideal solution to a vexing problem for Montgomery International Investigations. The company has to keep their clients, the wealthy Pierce clan, happy without risking agent lives. Or at least the lives of their own agents. Time to outsource the problem, to a small PI agency that owes MII money. A little genteel blackmail and Nevada finds herself stuck with an assignment that will likely end in one of two ways: failure and the collapse of her family’s agency, or failure and the loss of her own life.

Pierce isn’t just a narcissistic killer with a terminal case of affluenza. He is one of the most powerful, and dangerous, pyrokinetics alive2.

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No People, No Problem

Faded Sun: Kesrith — C. J. Cherryh
Faded Sun, book 1

C. J. Cherryh’s 1978 The Faded Sun: Kesrith was her fourth novel and the first in her Faded Sun trilogy. It would have been a fine choice for my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You series … save for the trifling fact that I managed to overlook it until the 1980s, after I had stopped being a teenager.

The alien Regul are fighting a losing war with the human Federation. That is, mri mercenaries are doing so, on behalf of their Regul clients. The mri are in many ways difficult: aloof, easily affronted, and inflexible—but they are extremely effective warriors. The Regul have nobody but themselves to blame for their losses. The Regul are bad bosses, the sort who insist on taking a hand in matters they do not understand, then blaming and punishing subordinates for the ensuing setbacks.

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Yrs truly Charlie Gordon

Flowers for Algernon — Daniel Keyes

Daniel Keyes (1927–2014) had a long career as a writer … but he is best remembered for one piece, his story “Flowers For Algernon.” First published in short story form in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, it won a Hugo in 1960. Following a television adaptation, the original story was expanded into a Nebula-winning novel, then turned into a film. A partial list of the other adaptations may be found at the bottom of this review.

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, strove his whole life to be a productive member of society. Frustrated with his illiteracy, he signed up for an adult education class, where he struggled to master (in his thirties) skills others had mastered as children. Impressed by Gordon’s determination, his teacher Alice Kinnion recommended Gordon as an experimental subject to Drs. Strauss and Professor Nemur.

It was a fateful decision.

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We Are Both Better Than We Should Be

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō — Hitoshi Ashinano
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, book 3

Well, I misspoke. Apparently I cannot resist dipping into the YYK archive at least one more time. Volume three of Hitoshi Ashinano’s Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō offers more enigmas and mysteries, but not a lot in the way of concrete explanation. Ah well.

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Blue Blooded Ingenue

Crown Duel — Sherwood Smith
Crown Duel, book 1

1997’s young adult fantasy Crown Duel is the first novel in Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel series. It was followed by 1998’s Court Duel. Both are included in this omnibus. Together, they are part of the larger Sartorias-deles sequence.

Two young aristocrats, Meliara and her brother Bran, learn that King Galdran is planning to break the Covenant with the Hill Folk; he wants to clear-cut the valuable colour trees of Tlanth, Meliara and Bran’s domain. The two feel that they must protect the trees, and the Covenant, and the only way to do so seems to be mounting a rebellion against their liege lord. Conveniently, the siblings have been plotting an uprising for some time; Galdran is an all-round bad king and he is comprehensively hated.

Their rebellion is not going well. Potential allies have refused to help; their mercenary army has already betrayed them.

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Margin for Mercy

Updraft — Fran Wilde

2015’s Updraft is Fran Wilde’s debut novel; it is set in the same world as her 2013 short story “A Moment of Gravity, Circumscribed.” This is a world where humans live confined to immensely tall bone towers; the ground has been lost, far below and long ago. Travel between the towers is by bridge and by wing. It is frequently perilous. Travelers are menaced, and sometimes culled, by invisible predators called skymouths.

Most of the people of the towers see their traditions and laws as their only protections against a dangerous world. The laws are upheld by the Singers, the autocrats who rule from aeries in the Spire. Woe to the person who willfully or otherwise breaks the law. Punishment will be swift and draconian.

As Kerit Densira finds out first hand.

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Forlorn Hope

We All Died at Breakaway Station — Richard C. Meredith

I could have reviewed Richard C. Meredith’s 1969 novel We All Died at Breakaway Station in my Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck review series but … to be honest, I am not 100% sure that it’s all that good. It is, however, extremely energetic and it delivers exactly what it promises in the title. Everyone dies.

Humans and the alien Jillies have never truly understood each other. What is clear, following the unprovoked Jillie attacks on humans (which range from garden variety atrocities to full scale nuclear holocausts), is that the aliens do not like us.

Breakaway is twenty-seven light years from Earth. It is an unremarkable but important link in the FTL communications network that connects the Solar System with the Paladine region of the galaxy. It is also a convenient place for Absalom Bracer’s convoy—the hospital ship Rudolph Cragstone and its escorts Iwo Jima and Pharsalus—to pause while on route to the advanced medical resources of Earth. It’s a good place to die.

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō — Hitoshi Ashinano
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, book 2

I am going to skip my usual practice of giving the publication date of the work I am reviewing because … as much as I hate to shake your faith in me as an all-knowing sage of SFF, I must admit that I am not sure when volume two of Hitoshi Ashinano’s Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō was published.

In this volume, author Ashinano returns to the twilight world of his protagonistAlpha Hasseno, cafe owner and Alpha 7 M2 series robot. We are given eight short pieces; seven that show Alpha’s world as it is, and one that hints at how it got that way.

Sorry about the tiny cover art. I could not find a larger image.

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A Cork on the River of Destiny

A Heroine of the World — Tanith Lee

In Tanith Lee’s 1989 A Heroine of the World, Aradia is a child of thirteen when the war begins and her comfortable world disintegrates. She is not much older by the end of the novel, but in just a few years, this former rich girl takes on many identities to survive: a servant, a war-bride, an emperor’s mistress. Among others.

Aradia’s parents, certain of victory, blithely ride off to war,
leaving Aradia with a cold, unsympathetic aunt. Aradia never sees her parents again. Her father dies in a cavalry charge, her mother in an exploding munitions dump. The conquering Kronians occupy the City where Aradia lives. The aunt commits suicide in despair.

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Eugenic Love Story

Courtship Rite — Donald Kingsbury

Donald Kingsbury has been writing science fiction since the 1950s, but he has never been particularly prolific. In fact, over the seven decades of his career, he has published a mere five novels, five novellas, and an excerpt (so far as I know).

Perhaps the most remarkable of his novels is 1982’s Courtship Rite (also published under the title Geta). I have a few scars thanks to this book 1, but that is not the only reason it is remarkable.

No sensible person would colonize a world like Geta, given a choice. It is arid, poor in many resources essential to advanced technology, and its native lifeforms cannot be digested by terrestrial life. It promises a short impoverished life and eventual starvation to anyone foolish enough to settle there.

The first colonists—marooned?—came from a starfaring civilization, but even that did not save them. The survivors made some hard choices that let them prevail and persist, in the process losing most of their technology and most knowledge of their past. As far as the Getans know, they were placed on Geta by their god to test them. And their god is not grading on a curve.

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