The Cost of Becoming Royalty: Crown of Coral and Pearl by Mara Rutherford

Thursday, September 19th, 2019 | Posted by CAITLIN MCALLISTER

Crown of Coral and Pearl-smallTwins Nor (coral) and Zadie (pearl) live in Varenia, a world built on stilts above the ocean. The floating village makes a living diving for and collecting rare pearls that have healing capabilities and trading them to Ilara, a distant kingdom.

In addition to pearls, Ilara also barters for queens. Once every generation, the most beautiful woman in Varenia is sent to land to become Ilara’s next lady sovereign.

Nor and Zadie have been preparing their entire lives to become royalty: protecting their skin and hair with ointments and treatments; not playing too hard to avoid accidents that might mar their complexions; and learning the etiquette expected of queens. Unfortunately, accidents aren’t entirely avoidable, and Nor’s cheek is ultimately scarred for life in a struggle with a fishing net while diving. After the accident any hope of being chosen as queen is smashed. Ironically, Nor is the more adventurous of the twins, and she has always yearned for more than what her tiny village can offer. Zadie is content in her small, floating world, in love with a local boy Sami and happy to live a life of the familiar.

However, a grave and tragic encounter with a sea jelly leaves Zadie unable to make the journey even after she’s chosen as the royal successor. In a dangerous plot, Nor disguises her scar and takes her twin’s place. The king doesn’t take kindly to imposters, and Nor is aware that Varenia’s entire fresh water supply was once cut off when a different woman was sent in place of the chosen one due to illness. Knowing the risk, Nor sets off on an adventure full of intrigue, politics and romance.

I could not put this book down and finished it in about a day. Rutherford has created a really interesting setting, and the world building is polished and sure. The floating world of Varenia is described incredibly well, and you’re immediately immersed in the salty sea breezes and vibrant colors of Nor and Zadie’s world — and, in contrast, the cold and dark of New Castle, where Nor settles into her new life on land. Nor is a fantastic protagonist with a very well-developed character – she’s everything you want a fierce female to be, yet with a soft and complex relationship with her sister. I enjoyed Nor’s story arc immensely.

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Space Empires, Ruined Civilizations, and Lovable Aliens: The Best of Eric Frank Russell

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of Eric Frank Russell-small The Best of Eric Frank Russell-back-small

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The Best of Eric Frank Russell (1978) was the eighteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Alan Dean Foster (1946–) provides the introduction, his first and only introduction for the series. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his seventh cover (far surpassing Dean Ellis’s five). Since Eric Frank Russell (1905–1978) was unavailable at the time this volume was compiled, no Afterword is included.

Alan Dean Foster relates in the introduction that during a lunch with John Campbell they realized they both had the same favorite sci-fi writer: Eric Frank Russell. But both lamented (this was 1968) that Russell no longer wrote that much. This seems like very high praise, since it comes from two very influential figures in the sci-fi field. But who was Eric Frank Russell, and why did he quit writing?

Eric Frank Russell was a British writer (which I found surprising since his dialogue sounds American to my reading). He grew up in a military family, but didn’t serve in the military until World War II. Most of his early life was spent writing for American and British pulp magazines. He also produced a few novels, some fairly successful, including Sinister Barrier (1943) and Wasp (1957), which was optioned by Ringo Starr of The Beatles, but never filmed.

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Ghostly Corners in a Fictional London: Where Shadows Gather by Michael Chislett

Monday, September 16th, 2019 | Posted by Mario Guslandi

WHERE SHADOWS GATHER ~ MICHAEL CHISLETT-smallWhere Shadows Gather
Michael Chislett
Sarob Press (224 pages, £33.95/$60.00 [including shipping], July 2019)
Cover by Paul Lowe

Following his previous, acclaimed Sarob Press collection In the City of Ghosts Michael Chislett provides another bunch of ghostly tales, mostly set in the fictional London borough of Milford and the suburb of Mabbs End. Five stories are brand new, whereas eight have previously appeared in genre magazines (especially the excellent Supernatural Tales).

Chislett has a knack for creating creepy urban atmospheres, depicting sinister encounters and eerie experiences. Although, in my opinion, not up to the level of his previous collection, the present volume confirms his ability to create elegantly written, disquieting stories.

Among my favorite pieces are: “In the Garden,” an unusual story of botanical horror, where an ordinary garden of a London suburban house becomes the venue for ancient pagan forces, “Downriver,” an atmospheric tale where a walk along the Thames turns into a veritable nightmare and “The Raggy Girl”, a modern, disturbing ghost story revolving around a frightening apparition among the ruins of an old apartment building now being demolished.

A couple of stories are actually taking place overseas, such as the gloomy “The Coast Guard” set on the Baltic shore, hosting strange foxes and other horrific creatures.

The two highlights of the book are  “Mara,” an excellent, dark tale of vampirism featuring a beautiful but deadly vixen and an equally dangerous gentleman, and the outstanding “Endor,”a powerful, intoxicating mix of witchcraft, eroticism and possession.

A warning to the potential reader: if you’re interested in this book hurry up and order a copy. As usual, Sarob Press volumes have a limited print run and become quickly unobtainable.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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The Dawn of Comics in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

Saturday, September 7th, 2019 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

3985._UY635_SS635_

It isn’t often that comic books are a legitimate topic in works of literature, or that when they are, the book in question wins a Pulitzer. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, is such a novel. It was published in 2000 to near universal acclaim. It tells the story of two Jewish cousins from 1939 to 1953.

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Dinosaurs, Mermaids, and Haunted Lumber: The Best of L. Sprague De Camp

Saturday, September 7th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of L. Sprague De Camp Book Club Edition-small

The Best of L. Sprague de Camp
(Science Fiction Book Club edition, 1978. Cover by Richard Corben)

The Best of L. Sprague De Camp (1978) was the fifteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Poul Anderson (1926–2001) gives the introduction. Darrel Sweet (1934–2011) does his second cover of the series, the first being The Best of Cordwainer Smith. L. Sprague De Camp (1907–2000), still living at the time, wrote the afterword.

I’m a fairly late-comer to science fiction. I grew up with Star Wars and typical sci-fi shows and movies of the late 70s and 80s, but my reading picks tended to be more towards fantasy and horror. So, like many of these classic sci-fi authors in the Del Rey series, L. Sprague De Camp was a new name to me. And it’s interesting, I think, how one can come to a new writer.

In all honesty, I was not looking forward to reading this volume. Most of what I’ve read of and about De Camp hasn’t given me the most favorable impression. Case in point: A couple of years ago I compared De Camp’s Robert E. Howard (REH) biography with Mark Finn’s. If you know anything about De Camp’s reputation among many REH fans, you’ll know that it is usually less than favorable (again, see my earlier post for more details). And, after reading De Camp’s REH bio, I came around to agreeing with some of this critical press. In short, I thought that De Camp could often come off as conceited with his overly bold claims, especially given his tendency of providing insufficient evidence — or none at all!

But after reading The Best of L. Sprague De Camp, I have to say that despite his reputation with many an REH fan, this has become one of my favorite volumes in the Del Rey series. I found De Camp to be a very fascinating writer. Two things, I think, really stand out in his science fiction writing.

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Making our Journey to Machine Domination More Fun: The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty

Thursday, September 5th, 2019 | Posted by SELindberg

The Robots of Gotham cover wrap-small

Wearing aluminum hats won’t help us anymore. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant likely conspire against humanity, and no doubt will copulate and have gendered, machine children. That is one vision of the future. The Robots of Gotham will at least make our journey toward machine domination more fun. Todd McAulty’s first-person blog-style is profoundly easy to consume. Highly recommended for everyone who has a smartphone!

What is the best way to deal with being constantly surveilled by devices? Reading fiction about robot invasions can help, preferably paperbacks (eBooks and Kindles are monitoring you). Todd McAulty’s The Robots of Gotham has already received great praise from Publisher’s WeeklyBooklist, the Toronto StarKirkus Reviews, and numerous authors. Here is more.

Artificial Intelligence

I am by no means an expert in artificial intelligence, which makes my perspective even more alarming (exciting?). Many readers likely share this history, and it is why you’ll enjoy Todd McAulty’s The Robots of Gotham.

As a teenager (1980’s), I had the experience of interacting with Apple IIe and TI94 computers (when data was never stored on disk or was saved to tape), which had users game with a computer that served as a dungeon master. Digitized, text-based adventures like Infocom’s Zork provided a surreal version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Practicing science for decades, I’ve witnessed computers grow from simple calculators to devices that measure, store, analyze and report data with limited human intervention.

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Six

Friday, August 30th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Master_of_Kung_Fu_Vol_1_33Master of Kung Fu #33 sees writer Doug Moench continuing to build upon the series’ new direction while also continuing to deploy offbeat humor sparingly to great effect. This first installment of a three-part storyline begins when Shang-Chi thwarts an assassination attempt on Clive Reston by a highly-advanced automaton. The reader and Shang-Chi learn from MI5 that the automaton is one of the toys of Mordillo, a robotics genius and master assassin who, it transpires, was the force behind Carlton Velcro.

Shang-Chi is provided with his own swank London townhouse (courtesy of MI5). While Clive Reston is showing him around his new digs, they encounter Reston’s former lover, seductive MI5 agent Leiko Wu. Her introductory scene, taking a bubble bath and shamelessly dressing (barely) in front of Reston and Shang-Chi establishes her not only as a Bondian seductress, but also signals her as a confident and capable woman who is content to leave a string of broken hearts in her wake. Doug Moench excels at establishing a sense of fatalism in his work. Just as the reader understands that Shang-Chi compromising his principles in working for MI5 will only lead to regret; so too the reader understands that the innocent and somewhat naive Shang-Chi falling for the far more worldly Leiko Wu is also fated to end in pain and suffering. Shang-Chi, in his professional and personal choices, chooses the short-term good and ignores the fact that the long-term can only lead to misery.

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Davey Jones, Alien Spores, and Riding on a Comet: The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun

Saturday, August 24th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-small The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-back-small

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun (1978) was the seventeenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. J. J. Pierce returns to give the introduction to this volume. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his fifth cover of the series (tying with Dean Ellis at this point). Raymond Z. Gallun (1911–1994), still living at the time, did the Afterword.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database reports that Gallun (rhymes with “balloon,” not pronounced “gallon”) wrote five novels, including The Planets Strappers (1961, see Rich Horton’s review here), The Eden Cycle (1974) and Skyclimber (1981), but these were written later in his life. Most of Gallun’s writing career is comprised of dozens of short stories and serials. Like so many of the authors in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series, Gallun had been a prolific writer in the pre-WWII heyday of the pulp magazines. But unlike many pulp authors, including many in this series, Gallun seems to have stayed mostly within the sci-fi genre instead of branching out to fantasy, horror, detective, etc. And we’re talking “old school” science fiction!

Overall, I’ve liked the majority of the authors that I’ve read thus far in the Del Rey series. But there have been some that I liked better than others. I found Frederik Pohl and John Campbell both a little hard to get into, and I found Cordwainer Smith very difficult to sync with, though there were stories in all of these collections I enjoyed. But I have to say that I really, really struggled reading The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun, more than any other book in this series so far.

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In 500 Words or Less: Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Friday, August 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

oie_19192747vo7iIQCxCatfish Lullaby
By A.C. Wise
Broken Eye Books (118 pages, $14.99 paperback/eBook forthcoming, September 3, 2019)

You’d think stepping away from a regular column reviewing would make writing a new review easier, but apparently not. I’ve been struggling with how to start talking about A.C. Wise’s Catfish Lullaby because the first thing I want to start with how I didn’t get the story I expected from the back-cover blurb. But that sounds like a criticism, and it really isn’t; I loved the story I got, which feels like a tonal blend of Stranger Things and Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, set in the Bayou with more diverse characters.

Maybe we base too much of our expectations on the blurb. Lullaby’s focuses on Lewis, a “town of secrets,” and the character Caleb stepping into his father’s role of sheriff to unravel the mysteries of the Royce family and legendary monster Catfish John. That sets the expectation that you’ll mostly follow adult Caleb as he deals with his past. Instead, the novella spends most of its time on young Caleb, affected by the Royce family’s traumas and getting to know Cere, the youngest Royce child and survivor of her family’s apparent destruction, only moving ahead to adult Caleb for the last third.

Normally that sort of long dwelling on a character’s past would throw me, but not the case here. Wise builds this ongoing mystery that’s compelling, I think, for two reasons. One is the way that Caleb struggles to make sense of what’s affecting Cere and how to help her, as well as dealing with 1980s and 90s prejudice and later living up to his father’s name. He has a genuinely pre-teen attitude that most writers can’t pull off. He and Cere are immediately interesting and likeable characters, and so I kept reading to see what choice they’d make, regardless of whether the mystery got solved.

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Exploring a More Pleasant Future: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

Sunday, August 18th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Fugue for a Darkening Island-small Indoctrinaire-small2 A-Dream-of-Wessex-medium

Covers by Mike Ploog, Bruce Pennington, and uncredited

I like Chris Priest’s writing a lot. “An Infinite Summer” is one of my favorite SF stories. The Inverted World was one of the first serials I ever read in an SF magazine (Galaxy, in 1975 or so), and it fairly blew me away. I read Darkening Island (Fugue for a Darkening Island) at just the right age to be impressed by its non-linear narrative structure.

But for some reason, maybe because his books don’t seem to get much push in the US, I haven’t been following him lately. Recently I read his first novel, Indoctrinaire, which had some good ideas but ultimately was pretty obviously a first novel, and no better than OK. I have just now read what I believe to be his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex (US title The Perfect Lover), from 1977. This is a very interesting novel, and a pretty good read.

The basic idea is quite “Priestian,” a (very little) bit reminiscent of Indoctrinaire: in the near future of 1977 (1985), a research project is set up whereby a group of people sort of “pool” their unconsciousnesses and create a realistic world 150 years in the future. Ostensibly this is to explore what might be done to reach a more pleasant future. The dreamed future is set on “Wessex,” which is the western part of England after it has been separated from the mainland by earthquakes, with the new channel roughly along the path of the river Stour.

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