Reviews: Special Requests

Before She Was Kate Elliott

A Passage of Stars — Alis A. Rasmussen
Highroad Trilogy, book 1

1990’s A Passage of Stars is the first volume in Alis A. Rasmussen’s Highroad Trilogy. A Passage of Stars was her second published work after The Labyrinth Gate . It is therefore a very early work in a career that has thus far spanned four decades and at least twenty-five novels. Many of you may be familiar with Rasmussen’s work under the pen name Kate Elliott.

Lilyaka Hae Ransome is one of the Reft’s lucky few, born into comparative wealth rather than poverty. She doesn’t see it that way. From her perspective, she’s very hard done by indeed. People of her class are expected to put their personal interests aside in the interests of the family and there will be no exception for Lily. So, no more martial arts from a teacher her family is convinced is not the right sort. Instead, she can look forward to an unrewarding career.

That’s the plan, anyway. The plan gets tossed out the window when Lily sees her martial arts teacher kidnapped by aliens.

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Girl in a Cell

The Far Side of Evil — Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Elana, book 2

Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s 1971 The Far Side of Evil is a sequel to 1970’s Enchantress from the Stars . It is set in the same Anthropology Service Universe as Engdahl’s Star trilogy: This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1973), and The Doors of the Universe  (1981).

The Academy Director was afraid that Elana would find her first post-graduation assignment an anticlimax after the events of Enchantress from the Stars . Their fears could not have been more misplaced. For Elana, there’s nothing anticlimactic about waiting in a tiny cell for an interrogator determined to break her.

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Nothing is as validating as attempted murder

Borderline — Mishell Baker
Arcadia, book 1

Mishell Baker’s 2016 debut novel Borderline is the first in her Arcadia series.

Six months after a failed suicide bid cost her both legs and her film career, embittered auteur and long-term Leishman Psychiatric Center resident Millie Roper receives an unexpected visitor and a more unexpected offer: Caryl Varro wants Millie to work for the Arcadia Project.

Millie does not know Caryl from Adam and she’s never heard of the Arcadia Project. Millie’s doctor has; her reaction is intriguing enough for Millie to venture outside the safe confines of the Institute and back out into the real world.

Perhaps real world isn’t quite the right term.

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It’s a ma’am’s world

A Brother’s Price — Wen Spencer

In the world of Wen Spencer’s 2006 A Brother’s Price, a world where male babies rarely survive to term, young men of breeding age are a valuable commodity. Jerin Whistler is more valuable than most; he comes from gentry and is good-looking as well. That’s lucky for his sisters, who can trade him off to buy a husband of their own!

The body in the creek complicates their plans immensely.

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A Malice of Trees

Uprooted — Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s 2015 novel Uprooted earned her a second Hugo nomination and her first Nebula Award. It has also been nominated for the Mythopoeic Award and the British Fantasy Award. Obviously this is my chance to be the lone voice of reason and taste, disappointed in a popular choice.

The only problem with that strategy is that I enjoyed Uprooted.

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Deeds Not Words

Grass — Sheri S. Tepper
Arbai, book 1

I’m not a huge fan of Sheri S. Tepper, which is why I’ve only now read her 1990 novel, Grass. Not even the 1991 Hugo nomination was enough to tempt me. Why read it now? Someone commissioned this review. I apologize if the result isn’t quite what they expected.

Grass is the first volume in Tepper’s Arbai trilogy; it is set on the planet after which the novel is named. Comparatively few humans call Grass home. There are the bons, self-styled aristocrats, obsessed with hunting and indifferent to the outside world; there are the port city Commoner Town and the friary of Green Brothers. Not much to attract off-world visitors, particularly in an era when the dominant Great Power, Earth-based Sanctity, sees colonies as hotbeds of apostasy and chaos.

But it is of some interest that Grass seems to be the only world where people do not die of a mysterious plague. This not-officially-acknowledged disease seems likely to wipe out the entire human race1. While the theocrats of Sanctity are comfortable with the idea of a mass cull, particularly of heretics, heathens, and non-believers, they would just as soon not see humanity, including themselves, go extinct.

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Nice Planet, Shame About the Comet

On the Edge of Gone — Corinne Duyvis

Corinne Duyvis’ 2016 young adult novel On the Edge of Gone is the first of the author’s novels that I have encountered. It will not be the last.

There will be spoilers….

Life in mid-21st Century Netherlands with her drug-addicted mother is already challenging enough for autistic teen Denise. She really didn’t need to deal with the end of the world as we know it, courtesy of an impending cometary impact1. The Netherlands is a civilized nation and they have not simply abandoned their population to survive or die as change determines. Instead, the government built a network of shelters2.

If only Denise and her mother were in a shelter. If only her mother had not insisted on waiting for Denise’s sister Iris to join them before setting out. Now there is no time to make it to their designated shelter.

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Just Give Me One Extra Season/So I Can Figure Out the Other Four

Hello Summer, Goodbye — Michael G. Coney
Pallahaxi, book 1

British by birth, Canadian by choice, Michael Greatrex Coney seems to be comparatively obscure now, a decade after his death. A shame, because he wrote some interesting, unusual books over the course of his career. Perhaps his finest was the coming-of-age novel Hello Summer, Goodbye.

Alika-Drove, native to a world with both extreme obliquity and orbital eccentricity, accepts as normal its annual extremes. It is, after all, the only world he and his people have ever experienced. For Drove, chaffing at the childish restrictions he feels old enough to flout, his odd little world is a mundane backdrop to what will probably be just another boring summer in the isolated fishing community of Pallahaxi.

Pallahaxi is not entirely without promise. It is the home of Pallahaxi-Browneyes, a young woman Drove’s age with whom Drove is smitten, a young woman Drove could not work up the courage to address until the previous summer was almost over. But this summer will be completely different!

In fact, if Drove plays his cards right, he may spend the rest of his life with Browneyes.

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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. They are 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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The Devil’s Left Hand

Silver on the Road — Laura Anne Gilman
The Devil's West, book 1

Laura Anne Gilman has been a professional novelist since the mid-1990s, so it is indeed odd that I had not read any of her books until now. Her 2015 Silver on the Road is my first.

Sold as a toddler to the Devil, Isobel will soon turn sixteen. Her indenture will end and she will have to make some difficult choices. Should she leave Flood, the only town she has ever known, or should she, like so many others, make a bargain with the Boss?

She could have left. Isobel chose instead to become the Devil’s Left Hand.

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Whatever Happened to Lady Ista?

Paladin of Souls — Lois McMaster Bujold
Chalion, book 2

One of downsides of having other people pick what I read is that not only do I miss perfectly good books that were assigned to other reviewers, but I am often so busy reading what I must that I don’t have much free time for unassigned reading. I miss good books that way. One of those books was 2003’s Paladin of Souls. This is another novel set in the world of the Five Gods, the world introduced in The Curse of Chalion1. I like Bujold’s work; this was a Hugo-winning work; ergo, this was something I wanted to read. I just never found the time.

Until now….

Finally freed of the Golden General’s curse and the god-touched madness that afflicted her, Ista tires of the boring, custom-bound life of an aristocratic lady. She seizes on the one avenue of escape that is open to her: pilgrimage.

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(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding

The Stars Change — Mary Anne Mohanraj

The setting of In Mary Anne Mohanraj’s 2013 The Stars Change, the world of Pyroxina Major, is a university world. Its combination of multiculturalism and strategic location makes it an academic hotspot. Beings of many races have flocked to the University of All Worlds, there to study and live together in peace. Or at least that’s the theory.

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Uncozy Mystery

Farthing — Jo Walton
Small Change, book 1

2006’s Farthing is the first volume in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy. This short novel was followed by 2007’s Ha’penny and 2008’s Half a Crown.

If British mysteries are any guide, England’s stately homes, rising very so picturesquely out of a verdant countryside, exist primarily to provide suitably isolated locations for spectacular murders, murders sufficiently puzzling to justify the attention of the Empire’s greatest minds. Farthing is no exception: not only does it live up to genre expectations by quickly presenting readers with a gruesomely murdered and artistically posed corpse, but the dead man is a man beloved by all England. He is no less than the great Sir James Thirkie, the architect of the peace between Britain and Nazi Germany.

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A World Shaped by Magic

The Door into Fire — Diane Duane
The Tale of the Five, book 1

1979’s The Door into Fire is the first volume of Diane Duane’s Tale of the Five. As I recall, there were to be at least four books in the series, but as of this posting, only two further volumes, The Door into Shadow and The Door into Sunset, have been published. A fourth book, The Door into Starlight, is mentioned on ISFDB, but only as “unpublished.”

In a world where grimdark rules the fantasy bookshelves, this book may seem like an oddly touchy-feely secondary world fantasy. It was even more remarkable back in the Disco Era, when it was first published.

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Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht

Ariah — B.R. Sanders

I get to pick more of what I read these days than I did two years ago … but I don’t begrudge the time spent reading what other people select for me. From time to time they pick something interesting, something that would have otherwise flown under my radar. Case in point: B. R. Sanders’ 2015 novel Ariah.

Planning his life seemed so straightforward to young Ariah: apprentice himself to Dirva, master his skills as a mimic and empathic shaper, then find some conventional niche to fill for the rest of his life. But, just as moving from his backwater hometown Ardijan to the big city of Rabatha brings a rude awakening about the true place of elves in the Empire, so too will life with Dirva educate Ariah in ways he never expected.


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Genki Girl Superhero

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger! — Jeffrey Wells

Tales of The Starbuck Avenger! by Jeffrey “Channing” Wells is a 2011 fix-up of material first published on his Livejournal. (Remember LiveJournal? It’s a social media platform, like MySpace or Ello, still used by several people. More than two or three, outside Russia.) Fix-ups, novels created from shorter works, have a long history in speculative fiction and I am genuinely happy to see this tradition continue.

Tricia “Trish” Hocking’s life as an unremarkable barista was doomed the moment an excited man forced his way into the Gorham Street Starbucks where Trish worked. Demanding a “venti sulawesi double-shot dulce de leche espresso within the next three minutes,” the agitated customer insisted that it was a matter of life or death. Well, some people take their coffee very seriously.

But Trish’s old life really ended when on a whim she went out one night to scale buildings and lurk on rooftops. Given the time of night and the icy conditions, her multi-story plummet was likely inevitable. The fact that she did not. on reaching the sidewalk, explode like a tripe-filled balloon was more than a little odd.

There are superhumans walking Trish’s world and Trish is one of them.


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