All reviews are the opinion of the individual reviewer, and do not imply any endorsement from On Spec.
Author: Bailey Cunningham (AKA Jes Battis)
Title: Pile of Bones
Series: Parallel Parks, book one
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
This novel is an intriguing mix of portal and urban fantasy: the four main characters are grad students by day, (would-be) heroes in a fantasy world by night. The setting is very well-done. Both the city of Regina and the Roman-inspired fantasy world of Anfractus ring true. I enjoyed the different feel of Anfractus–salamanders and undinae and the goddess Fortuna who can stop time for those she favours. A small quibble: the first chapter was a little daunting with lots of Latin words dropped in. By the end of the story I understood them all, but I was a bit lost at first.
The four main characters (two men and two women, all of whom are LGBQT) are evenly weighted with each getting a point of view. I enjoyed the peek into the life of a grad student, and I appreciated that the girls’ fantasy alter-egos were fighter types.
The chapters mostly alternate between time spent in Anfractus and out of it. By the end the lines have blurred and the danger has followed them home. The twist at the end took me by surprise, and I expect I’ll be ordering book two soon.
January 5, 2019
Ed. Note: Jim Gardner is the author of a charming award-winning short story, “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large”. It made its first appearance in our Spring 1990 issue, and was reprinted in our On Spec: The First Five Years anthology, because it was just that good. It’s since been reprinted in several other collections.
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (book one)
They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (book two)
Author: James Alan Gardner
Series: Sparks vs. the Dark
Ratings: 4.5 stars out of 5 for book one, 4 stars out of 5 for book two
I’m going to try something different here, a joint review of books one and two in a series.
This superhero series is a lot of fun. First off, it’s set in Ontario on the campus of the University of Waterloo so points for being in Canada. Second, instead of the all-too-common three guys and a girl combo, this superteam is composed of four female university students. Third, it has magic AND Weird Science. In this world superheroes (called Sparks) pit themselves against Darklings (ultra-rich vamps, shapeshifters and demons).
The characters are equally intriguing. Book one features Kim Lam (AKA Zircon) who is a queer geology major. Her powers include shrinking and the ability to harden her body. She also has a past she wants to forget as the girlfriend of rich-boy-now-turned-Darkling Nicholas, who, surprise surprise, has recently turned up.
Book two is from the point-of-view of Jools (AKA as 99). Jools is an athlete, who spends too much time partying and not enough studying. Her power is quite interesting: she isn’t superhuman but rather can do anything she tries to the Olympic-level best human effort. Jools’ drinking perturbed me a little in the first part of the novel, so I was happy when her need to drink was soon eclipsed by a new obsession as she begins to have Mad Genius blackouts. Since Mad Geniuses often go over to the dark side, this is a Very Bad Sign.
The pacing in both books is good, whipping along, with lots of terrific action scenes and, yes, explosions. I’m looking forward to what book three will bring!
November 2, 2018
Ed. Note: Dave Duncan’s tragic death has left a huge hole in Canada’s writing community. He was a friend to many of us and a mentor to emerging writers. His prolific body of work will possibly never be equaled by his peers. He will be missed.
Title: One Velvet Glove
Author: Dave Duncan
Series: The King’s Blades
Publisher: Five Rivers
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
The King’s Blades series is a favourite of mine so I was very happy to learn that Dave Duncan was returning to his world of magically-enhanced swordsmen and derring-do for an all-new and (I hasten to assure you) stand-alone adventure.
New characters and travels out of Chivial keep the world fresh; the magic system is consistent throughout the series, but every country handles it a bit differently and gives it their own twist.
The double timelines of Sir Spender’s story and that of his son Sir Rhys’s are smoothly written. There is no sense of Sir Rhys’ chapters being merely a framing story as so often happens. Rather the structure enhances the story, allowing Sir Spender’s story to pick up smartly without what would otherwise be a big bump–the passage of thirty years’ time between his first visit to Fitain and his second. Nevertheless Sir Spender is clearly the hero of the tale.
Like most Duncan heroes, Sir Spender is clever and capable, but also young and in over his head. As a personal blade to a diplomat rather than one of thirty guarding the king he is of necessity in more danger than most and unfortunately his charge is an idiot.
In sum, a rollicking adventure with a magical mystery at its heart that kept me guessing.
September 30, 2018
Title: Graveyard Mind
Author: Chadwick Ginther
Ratings: 4 out of 5 stars
First paragraph: Grave digging takes time. Grave robbing goes quicker than you’d think. By now, I could do this is my sleep: get to the top of the coffin and clear enough room to open the viewing hatch. No point in eating the whole box of cereal when you want the toy at its centre.
The novel starts off with a strong opening chapter, and we’re quickly introduced to a fascinating world full of necromancers, revenants, vampires and evil cultists. The book is full of cool magic and lots of action–particularly in the last third of the novel, which had me racing to turn the pages to figure out how Winter was going to get out of her predicament.
But make no mistake: this is dark fantasy. Winter herself has a horrible backstory–the hooks for this are cleverly planted in chapter one, but the full truth isn’t revealed until the end. While I sympathized with her, I found her too morally gray for my taste, with some of her choices crossing the line. However, her character arc gave hope for redemption. Most intriguing to me was her relationship with Summer, her unborn twin, whose ghost lives in Winter’s head and who gives Winter her necromantic powers. Summer is by turns jealous, sly, and sullen. At the same time the two of them need each other. I was glad to see them reach a rapprochement at the end, even if it seemed a touch too easy.
Title: Red Rising (1st in series)
Author: Pierce Brown
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In this far-future dystopia, Mars has been terraformed, but it and the rest of the solar system are ruled with an iron fist by the Golds. At the (literal) bottom of their caste system are the Reds from whom, of course, our hero arises. The premise is compelling, the stakes are high, and the setting original.
I had some problems with the beginning of the novel (more on that later), but once Darrow started on his revolutionary path I found the book quite suspenseful. The war games which made up the bulk of the novel were both brutal and fascinating, with plenty of suspenseful twists and turns. It was a pleasure to see Darrow turn the rules on their heads and win the corrupt game at the end. I fully intend to read the next book in the series.
So please, please don’t take what I’m about to say next as a reason not to read this best-selling novel, but rather as a discussion of a troublesome literary trope seen in MANY movies and books. A trope the author may well have been unaware of (I believe Red Rising is his first novel.)
This trope, known as “fridging”, has been around for decades for a good reason: it is damn effective in both eliciting sympathy from the reader and in deepening character. However, once the trope has been pointed out to you, it loses a lot of its effectiveness and begins to seem like a cheap trick. In short, “fridging” is when a female character exists in the story solely to die a tragic death early on and therefore motivate the male hero. (The term comes from a comic book in which the superhero found his girlfriend’s dead body in the fridge.)
This is exactly what happens to Eo, Darrow’s young wife, at the outset of the story and it makes me gnash my teeth in frustration because I feel it was unnecessary. Darrow was already leading a hellish life as a virtual slave. His father was killed by the Golds for protesting. Early on in the story, Darrow risks his life as a Helldiver to win the Laurel and gain more food for his clan–he wins the Laurel but the corrupt government give the prize to the Gamma clan who always win. We soon find out that the Reds have been told a terrible lie: that they toil in darkness to terraform Mars so that future generations including their children may have a better life, when in fact the terraforming was complete decades ago. All of that is sufficient to motivate Eo, why couldn’t it be sufficient to motivate Darrow, too?
Okay, end of rant.
(I should also make it clear that there were a number of other quite capable women characters in the book, both revolutionaries and fellow war-gamers.)
Title: Worldshaper (first book in a series)
Author: Edward Willett
Publisher: DAW books
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
An eARC of this novel was provided to me free by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Great voice–I really liked Shawna. She’s both competent and relatable with a sense of humour. Her prickly relationship with Karl (her mentor, sort of) provided the story with some conflict and snappy dialogue.
The pacing was good–I read this in one day. After a few establishing chapters, the entire novel was essentially a long chase sequence, making for lots of action.
As you’d expect from the title, the novel had strong world-building. The world occupied for most of the book was only subtly different from ours, but in some very fun ways (Fjord cars, lacrosse games instead of hockey, etc.) And it looks like the next world will be wild. The magic (called shaping) was unique. Shawna was very powerful, but this was nicely offset by her lack of knowledge of how magic works which leads to a number of complications and ethical conundrums.
Quibble: I kept waiting for some hints at the why of Shawna’s mysterious memory loss, but I guess that will be dealt with in another book.
April 22, 2018
Title: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach
Author: Kelly Robson
Reviewed by Nicole M. Luiken
Publisher: Tor.com, 2018
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Cover artist: Jon Foster
I was attracted to this book by its wonderful cover and was hooked from the first line: “The monster looked like an old grandmother from the waist up, but instead of legs it had six long octopus legs.”
The superior world-building is what I think of as ‘immersive’ SF, which is to say that new terms aren’t necessarily explained when they first appear in the text, but usually soon become clear from context. This can be a little challenging for the reader (I know there are things I missed on a single read-through), but makes for a much richer experience.
Post-apocalyptic worlds are nothing new, but the well-thought-out detail to Robson’s gave the setting new energy. The main character Minh is from an idealistic generation (known as the plague babies) who specialize in ecology and are trying to regain a foothold back on the surface of the earth after disasters have driven much of the population underground. However, their idealism is being worn away by economic concerns–the banks have a stranglehold on funding. Then on top of this base is laid the actual plot for the novel: Minh and her team receive an opportunity to travel back in time and do an ecological study of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.
My favourite part of the novella was grouchy Minh’s relationship with the younger, energetic Kiki. Minh has a bad habit of focussing on her work to the exclusion of people–she sends her fake (an avatar) to deal with most incoming messages. But Kiki, her admin assistant, is both plucky and persistent. Kiki wins a place on the time travel team and breaks down Minh’s barriers.
Each chapter begins with a short section from the point of view of Shulgi, a Mesopotamian king, who has to deal with the disruption the “monsters” are making to his kingdom. Although Shulgi’s timeline doesn’t sync up with Minh’s until the latter half of the book, they worked well together, with Shulgi’s acting like a Sword of Damocles to increase suspense in Minh’s plotline.
All in all, a good read. Highly recommended.
Quibble: The ending had no denouement and felt more like the one-line punch ending to a short story. It left me wondering what happened next. However, I see from her website that there may be a sequel novella which will hopefully give me my answers.
Title: The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague
Reviewed by: Nicole M. Luiken
Publisher: Edge-Lite, 2015
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
About our Reviewer
Nicole Luiken is the author of thirteen published books for young adults, including Violet Eyes and its sequels Silver Eyes, Angel Eyes and Golden Eyes, Frost, Unlocking the Doors, The Catalyst, Escape to the Overworld, Dreamfire and the sequel Dreamline. Her latest release is In Truth & Ashes, book three of Otherselves. She also has an adult thriller, Running on Instinct, under the name N.M. Luiken and a fantasy romance series, Gate to Kandrith and Soul of Kandrith.
Nicole lives with her family in Edmonton, AB. It is physically impossible for her to go more than three days in a row without writing. Nicole Luiken wrote her first book at age 13 and never stopped.
Nicole wrote her first book at age 13 and never stopped, and she also published in On Spec’s first youth issue.