I don’t recall exactly what drew me to picking Blood Orbit out of the many options for potential reviewing here. Likely it was a combination of good experience/trust in the publisher and the description of a crime noir/science fiction blend, a combo of two of my beloved genres. I certainly didn’t recognize the name of the author, and upon finally beginning the novel I had no memory of what that blurb said it was even about. I started reading the electronic copy Pyr had provided expecting a typical slow start. Without the ease of a physical copy I find getting into a novel really challenging while trying to ‘turn’ back to firmly get characters or the seeds of plot to stick in mind. Instead I found little need for that, and my finger tapped through pages in a focused rush to read more. Blood Orbit is exceptionally crafted from its opening, and at no point through its last page did I ever end up feeling like it faltered. Happening to be at Barnes & Noble at the time, I soon decided to get up and just get the actual book, because I already had a feeling this “Gattis File” debut would be one series I’d want to keep up with. [Read more…]
Neil Johns is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the NSA, but his lack of strong academic credentials and his reliance on unorthodox techniques make it a long shot. Seeing his promise, the agency gives him a chance, but Neil’s success feels bittersweet. Suffering from early-onset Alzheimers, Neil’s father can’t recognize his son’s accomplishments or be there to help him navigate the challenges that accompany them. Neil’s developing, tenuous professional life also becomes further complicated by other family matters. His mycologist brother Paul returns from a trip to the Amazon that ended by surviving a guerilla terrorist attack and Paul’s subsequent escape through the jungle. Paul arrives home in the US troubled by missing memories of just how he managed to survive to return to human civilization. Before even leaving the airport Paul collapses in front of Neil from what is soon diagnosed as fungal pneumonia. Neil soon begins to suspect that his brother’s condition is something much more than a common infection, something that may be spreading into a global pandemic with frightening sociopolitical implications that relate to current threats that he is analyzing with the NSA. [Read more…]
It is approximately half a century in our future. Climate change has altered the coasts of the United States, wiping out much of Florida and Louisiana. Amid these changes, the Second American Civil War breaks out. While the issue of slavery drove the original Civil War, southern state refusal to accept a federal ban on fossil fuels stokes the fires of the second. Yet, the issues are more complex beyond any single cause. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi form a core of secession, Texas becomes reabsorbed by Mexico, and South Carolina suffers as ground zero in the release of a plague engineered by the North, leaving the state quarantined. Fracturing, the South becomes desperate, fueled by hatred. With an urge to end the last remnants of resistance as quickly as possible, the North retaliates with equal hate and ferocity.
Omar El Akkad’s American War begins with the narrator introducing us to six-year-old Sarat Chestnut, born amid this national chaos in the remains of Louisiana. This narrator, who is only identified by the close of the novel, explains that they only knew Sarat later in her life, after her innocence was lost and she had played a major role in the South getting its revenge. They feel the need to begin her story before that tragedy, before the US fell into greater ruin, before the Chestnuts lost their patriarch and the surviving family members became refugees, before Sarat fell down her personal path of despair leading her to monstrosity. And so the narrator begins with the brief, nigh unimaginable time when Sarat may actually have known peace and happiness. [Read more…]
After a few entries, popular series can become quite problematic. The author can stick to what works and hit all the same notes that brought success and breed comfortable familiarity. Scores of fans will eat it up, but it risks the series turning formulaic and dull. The author can try to switch things up, reinvent a groundbreaking core, or diverge the story into new characters and territory. But change too much of what the fans hold dear without winning some new hearts, and it could all come crashing down.
THE RAPTOR AND THE WREN marks the fifth full-length outing for Miriam Black’s popular antihero protagonist Chuck Wendig, a character who first appeared as a villain in her horror novella Wi-nteko-wa before breaking out in Black’s 2008 debut novel UNWARY PREY IN THE NIGHT. Originally a human who had been transformed into a cannibalistic creature of immense power and evil, Chuck Wendig became captured and altered by a tribe of Stikini, spiritual beings that manifest in our universe as owls. Wendig’s monstrous tendencies tempered with the wisdom and grace of the Stikini turned him into an agent who could be lured to work for the bad or for the good. Now a creature of freedom, Wendig became symbolic of that ‘strong, independent man’ that genre literature has long ignored.
A few years back I quickly fell in love with the short fiction of Sam J. Miller. Published across a spectrum of electronic genre venues (Shimmer, Apex, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Uncanny), Miller also gained recognition in print with “Calved”, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and reprinted in multiple ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies.
I’m drawn to Miller’s fiction for several reasons that tie together. Foremost are his characters: strong and unique voices that reflect points of views not frequently explored in genre fiction. Even though these characters may often be very different from myself – with conditions or experiences I’ve never faced – Miller excels at making them universally relatable. His themes focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their basic humanity. Beautiful mixtures of fragility and fortitude, Miller’s characters compel reader empathy and emotion, even if the character’s specific situation is personally unfamiliar to the reader. This character-driven realism gives Miller’s insightful explorations a mainstream, literary tone. Yet, Miller’s stories are firmly in the genre camp. It is this deft balance between literary realism and the uncanny or speculation of SciFi/Fantasy/Horror that I enjoy so much.
Many of the reviewers associated with the Skiffy and Fanty team have a contribution specialty. I’ve always avoided this because I don’t like the limitations; I read/review outside of these genres even. But if I were to have a niche, it would probably be short fiction. I adore the variety it affords and the low commitment to discover new authors. It’s easier to convince myself to step away from work for a moment to read a short story, compared to equal time reading a portion of longer works that may not have obvious stopping points. Most importantly, some of the most exciting writing I’ve seen comes from the short form.
Two fabulous collections of short horror appeared last year from Apex Book Company. If you didn’t happen to catch note of them yet, then they are particularly worth considering now as we begin the ninth annual celebration of Women in Horror Month. Both Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley and Everything That’s Underneath by Kristi DeMeester smolder with a joyful embrace, and defiance, of nightmares. As the titles in combination allude to, these two collections demonstrate that beneath fears lies terror and hope, beauty and monstrosity, sorrow and pleasure. A bit of everything festers underneath horror, full of contradictions in equal measure. [Read more…]
It has taken me all of this month to figure out what to write. It often seemed like joy has been eluding me, what with the dire and painful state of so much sociopolitically in the world. It took me awhile to step back and remember just how much joy there is, all around. The Earth teems with it.
When I was a younger reader I discovered books on the topic of cryptozoology, ones by Ivan T. Sanderson on through modern authors. The lure behind the idea that there might still be fantastic beasts out there in the world to discover fueled my excitement, hope, and imagination. But finding these cryptids, if they did exist, would certainly not be easy, and I was no Newt Scamander.
However, one of the creatures the authors of these books brought up had been ‘discovered’ and scientifically recognized, despite first thought a myth by Europeans. That animal is the okapi, a half-zebra-half-giraffe animal from the dense jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The okapi stuck in my mind as something rare and miraculous, a fantastic beast that I might actually be able to see. [Read more…]
From Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. to Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse to Matt “Grim-Dark” Groening’s upcoming Futurama X-Treme, the standard script for science fiction featuring artificial intelligence (AI) has been machine rising up against humanity. This theme reached its artistic pinnacle in 1953 with the widely acclaimed masterpiece Robot Monster from noted auteur Phil Tucker, a cinematic disciple of Bresson and Ozu. The plot should be as obsolete as MS-DOS 4.0. Yet, authors and Hollywood writers all keep going back to the robot production factory for ideas.
The fear inherent in this fiction has historically accompanied each technological development; with each increase in technology’s power and reach, so goes the fear. Recently, both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk voiced concerns and warnings regarding AI. Yes, it is true that Hawking and Musk are both usually known for lunatic ramblings, but their warning here does seem logical and warranted.
Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn & Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo
Two young adult (YA) novels featuring feisty teen heroines from Mars recently landed in my to-be-read pile. Beyond the surface similarity between their protagonists, the two novels diverge completely, each with unique focus and drive, and different kinds of success.
Newly out in trade paperback from Tor, Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn is the simpler of the two, written with familiar themes (adversity-conquering intellect, exceptionalism) that recall YA science fiction adventures from ‘Golden Age’ writers like Heinlein. The plot of this stand-alone novel from Vaughn is even more broadly recognizable as a typical coming-of-age setup. A teen leaves the familiarity of home to enter an institution populated by antagonistic peers and aloof adults. The ridiculed outcast slowly proves the utility of her or his outsider perspective/experience, showing-up the cliques and saving the day.
The second volume in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series just had its paperback release, so this felt like a good moment to review this sequel to 2015’s The Grace of Kings. If you aren’t familiar with that start to the series, you can find my review of it here, and I would not recommend starting with the sequel or reading further in this review. The plot of The Wall of Storms actually does stand rather well on its own. However, the framework of Liu’s Chinese-history inspired archipelago kingdom/culture is built in the first book and could be harder to appreciate or grasp without starting there.
As hefty and epic a tome as its predecessor, The Wall of Storms seems to fit in the overall series plot arc as a transition. As meaningful and impactful as Liu’s debut novel, the sequel continues similar themes of individual and societal struggles to advance and improve, but within a political context shifted from revolt to one of maintaining benevolent power amid threats internal and external. A split between those internal to external threats comprises a hinge both conceptual and physical: forming the transition from events in The Grace of Kings to those to come in the third volume, and dividing The Wall of Storms into roughly equal halves. The novel deals with the ramifications of Kuni Garu’s populist rise to power as Emperor Ragin of Dara, with the consequences of the actions and compromises that he, and other characters, made while seeking the greater good or in yielding to their weaknesses. [Read more…]