Sunday, March 4, 2012

Speculative Fiction Book Reviews

Originally reviewed in ConNotations NewsZine Issue #5 - October/November 2011

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by Edward Lazellari
A Tor Book, 2011, $24.99, 348 pp
A band of guardians from another dimension were sent to our world to find, protect, and serve a lost prince, but in a miserable fluke of the transport, they all arrived with wiped memories, strangers and orphans in a strange land. To the best of their abilities they are leading 'ordinary' lives, but their natures warp reality around them to a certain extent. Callum MacDonnell is a policeman with a family, a man of integrity, courage, and honor. Seth Raincrest is a trickster who seems to survive every situation, no matter how disastrous it proves for others. Daniel is in foster care, and no matter how hard he tries to do the right thing, violence erupts around him, overwhelming him and others.

Now a former ally Lelani has followed after to find and reactivate the guardians, but the whole situation is a mess, complicated by a rival group who have arrived with memories intact, even if their powers are somewhat abated by our world's dampening effect on magic. That's not too much of a problem if you also have brute strength and cunning on your side, and can coerce cooperation, as disgraced detective Colby Dretch finds out. Now it's a race to locate the missing prince, and there are no rules.

This first novel straddles Young Adult and SF genres like a Colossus, which is not all that surprising, given Lazellari's background as a writer (and artist!) for Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics, and Jim Henson Productions. A blend urban fantasy, romance and realism, this is the first volume of a projected series that should appeal to a wide range of readers. It isn't often that a single book reminds me of both Tolkien and Steven King, for the story has epic resonances, even as the scenes and characterizations are entirely modern. - Chris Paige

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Rigor Amortis
Edited by Jaym Gates and Erika Holt
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2011, $9.99, 134 pp

The Canadian New Wave of edgy fiction continues with this collection of short fiction and poetry of Zombie erotica. It is appropriately broken down into categories of Romance, Revenge, Risk, and Raunch. If you loooove zombies, or if you want a dementedly fresh (heh!) take on erotica, this is the book for you. It's a quality paperback with gorily lurid illustrations throughout by Galen Dara, Miranda Jean, and Robert Nixon. The mixture of passion, love, lust, and horror in these short stories - most of them are less than a 1000 words - is astonishingly arousing. This could be the year's outstanding gift book for fetishers, either for the holidays or next Valentine's Day, because it will probably put your partner in a playful mood. - Chris Paige

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The Infernal Game: Ghost Dance
by Rebecca Levene
Abaddon Books, 2010, $9.99, 277 pp

Two story lines converge in this supernatural thriller about Alex, an unwilling agent for the CIA, and Morgan, a street operative on the other side of the pond who works for an organization called the Hermetic Division. He gets called up to deal with things almost as nasty as himself. The Alex storyline is supernatural with horrific components, the Morgan parts are the inverse ratio. Very yin-yang.

16 year-old Alex gets conscripted after she calls a California TV station to complain about their coverage of a high school massacre - before it happens. Her call had been dismissed as mere drug-induced looniness by Patriot-Act funded listeners, but then reality catches up with her foresight. Alex does not want to become a spirit world snoop, but her passive-aggressive maneuvers prove futile. Her controller is determined to use her talents, first to verify torture-induced confessions, then to infiltrate a cult that is sending shockwaves through the supernatural ether. Alex's partner, PD, wishes he had the talent she loathes, so tensions, resentments, and misunderstandings are inevitable.

Morgan is an all-purpose Shiva, impossible to destroy, but dangerous as hell to be around - the splash zone can be a problem. Morgan is on the trail of a murderer who seems to be after immortality - why else the obsession with 15th century alchemist John Dee and his works?

Levene brings startling elements together: alchemy, Old Testament conflicts, angels, demons, shape-changers and tricksters. She is good with details, from the high-school assassin wearing a George W. Bush mask, to Alex's forays into a realm where truths are ugly and lies hurt the speaker like knives, to the emotional undertows that drag characters into dark waters. The climax takes place in a very ... surprising place, and what happens there is all kinds of problematic. Honestly, you will want to see where she takes this in the sequel.

Of all the speculative genres, horror, because it deals with inner scapes and strong passions, tends to be the most gripping. Horror tends to ask, indirectly, the tough questions, questions like What do you want? What will you pay to get it? and Are you the sort of person who tries to cheat on the Deal? Every now and then, it can be cathartic to take a long look in that dark mirror. - Chris Paige

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Unnatural Issue
by Mercedes Lackey
DAW Books, 2011, $25.95, 361 pp

Unnatural Issue is primarily a retelling of a fairy tale that goes by many names: Cattikin, Many-Furs, Donkey-Skin, etc. In most versions, a queen dies, a heart-broken king refuses to marry anyone who is not a match for his dead queen, and a princess must flee her father's amorous intentions. I recommend finding Cattikin, for in that variation, the princess is quite resourceful. First she tries to postpone the marriage into oblivion by asking for impossible gifts: dresses of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight, each of which fits into a walnut shell; and a cloak made from 1000 different furs. When delaying tactics do not suffice, she removes herself from the unhealthy equation and takes a position as kitchen maid in a neighboring kingdom. There she prepares soup of exquisite deliciousness, attends dances attired in her magical dresses, and gives mysterious gifts to the king, hidden in his bowl of soup. The king is intrigued and eventually figures that the irrational-seeming discrepancies lead to the discovery of his beloved.

Robin McKinley previously novelized the motif in Deerskin, but that book is rough-going, because in her version, the worst is not averted, it happens.

Mercedes Lackey resets this gem of a story in her Elemental Masters series, bringing back most of her previous main characters in cameo roles, as well as introducing new main ones.

Instead of being a king, Richard Whitestone is a hereditary Earth Master, landed gentry with a good estate, and a trusted member of the White Lodge. Tragically, while he is in London tracking a murderer who has employed dark Earth Magic, his wife dies in childbirth. Enraged and embittered, Richard Whitestone disowns his baby daughter, Suzanne. He becomes a complete recluse and brings a blight upon the very estate his family has protected for generations.

Suzanne is raised by the servants, learning, not the social airs and graces of a young lady, but practical, homely skills - and magic. Robin Goodfellow, Puck himself, straight out of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, is her teacher. It is Suzanne who creates boundaries to contain the blight cast by her father's wretchedness, and who establishes good will with the local elementals: the fauns, brownies, and other earth-spirits of Old England.

In his secret study, Richard turns to the writings of necromancers in search of a way to bring back his wife from the dead, but he is stymied by the need for a body to serve as a vessel for her soul. Then, from his curtained window, he sees 20 year old Suzanne, the very image of her mother. From that point on, all his energies are bent on making his wish a reality.
Suzanne discovers her danger in time to escape. She flees across the moors and finds refuge at Branwell Hall, where Earth Magic is understood, and welcomed.

Meanwhile, Richard's meddling with necromancy has caused ripples which alert the White Lodge, and, somewhat belatedly, Lord Aldridge sends an Elemental Master to investigate and intervene.
At this point, Lackey performs a bit of literary necromancy of her own, re-animating one of the great characters of all times: Lord Peter Whimsey, created by Dorothy L. Sayers. In Unnatural Issue, he is slightly changed into Lord Peter Almsley - he is, after all, a gift to any story in which he manifests - a Master of the Element water, with a flair for infiltration. Almsley appeared previously in The Gates of Sleep in a supporting role; now he is the heroine's complement. Alchemically, he has evolved from side-kick quicksilver to hero's gold.

Lord Peter gets himself installed as Branwell Hall's new gameskeeper in order to suss out Suzanne - her magical ability, her history, and whatever she might know of an elusive necromancer.

Richard Whitestone is not about to give up his plans, and now he has no compunctions about conjuring and commanding legions of the dead, and even nastier things like trolls and redcaps. Once he discovers Suzanne's whereabouts, he declares war on Branwell Hall and all who dwell therein. And when European unrest erupts into the unholy mess that becomes "The Great War," Whitestone finds the perfect grounds to continue his revenge against all who sheltered Suzanne.

One of the best features of this book is how Lackey portrays aspects of World War One: the horror of it, the ghastly conditions of the trench warfare, the stupidity and lies that propagated it, the conditions that nurses endured and the responsibilities they shouldered, and how those who knew better could only mitigate the horrors. Suzanne doesn't get to dance in dresses woven of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight; she dons a nurse's uniform in Mons behind the Front.

Furthermore, Lackey uses the language of magic to portray, if not always facts, then certainly truths. Many of us really do experience the kinds of sensitivities her magicians employ as they wield magic; this series is one of the rare validations of the numinous experiences we rarely have words to describe. (I submit this with some trepidation, having read Lackey's recent internet posting, reminding her readers forcibly that she is writing F-I-C-T-I-O-N. I agree with everything she had to say.)

This ability to sum up, to epitomize, and to transform experiences that society is vigorously relegating to under the carpet or behind the curtain is Lackey's greatest talent. In her various writings, she has shone a clear light on the self-deceptions of survivor guilt and co-dependency in abusive relationships; she has invented characters who became paradigm shifts for readers who were consequently able to go from victim status to survivors and even heroes in their own life stories; she has incorporated into her stories the grim realities that soldiers and rescue workers undergo, so that their neighbors can have some comprehension of their ordeals; she has parsed the big lies that politicians and their flunkeys love to tell, tearing off the genial mask to reveal the monstrous greed and cruelty beneath the fa├žade.

Lackey is, quite simply, a fantastic writer. Consider the range, the contrast, of the following. In one scene, Suzanne and another girl are systematically using their Earth Elemental magic in the dairy to protect the milk, cream, and butter from spoilage. In another, an Earth Mage is being overwhelmed by animated corpses on a battlefield, and the earth elementals of the ravaged land, including a unicorn, come to his rescue, even as they are themselves dying. I wept unabashedly at this scene.

The author shows a tremendous appreciation for the coexistence of "old ways" and religious traditions so characteristic of Old England. She portrays the persistence and validity of the former, and she slips in a corrected translation of a diabolically (I use that word advisedly) mis-translated, and infamous abused passage of the Old Testament. This was very well done, and may even make up for not including Rudyard Kipling or Dorothy Sayers in her Dedication. Misty may not always acknowledge her sources, but she does her homework.

Editorial comment: there are a couple of continuity errors in this first edition. Early in her escape, Suzanne burns a magical bundle; later on, she is using it again. And a time anomaly presents one character in the trenches in December, then shifts forward - to November. These are minor annoyances in an otherwise enjoyable confection. - Chris Paige

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Black Wings
by Christina Henry
Ace Books, 2011, $7.99, 295 pp

Black Wings kicks off a new series in the urban fantasy genre. It has stylish cover art to catch they eye, with enough subtlety to hold attention. The writing is lucid, and besides carrying the action narrative, it swirls and eddies into some lovely side-waters.

Madeline Black makes a rather incongruous Agent of Death, being short and cute, but she has an impressive wingspan. She and her fellow agents are responsible for moving souls on to the Great Beyond, although some souls get lost, or refuse the guidance, and irrevocably become ghosts. Maddy gets some guidance of her own from a stone gargoyle; unfortunately, she often ignores its advice. So a tall, dark, handsome stranger, with a name that should have sent "Uh-Oh!" alarms ringing in our heroine's head, moves into her duplex. Hey, she needed the rent! Next a demon comes terrorizing Chicago, and being one of Death's Agents proves to be no protection.

Supernatural magic abounds, and there are plenty of romantic complications tangling our heroine's movements and creating an emotional cliff-hanger. Just like real life, that.
According to Carrie Vaughan, it is very important to support the series you like while they are still new. If the first one sells well, there will be more. But if readers wait to see if the series succeeds before they commit, it won't. So if you've ever wondered what happened to so-and-so's oh so promising series that petered out after only two installments, now you know: too many readers held off, and that killed the publisher's commitment. So try to find at least one enjoyable new author a month and actually buy a book, e-format or paper, to keep them viable. - Chris Paige

7th Sigma
by Steven Gould
A Tor Book, 2011, $24.99, 384 pp
It is quite important to read the quotes at the beginnings of parts and chapters of 7th Sigma; not only do they explain the title and prepare the reader for what follows, they make amply clear that this fantastic book is a science-fiction version of Rudyard Kipling's young adult novel, Kim. Yes!!!!!

Just as Pat Murphy's There and Back Again was an SF (and gender-bending) tribute to The Hobbit, and Charles Sheffield's Billion Dollar Boy was a space-age cover of Captain's Courageous, Steven Gould has invented a new setting for the coming of age story of a resourceful boy who encounters a very wise teacher with whom he travels. Kipling poured all his love for India into his original book, and his own frustrated desire to be a player in The Great Game was sublimated into Kim's adventures as a junior field agent for the British Secret Service.
So, what if Kim were to live in a time of space colonies?  - Chris Paige

Man Plus
by Frederik Pohl
An Orb Book, 2011, $16.99, 267 pages
This republication of a 1976 classic is remarkably timely, concerned as it is with the affects of overpopulation, dwindling resources, war, and the dangers of colonizing another planet offset by the imperative to survive well. A mystery component ends the book with a revelation that kicks the whole story up an octave, like the final chorus of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Limpidly well-written, it is startlingly on the mark in its predictions of politics and environmental breakdown.

This is a man-alone adventure about Roger Torraway, who is torn away from his good life as a back-up astronaut to undergo radical alteration and then sent away to Mars to establish a footing so that others, unenhanced, can follow. He is at once sacrifice and pioneer, crucified in the laboratory and launched into near-immortality on the red planet.

It takes a slight mental shift to read SF written before social networking rewrote our templates, but this one is most rewarding, definitely worth the adjustment. - Chris Paige

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Patti Hultstrand said...

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If you have a speculative fiction or science non-fiction book to tote, please let me know and I will have you send the paper your book for one of our growing number of book reviewers read your book and it will be published in the print newspaper, and on-line on their website, as well as on this blog in the months ahead of us.

Email me your interest at

Patti Hultstrand said...

Oh yes, we have very good advertising rates for the newspaper also. And for those advertising in the paper, you will also see your ad here at the end of these book reviews and on the organization's website. So, you get a SCREAMING price and get your ads in three locations. Take a look at the rates and you will agree, there isn't any better way to reach readers.