Reviews, December 2015

Ending 2015 on a high note

A Stranger in Olondria — Sofia Samatar

2013’s A Stranger in Olondria was Sofia Samatar’s debut novel.

Jevick lives far from Olondria. Son of a wealthy pepper merchant living in the backwater Tea Islands, Jevick’s life is transformed when his father decides to hire a tutor for his son. The merchant values education without respecting it, and has little idea that exposure to the world of letters will radically affect Jevick.

His father’s death frees Jevick to make his way to Olondria, where Jevick is soon

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African Horror

African Monsters — Margrét Helgadóttir & Jo Thomas

I was unfamiliar with Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, and also with their publisher Fox Spirit. Cheryl Morgan mentioned the African Monsters anthology on her website and it looked interesting; Fox Spirit was kind enough to supply me with a review copy. I am happy that they did. Now I am familiar, not only with the publishing house, but with the editors and authors of this fine book.


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The Menace of Mrs. Claus

The Elf Conspiracy — Kass Williams
Hy Brasail Chronicles, book 1

2015’s The Elf Conspiracy is the first volume in Kass William’s Hy Brasail Chronicles .

This would have been ever so much more seasonal had I managed to get this review written before the 25 th. Oh, well. I guess I can think of it as being unusually early for Christmas 2016.

For centuries, Kris Kringle has played an ever-more-demanding role as Santa Claus, bringing presents to children around the world. Now danger threatens.

  • an ambitious elf is planning a coup;
  • Santa’s former slave servant Peter is still holding a grudge;
  • four bright kids—Harald, Shuggar, Bart, and Princess—have managed to find Santa’s realm.

Could it be worse? Yes! Danger is close at hand in the person of Gladys. The new Mrs. Claus.

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Seduced by the cover art

With Friends Like These… — Alan Dean Foster

I would have been willing to bet actual cash money—well, Canadian money—that if an Alan Dean Foster book were to be featured in this series, it would have been the first book in the Flinx series, The Tar-Aiym Krang. But that book doesn’t have a Michael Whelan cover1 and 1977’s With Friends Like These… does. Sometimes I choose books on the basis of their covers. I am just that shallow.

With Friends Like These… wasn’t Alan Dean Foster’s first collection. Very early in his career he began doing novelizations (many novelizations2) and by the end of 1977, he had already written no less than nine Star Trek Logs, based on the animated Star Trek scripts. I do think that this book was his first collection of non-tie-in works; the stories in it are among his first published stories.

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Pathfinder’s Legacy

Planetfall — Emma Newman

2015’s Planetfall is Emma Newman’s fifth novel. A standalone science fiction novel, it is unrelated to her Split Worlds trilogy.

Twenty years before, the devout passengers of the starship Atlas followed the Pathfinder, Lee Suh-Mi, to a distant and surprisingly Earth-like world where, Suh assured them, God was waiting for them. Settling near an enigmatic structure that the colonists call God’s City, the colonists are still waiting for their God to reveal itself. In fact, they are still waiting for Suh to return from her first and only foray into the City.

In many ways the colony has been marking time, waiting for some external event that will utterly transform them. Now, that event looms … in the form of a wandering nomad on a world with no known natives.

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Mirror worlds

Day by Night — Tanith Lee

1980’s Day by Night is a standalone novel, set on an eternally tide-locked world. One side is eternal burning day, the other side is endless freezing night. It is not a world that would seem to be hospitable to organic life. Yet, somehow, in a time forgotten and for reasons no one living knows, this world was settled by humans.

The aristocrats of the nightside enjoy a luxurious life in palaces sustained by an advanced (but mysterious) technology, while the desperate legions of the poor struggle to stay alive. There are no bread and circuses to pacify the masses, but the poor can at least enjoy Vitro’s fanciful tales.

And what a tale she spins! Her latest is the saga of Vel Thaidis, an aristocrat much like Vitro herself, who is framed for a crime of which she is innocent, by Ceedres, a rival who covets Vel’s estate. Cast down into the dregs of society, Vel faces a life of humiliation and degradation in her world’s Slumopolis. Although at least it isn’t likely to be a long life….

But Vitro’s own, real, life with her brother Vyen is less secure than expected….

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Beware Aliens Bearing Gifts

Dawn — Octavia E. Butler
Xenogenesis, book 1

1987’s Dawn is the first volume in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. It was followed by 1988’s Adulthood Rites and 1989’s Imago.

Nuclear war has killed most of humanity. Few wanted the war … but to build so many nuclear weapons and then not use them would have been immorally profligate. Those not killed immediately faced lingering deaths due to fallout and nuclear winter. The total extinction of humans appeared to be imminent.

And then the aliens arrived in their vast, living starship….

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A temple to commercialism

Mallworld — Somtow Sucharitkul

Tor published the 1984 edition of Somtow Sucharitkul’s 1 Mallworld well after the market for collections and anthologies was perceived to have imploded, thanks to the efforts of one Roger Elwood. Hence they really, really wanted readers to think that Mallworld was a novel. It isn’t. It is a collection that Tor has tried to convert into a fix-up by removing the individual titles and adding some minor linking material.

Titles lifted from William G. Contento’s Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections. I’ve used the table of contents from the 1981 Starblaze edition.

The Mallworld is a vast space station in the asteroid belt, a place where virtually anything you could want is available … for a price. That price could be money or it could be your very soul! But it’ll probably be money because it’s hard to deposit souls in a bank account.

There is one tiny fly in the ointment as far as the humans of the distant future are concerned, which is

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Like a mocking kiss on the cold cheek of convention

The Night Life of the Gods — Thorne Smith

I owe my encounter with 1931’s The Night Life of the Gods to Del Rey’s decision to reprint six of Thorne Smith’s comic fantasies ( Topper, Topper Takes a Trip , The Night Life of the Gods , The Stray Lamb , Rain in the Doorway , and Turnabout) in 1980. I had never heard of Thorne Smith—then—although once I had read a few of his novels, I realized that I had already encountered many of his characters and plots in movies and TV. Sometimes directly adapted from his work, sometimes inspired by it 1.

Of the six reprints, Rain in the Doorway was my favourite, but The Night Life of the Gods had a quality even Rain could not match: Night Life was my very first Thorne Smith novel. As I would learn, Smith novels tend to have very recognizable themes: unhappy middle-aged men, often married, trapped in unrewarding lives, who are freed from the doldrums of modern existence by an encounter with the whimsically fantastic, which often comes in the form of a fetching young woman.

Although I couldn’t know it at the time, this being my first Smith, Night Life subverts the Smith formula. Protagonist Hunter Hawk isn’t one of Smith’s worn-down conformists. Hunter Hawk, you see, does not give a fig for convention because Hunter Hawk is a Mad Scientist!

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A beautiful hypothesis slain by ugly fact

Diadem from the Stars — Jo Clayton
Diadem, book 1

In a previous review I said

despite being aware enough of her work to have picked up significant details of the Diadem series through cultural osmosis …

A bold assertion! And now that I have tracked down and read Jo Clayton’s 1977 debut novel, Diadem from the Stars , I can now assess how accurate that claim was.

The good news is that I definitely got the name of the series and the name of the author correct. Otherwise …

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Sabella’s little secret

Sabella or The Blood Stone — Tanith Lee
Sabella, book 1

Tanith Lee’s 1980 Sabella or The Blood Stone straddles science fiction and fantasy.

Nova Mars is the world Old Mars never was: an ancient, dying world once home to complex ecologies and an advanced civilization, a world whose revivification at the hands of human terraformers came too late to save its natives from extinction. New Mars is now a thoroughly human world. All that remains of the natives are ruins and relics.

Sabella lives by herself, an attractive, if eerie looking, eccentric recluse with a fondness for dark clothing, an aversion to sunlight and oh, yes, a taste for blood.

She can make do with animal blood, but human is so much better.

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Enter Jani Kilian

Code of Conduct — Kristine Smith
Chronicles of Jani Kilian, book 1

1999’s Code of Conduct is the first volume in Kristine Smith’s Chronicles of Jani Kilian pentology. This review is almost certainly going to be one of my Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck reviews … but only because it has some MisSF elements, not because it checks all the genre boxes. Code of Conduct is as much detective fiction as it is MilSF; it is definitely not the big-guns, pew-pew-pew variety of MilSF.

As far as anyone from the Commonwealth knows, Jani Kilian died when a military transport starship exploded. Everyone else onboard perished; Jani was only mostly dead. Immediate, cutting-edge medical intervention saved her life. Since her supposed death, Jani has been careful not to let her former bosses know that she is still alive. That would put her in legal peril, as she was confined to the brig was a prisoner(for having shot her highly-connected superior officer) before the explosion.

Jani’s ex-lover Evan van Reuter doesn’t believe Jani is dead. As a member of one of the Families who run the Commonwealth, he has the resources to find her. He is also highly motivated to track Jani down. He has a job for which he believes she is ideally suited.

Clearing his name.

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The Girl Without Fear

Santa Olivia — Jacqueline Carey
Santa Olivia, book 1

2009’s Santa Olivia is the first volume in Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia  series.

Loup Garron grew up in the isolated garrison town of Santa Olivia (or as the occupying troops call it, Outpost 12), in a buffer zone established to protect the US from the semi-mythical Mexican warlord El Segundo and from the waves of lethal disease still sweeping across the world. For Loup, all this seems normal … as is the fact that she is an orphan. All too many of Santa Olivia’s children have lost parents to disease or to rocket attacks launched by unseen enemies.

What isn’t normal is Loup herself.

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Did someone say “UN Telepath”

The Whole Man — John Brunner

Having recently reviewed one novel about UN telepaths, I am tempted to review an earlier book on the same theme: John Brunner’s 1964 The Whole Man. Written a generation before Emerald Eyes, it takes a much more optimistic view of mind-probing United Nation functionaries.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is that whereas Carl Castanaveras was the servant of the UN’s militarized police force, Gerald Howson is employed by the World Heath Organization.


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It’s black helicopter time

Emerald Eyes — Daniel Keys Moran
Tales of the Continuing Time, book 1

1988’s Emerald Eyes is the first volume in Daniel Keys Moran’s Tales of the Continuing Time. It was also, I believe, his second novel, published three months after Armageddon Blues and three months before The Ring. 1988 was a very busy year for Mr. Moran.

21st Century America is an occupied nation. A restive occupied nation, as many of its people are fundamentally incapable of adjusting to life under the victorious French-dominated United Nations—no matter how remorselessly the Peacekeepers stomp on stiff American necks. Few Americans have it harder than Carl Castanaveras, because he and the rest of his family are not merely subjugated by the UN.

They are property.

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Half World, Complete Horror

Hiromi Goto

In Hiromi Goto’s 2009 novel Half World, the world is divided between the Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit, and a Half World that bridges them. In ages past, humans cycled through these worlds; people lived and died in the Realm of Flesh and they were reborn in the Half World, where they were purged of their sins and traumas. Once purged, they were reborn in the paradisiacal Spirit World, from which they will fall, to be reborn in the Realm of Flesh. So the cycle began again. It’s basic Buddhist cosmogony at work.

But somehow, nobody is quite sure how, this cycle was shattered. The inhabitants of each realm have been trapped in their realms, reborn over and over into the same circumstances. This is hardest on the Half Worlders, who must relive their traumas over and over. The worlds are stuck in stasis.


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Very Proper Charlies

Soft Targets — Dean Ing

The America of Ing’s 1979 novel is filled with soft, juicy, unsuspecting Americans, who are pathetically vulnerable to bombs, bullets and the occasional bludgeoning. The whole country is a virtual smorgasbord for terrorists looking for quick, easy fame and funds from approving supporters.

For Hakim Arif, leader of the notorious Fat’ah terrorist group, Americans are not really his enemy, no matter what his press releases will say. Americans are the key element in his new entrepreneurial venture. Terrorism is a low-risk, high-profit scheme to which Hakim intends to add a bold new innovation: killing civilians within an unprepared United States.

But someone is about to throw a wooden shoe into the gears of Hakim’s business.

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Before Rissa and Bran

Zelde M’Tana — F.M. Busby

ISFDB lists 1980’s Zelde M’Tana as the third book in the Rissa Kerguelen series. Even though it was the last of the Kerguelen series to be published, it is not a sequel at all. It’s a prequel. Rissa doesn’t appear in this book; her man-candy Bran Tregare appears only towards the end. This novel focuses on the eponymous Zelde and her life before she crossed paths with Rissa.

When we first meet her, Zelde does not seem a likely candidate for star travel. She is one of North America’s Wild Children, with little memory of her long-lost parents or any other way of life; she’s only mostly sure that her name really is Zelde M’Tana. Zelde is snatched up by Rehabilitation, an agency with a do-good name and some do-bad methods and goals. After Zelde attacks a Rehab officer, she is scheduled for a lobotomy and life in the slave camps of Total Welfare.

Luckily for Zelde, there is such a thing as a kind-hearted Rehabilitation officer, who sees her as someone worth salvaging. Zelde is diverted to the UET (United Energy and Transport) starship Great Khan , the first step towards to what the official hopes will be a better life out in the stars. “Better” is a relative term: she is being exported as a sex slave, to a brothel on the distant mining colony Iron Hat.

But Great Khan will never reach Iron Hat.

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The Lord of Darkness is a jerk

Death’s Master — Tanith Lee
Tales of the Flat Earth, book 2

1979’s Death’s Master returns to Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth setting. It is an unfriendly place for Simmu and Zhirem; in any world but the Flat Earth, their mutual attraction might not have been doomed. Unfortunately, the Flat Earth is not a great place for lovers, particularly for those who, like Simmu and Zhirem, are pawns in a languid game played by rival demons: Uhlume, Lord of Death and Azhrarn, Lord of Darkness.

The story begins a generation before Simmu and Zhirem are born.

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How odd to think of a fantasy movie from New Zealand

What We Do in the Shadows — Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi

Vampires! Powerful, ravenous and immune to the ravages of time! Rather unfortunately for Viago ( Taika Waititi) , Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) , and Petyr (Ben Fransham), the undead subjects of 2014’s mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows , vampires also seem to be immune to the Flynn Effect. Everyone around them is getting smarter decade by decade, but they remain in a perpetual state of vague befuddlement. The quartet share a house in Wellington as well as a daily struggle to deal with the baffling modern world.

But change is coming. Change in the form of the human known as Nick.

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Paging François Truffaut

Empowered Unchained — Adam Warren
Empowered Unchained, book 1

Two reasons for this review: 1) I have been in the mood for superhero stuff recently and 2) I read a book about Wonder Woman last week. A book which reminded me that Wonder Woman ended up tied up a lot, and that her creator had a bondage kink. Which led me to wonder if there were any more superhero + bondage stories out there … which in turn led me to Adam Warren’s comic series Empowered. Perhaps I should have started with volume one of the collected Empowered stories, but I misread a catalogue entry and reserved Empowered Unchained, which collects several special issues.

Empowered is the nom de superhero of Elissa Megan Powers, AKA Emp. She is famous, not so much for the skill with which she uses her degree in Metahuman Studies or for the superpowers granted by her hypermembrane suit, but for the extreme unreliability of her suit. Consequently, all too often she ends up hog-tied and immobilized in some undignified pose by one of her obnoxious enemies.

The suit is skin-tight. When it is not in shreds. Oh, and Emp has body image issues.

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“(…) there was one yurt community that brought up their children as if they were Inuit or Sami, or for that matter Neanderthals.”

Aurora — Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s a sub-genre I call “premature interstellarism”, stories about unfortunate explorers and colonists whose toolkits are, alas, not up to the challenge of exploring or settling other planets. Given the long history of failed colonization efforts on Earth, the planet on which we actually evolved, the idea that some colonization efforts would fail seems like a no-brainer. 2015’s Aurora is an example of such a book, standing next to such works as Poul Anderson’s “The Alien Enemy,” Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…, and Brian Stableford’s Daedalus series.

It’s a rare book that fits into just one possible sub-genre. There is a far larger, more important sub-genre to which Aurora belongs and that’s Books with Idiot Plots.

Trigger warning for physicists and biologists: this is supposedly hard SF, which is to say SF that provides enough technical detail that the reader can be certain that various mechanisms and events couldn’t work the way the author has them working. Also, spoiler warning.

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In American stories, try to be the youngest heir

The Phoenix in Flight — Sherwood Smith & Dave Trowbridge
Exordium, book 1

1993’s The Phoenix in Flight is the first volume in Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge’s Exordium pentology. There is a new edition of this volume, but this review is of the 1993 edition, because that is the edition I happen to have on hand.

Eusabian, Lord of Vengeance, avatar of Dol, grumpiest Dol’jharian of all, has long yearned to punish the Panarchy for defeating Dol’jhar some decades ago. The main problem facing Eusabian is that the Panarchy draws on the resources of the many races and worlds of the Thousand Stars1; Dol’jhar draws on the resources of … Dol’jhar, a cold, bleak, poor planet.

But now Eusabian has learned how to exploit the still-functioning relics of the long-vanished Ur. With the Ur’s instant communications and their stupendous power sources in his possession, the balance of power has tilted decisively in Eusabian’s favour. The time has come for his vendetta, his ritual paliach. Which in its purest form ends with the display of the severed head of the enemy.

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Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.

Alas, Babylon — Pat Frank

The sleepy little town of Fort Repose is only vaguely aware of events outside its borders. Given their druthers, certain members of the community—the Daughters of the Confederacy, the White Citizens Council—would prefer that they be even less aware of the outside world and its alarmingly modern ideas. The isolationists are going to get their wish, but not in a form they would have wanted.

“Alas, Babylon”: that phrase in a telegram from his brother Mark, a SAC officer, warns Randy Bragg that the long cold war between East and West is about to become hot.

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Whatever happened to the baby abandoned in The Birthgrave?

Shadowfire — Tanith Lee
Birthgrave, book 2

1978’s Shadowfire, second book in the Birthgrave trilogy, was originally published by DAW Books under the more lurid title of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor . Lurid “because the DAW in DAW Books stands for Donald A. Wollheim and if he could have, he would have published the Bible as an omnibus of War God of Israel and The Thing with Three Souls .” Shadowfire isn’t exactly an informative title, but Vazkor, Son of Vazkor is only informative if you’ve read The Birthgrave and if you happen to know that this book is a sequel to The Birthgrave .

This book is about Vazkor’s son, but Vazkor isn’t the name of Vazkor’s son. That’s just the name of the book. That’s why DAW called the book Vazkor, Son of Vazkor .

And gave it this cover:

The son of Vazkor is actually named Tuvek. Whereas his late father was an ambitious warlord whose grand schemes left cities in ruins all across the continent of his nameless world, Tuvek is but one of a number of sullen, violent youths in an unremarkable barbarian tribe. He does not know that Vazkor was his real father, though he does have something of an inkling that he is not quite like the people who have raised him. His suspicions fall far short of the truth.

And then comes the day of the Boys Rite.

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An attack on then-current city planning and rebuilding

The Death and Life of Great American Cities — Jane Jacobs

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is Jane Jacobs’ 1961 polemic on what makes cities work and what makes them fail. She wrote in reaction to the dominant urban planning doctrine, doctrine that she saw as counter productive.

Although Jacobs thanks a long list of people for their assistance in writing this work, from Saul Alinsky to Beda Zwicker, the name “Robert Moses” is strangely absent. Curious, since one could argue this book might never have been written without his efforts to shape New York.

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Suffering Sappho!

The Secret History of Wonder Woman — Jill Lepore

I like to believe that I am blind to ads, but this review is proof that I may be deluding myself. The Comics Curmudgeon has been running a banner ad for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman on their Livejournal feed; then I happened to see a copy of this book at Kitchener Public Library. Reader, I snagged it. Hmmm.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s true that much of the book deals with Wonder Woman, one of the so-called Big Three superheroes at DC Comics, someone often mentioned in the same breath as Batman and Superman. However, even more of this book is devoted to the circumstances that led to Wonder Woman’s creation.

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Velveteen vs James’ expectations

Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots — Seanan McGuire
Velveteen, book 1

Last week I had a very annoying evening. I wanted to read in a very specific genre—superhero fiction—but every book that looked interesting was either not available in a format I wanted to purchase … or might have existed in that format but was effectively concealed from me by Kobo’s grotesquely ineffective search function.

Eventually, I discovered that Seanan McGuire’s site offered a selection of her Velveteen stories. So I read those.

I believe the stories on her site are those also found within Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots, so I am going to pretend I went out and acquired a copy of that.

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