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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

LAST UPDATE 12/31/10     

March in Country by E.E. Knight, Roc, 12/10, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46334-X  

A new novel in the Vampire Earth series, SF not horror because these vampires are bloodsucking aliens.  The series has largely become military SF in tone and plot structure and this one is no exception.  The aliens only rule part of the planet and the borders between the two species have been shifting around in the previous books.  The battle this time is to control a part of the continent centered in Kentucky which has been previously depopulated and more of a buffer zone than anything else.  To occupy the territory, our hero David Valentine must engineer a shift of a fighting force by means of a perilous and rapid journey, but the maneuver is opposed not only by the alien invaders but by self interested humans who don’t care about Valentine’s campaign. I liked this better than the last couple in the series, which seemed to be stuck in a rut, but there’s still little in the way of a shift in the overall story. 12/31/10

Vortex by Troy Denning, Del Rey, 12/10, $27, ISBN 978-0-345-50920-9

Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber, Del Rey, 12/10, $27, ISBN 978-0-345-51117-1  

I haven’t seen many new Star Trek books lately but the Star Wars saga continues to proliferate.  The Denning title is the latest in the Fate of the Jedi subseries, six of a projected nine titles which describes the uneasy alliance between the Jedi and the Sith in the face of an even more dangerous menace.  Not a bad story but it feels more like fantasy than SF despite the outer space settings and alien races.  Schreiber takes a very different tack, moving toward horror as he continues the theme of zombies in outer space. As with the first book, the Jedi and Sith are forced to set aside their differences in the face of the zombie threat during the days of the original Republic.  It’s a very different take on the Star Wars universe.  The two books are very different in tone, but the plots aren’t all that dissimilar. 12/29/10

Alien Tango by Gini Koch, DAW, 12/10, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0632-5

The sequel to Touched by an Alien continues its loose parody of SF  - movies mostly – and other subjects as it recounts the adventures of Katherine Katt, recruited into a secret organization aided by good aliens to fight bad aliens secretly on Earth.  Yes, it’s to a large degree a variation of Men in Black but it has some twists of its own as well and it’s not the broad farce that the movies were.  The primary menace here is the alien which has seized mental control of several people, although for pure nastiness the protagonist’s romantic rival has the aliens beat hands – or other body parts – down.  This is sort of the SF equivalent of paranormal urban fantasy.  It’s mostly fun but there might even have been a good serious story here with a slightly different treatment. 12/28/10

The A-Men by John Trevillian, Matador, 2010, £18.99, ISBN 978-1848653-432

The primary protagonist of this futuristic thriller finds himself with no memory and the only clue to his past is a book of fairy tales. He finds himself in a city ruled by anarchy and takes refuge from the repressive police authorities among the rebels. His subsequent adventures vary from magical to high tech as he meets a variety of odd characters and survives dangerous situations.  The mix of fantasy and SF usually turns me off, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by it here. There’s a comparatively large cast of characters and some interesting stylistic strategies, but as much as I tried  to like this the present tense narration proved fatal once again, making the entire story seem artificial and offputting.  I fully realize that my aversion to present tense is at least partly my own prejudice, but unless there is a specific reason to use it, it seems to me a pointless artificiality, and judging by conversations I've seen on the internet, I'm not the only one who finds it anything but an assset. I like to see authors experiment, but I don't think that particular narrative device succeeds except in very skilled hands or very special circumstances. 12/28/10

Atlantis and Other Places by Harry Turtledove, Roc, 2010, $24.5, ISBN 978-0-451-46364-7

I don’t normally think of Harry Turtledove as a short story writer, so I was rather surprised to discover how many short alternative history stories he had written, even though I’d previously read all but one or two herein collected.  There’s a variety of settings – more so than in his novels in fact – and I also think I like most of his shorter plots better than the longer ones.  “Bedfellows” is one of his better short pieces, and “The Scarlet Band”, a quasi Holmes pastiche, is another.  A couple of the stories are fantasy rather than SF, involving centaurs and such.  “Audubon in Atlantis” is also quite good.  I wish Turtledove wrote at this length more often. 12/22/10

The Essential Defenders Volume 3, Marvel, 2007  

This collection of Defenders comics starts with a battle between the Defenders and the Headmen, although one of them is a woman, a bizarre group even for Marvel, and Nebulon, who wants to change humanity for its own sake.  They eventually become allied with the Red Guard, a female superhero from Russia.  Doc Strange leaves the group for a while, and Hellcat, Moon Knight, Power Man, and others join. The villains are actually rather tedious – Scorpio, the Red Rajah, etc. – and a lot of the stories wander around, take side trips, and are less than gripping, even for comics.  I’d rate this one pretty low.  Since Doctor Strange is missing for most of this one, I'll call this SF instead of fantasy. 12/22/10

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming, Berkley, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-0-425-23694-9  

Although this had a hardcover edition last year, I had never heard of it until the trade paperback edition showed up. It’s an alternate history story of sorts, although it felt more like Jack Finney’s Time and Again than Harry Turtledove.  A young man from a rural community comes to New York City in 1901, finds a job as a laborer at the construction of the subway tunnels, and meets a young woman who remembers a time when Ohio was an independent kingdom and claims to have traveled forward in time to the present.  This is a summer time lazy reading novel rather than a compulsive page turner, and despite moments of charm, the present tense narration grated more than usual, since we’re supposedly being told a story of the past by a narrator in the present.  An interesting misfire, but a misfire nonetheless. 12/19/10

Brain Box Blues by Cris Ramsay, Ace, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01983-0  

I have never seen an episode of Eureka, the television series which inspired this tie-in novel, but I gather it is about a town full of geniuses, a kind of Lake Woebegone on steroids.  The protagonist is the local sheriff, who has a hard time maintaining order when the local residents are skeptical of the laws of nature let alone the laws of government.  The innovation this time is the invention of a device that records memories which can be played back later – a tried and true SF device – and it appears to contain the clue to the solution of a possible murder.  But the device has more than the expected effects, and chaos threatens to reign once again.  Actually not a bad scientific mystery here, though with tongue firmly in cheek.  And I wonder if this is one of those series where the remarkable discoveries from one episode/book are somehow completely forgotten when the next rolls around. 12/18/10

The Human Blend by Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey, 2010, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-51197-3  

The new Alan Dean Foster novel is set in the not too distant future when genetic and surgical augmentation is commonplace.  Two criminals with unusual physical powers, thanks to the aforesaid technology, rob and murder a man, and discover that among their booty is a kind of recording which someone is desperate to recover.  When one of the pair goes missing, the other gets worried and eventually finds himself reluctantly telling part of the truth to a doctor, who examines the recording and makes a startling discovery – which I obviously can’t reveal here.  Suffice it to say that now both of them are potential targets for some very dangerous and determined killers.  Although I liked this well enough, it suffers from a problem I often experience with novels whose protagonists are villains.  It’s very difficult to sympathize with a murderer when he gets into hot water because he killed the wrong person. So I switched my allegiance to the doctor, although I had some reservations about her as well.  Good, but not among his best books. 12/15/10

Beneath the Dark Ice by Greig Beck, St Martins, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-312-59979-9

I have always been a big fan of those thrillers that make use of SF devices, usually monsters or lost worlds, along the lines of Peter Benchley's White Shark or Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  While these are heavy on suspense and atmosphere, there is a similar type that I don't care for that drips with testosterone and weapons porn.  Think Clive Cussler, Stephen Coonts, or Matthew Reilly.  The latter type is usually less well written with paper thin characterizations and gaping plot holes.  Alas, this one falls into the latter category, and it's the beginning of a series.  The plot is simple.  An airplane crashes in the Antarctic and a rescue party disappears, killed by an underground creature that can fashion parts of itself into imitation people to lure its victims.  That much might have been okay, but then came the problems.  The prose is sprinkled with minor grammatical errors, but more troublesome are the awkward constructions like "Incara, as Eleanor learned was her name" and "you will need to all sign".  There are also inappropriate word choices.  People get nauseated, not nauseous.  Bad as this is, the characterizations are worse.  The comic book Russians were so bad that when I got to them I nearly stopped reading.  Our hero was shot in the head and this caused him to acquire an array of superpowers including superstrength and Spidey senses. Nor can I believe that a famous archaeologist would not immediately recognize the word "Croatoan."  Add in plot holes and contradictions - we are told that "Croatoan" was a warning, but in a flashback sequence we are shown quite clearly that it was not.  Avoid this one.  12/14/10

The Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus by Jonathan Green, Abaddon, 2010, $12.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-56-7  

This omnibus of three previously published novels in the Pax Britannia series, plus a couple of shorts, is a comparative bargain in this combined edition, and they’re pretty good steampunkish novels at that.  The title refers to the common protagonist, a kind of agent of Her Majesty’s government in an alternate world in which dinosaurs are kept in the London Zoo – except sometimes they escape, submarines conduct tours under the sea, and the preserved body of a genuine mermaid can be found in a collection of curios, until it is stolen.  There are sea monsters and villains of various sorts and lots of heroic deeds flavored with a hint of humor.  Although they are lightweight in tone and reach, I had a lot of fun with this one since I had not seen any of the three novels when they originally appeared. Readers should be warned that these veer into fantasy from time to time but they feel more like SF. 12/11/10

Hero by Mike Lupica, Philomel, 11/10, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-399-25283-9  

The author is apparently best known for his sports novels for younger readers, but he turns to science fiction – specifically superheroes – for this interesting variation of the superman story.  Our hero in this case is a young boy whose father recently died under mysterious circumstances.  Zach has an unusual early adolescence, however, as his body begins to exhibit unusual strength, speed, and other abilities which he apparently inherited from his father.  Now he has to decide how to use them, and how to keep the various adults clamoring for his attention from turning them to their own purposes. A fun story with its dialogue delivered in very short bursts that sometimes made it feel more fluffy than it actually is. 12/10/10

Kris Longknife Redoubtable by Mike Shepherd, Ace, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01956-4

The eighth adventure of Kris Longknife – I’m not sure whether her name should be part of the title or not – has our protagonist commanding a ship committed to destroying space pirates and other space born bad guys, so long as she stays away from a rival family whose influence is just as great as her own.  Not surprisingly, this sets the stage for a number of uncomfortable situations and confrontations, since the criminals – even if not tolerated by the other side – are prone to using space in both spheres of influence making hot pursuit risky. This one felt somewhat atypical to me for some reason, more like Honor Harrington than Kris Longknife.  Her personal involvement in a kidnapping case also struck me as a bit forced.  12/6/10

Boarding Instructions by Ray Vukcevich, Fairwood, 11/10, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-23-1  

It is almost impossible to adequately describe a collection by Ray Vukcevich.  In fact, it is often equally impossible to describe even a single story by him.  His view of the world is so twisted – in a good way – that he makes his readers look at even everyday things from an entirely new perspective.  The stories collected here range from SF to fantasy to just plain weird.  They involve vampires and guided missiles and time travel and superhuman powers and secrets of various sorts.  There are love stories and mysteries and stories where the plot – if there is one – is relegated to unimportance.  I think he is probably the most distinctive short story writer since R.A. Lafferty and David R. Bunch.  I couldn’t possibly single out favorites from this one, but good examples of the range of his talent would include “Chain,” “Fired,” “Love Story,” and “A Funny Smell.”  Very highly recommended. 12/3/10

The Clone Empire by Steven L. Kent, Ace, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01958-8

The fifth volume in the Clone series moves the story forward in a fairly predictable fashion.  The clones who were created to be soldiers have rebelled against humanity following a disastrous confrontation with an alien race and have now established a civilization of their own among the stars. The human authorities intend to wipe them out but the clones have different plans.  This is a kind of rah-rah military adventure that appeals to the adolescent buried inside me but the differences between good and evil are a little too sharply delineated for me to find this series entirely convincing. 12/1/1-

The Pyramid of Doom by Andy McDermott, Bantam, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59363-1

Although every novel in this series – this is the fifth adventure of Nina Wilde – has basically the same plot, I found myself reading each in turn, in part no doubt as a change from the relentlessly heavy plotting found in most recent SF and fantasy.  Wilde is a disgraced archaeologist, thanks to her escapades in the last few books, and she and her boyfriend/bodyguard are off to the races again when efforts to open hidden chambers in the Great Sphinx sets off a violent cult attack.  There’s a map to another lost Egyptian site and Nina has to get their first, fending off the horde of bad guys along the way.  Mindless fun, but fun.  This was published in England as The Cult of Osiris. 11/26/10

Betrayer of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, Tor, 2010, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2608-9  

Niven and Lerner continue their story of Known Space prior to the discovery of the Ringworld, with this one bringing most of the main characters from that novel to the forefront in what is pretty much a direct prequel. Human and alien characters get involved in a planetary civil war, efforts to establish a new colony, internal politics, and a disastrous event that could change the entire galaxy.  The puppeteers domination of humans may have given way to cooperation, but both races might be doomed.  The various alien cultures are nicely filled in and we find out a lot of background about Niven’s popular future history.  Intelligent space opera, with a twinge of nostalgia for the 1970s. 11/23/10

Indulgence in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2010, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15687-8

Once again, the new Eve Dallas novel is more of a police procedural mystery than SF despite the futuristic trappings, but once more the author - actually Nora Roberts - has produced a fast paced, relentlessly interesting story.  As is the case with several of the books in this series, we know more or less who the killer is by about half way through.  The problem is proving it and Dallas and her team conduct minute research to uncover the links between killer and victim.  In this case it's two killers playing a bizarre variation of the board game Clue, choosing exotic locations and weapons and killing only victims who have become outstanding in their respective fields.  There's a minor subplot about her peripheral involvement in a murder case in Ireland that feels a bit forced and which is totally unrelated to the main story, but once past that I was thoroughly hooked and read compulsively to the end.  In this case the compulsion was the need to see the arrogant killers humiliated rather than their identities revealed. Average for the series or slightly above.  11/20/10

The Phantom City by Kenneth Robeson, 1933

A group of thugs tries to force Doc Savage into giving them his submarine for purposes unknown. Then a mysterious young woman appears, to say nothing of an Arab prince, and an assassin with rocket propelled bullets. The usual battles and escapes follow without revealing just what is going on. Eventually Doc discovers the location of a lost city in an unexplored part of the Arabian desert. There they encounter thugs and the strange White Beasts before tidying up the bad guys in their usual fashion.This was not my favorite Doc Savage noel by a longshot.  The very short paragraphs – most of them a single sentence long – takes all the texture out of the story, which wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.  It also tends to be quite repetitive, even more so than usual. 11/14/10

The Emperor’s Finest by Sandy Mitchell, Black Library, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-891-0 

Ciaphas Cain, one of the recurring characters in the Warhammer universe, returns for a new adventure.  There is turmoil within the human empire and a rebellion on one planet has put a prominent official’s daughter in danger. Cain is supposed to rescue her but in the process of completing his mission he discovers that the rebellion is not what it appears to be. Malevolent aliens and treacherous humans abound in this fast paced, quasi-military SF novel from one of the most reliable authors in the Warhammer array of authors, and one of the few whom I’d like to see do more independent work – Mitchell is a penname for Alex Stewart. 11/8/10

Pock’s World by Dave Duncan, Edge, 2010, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-47-0 

Dave Duncan actually started his writing career with science fiction, and I still remember thinking he was going to be a major name.  I just guessed the wrong genre.  With this novel he returns to his roots, so to speak.  The story is set on another planet which is suspected of harboring aliens masquerading as humans, causing the authorities to consider eradicating all life there.  But there is more going on than is apparent.  Not a bad story but nothing to brag about.  It has a lot of the trappings of fantasy and occasional bits of technobabble that I found distracting and rather silly.  I would not be surprised to discover this is an early trunk novel because it lacks the sophistication of his more recent work and while his story telling is as good as always, the polish is not quite buffed to its usual high shine. 11/3/10

The God-Hater by Bill Myers, Howard, 10/10, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-5326-0  

This is an unusual story of virtual reality.  The protagonist is an atheistic professor who is called upon to create a philosophical backdrop for a virtual reality world.  To his surprise, anything he tries – that doesn’t involve a god to provide the laws – falls apart and it is only when he creates a simulation of himself as a god that he is able to make things work.  Meanwhile, villainous hackers have introduced a virus and the only way to save the artificial reality is for the god construct to sacrifice itself.  The parable is so obvious that it hits you over the head.  The writing isn’t bad but the premise – that one could not construct a functioning world that doesn’t have God as an integral part of it – is not only propaganda but clearly nonsense.  By that reasoning, civilization could not have evolved since it would not have survived long enough to spawn Christianity or any other religion. And atheists don't hate God; they don't believe such an entity exists. Proselytizing disguised as fiction. 11/1/10

The Silent Army by James Knapp, Roc, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46361-6  

Although the vast majority of zombie novels make little attempt to actually provide a logical reason for the transformation, there have been occasional SF stories over the years that suggest the recently dead might be revived and put to use as laborers through some mechanical device.  The latest of these is this sequence – two volumes to date – about a future in which that very thing happens.  Our hero, however, suspects that there is a sinister secret involved and that the zombies are more than they appear to be.  In fact, they have been programmed to act in consort at the will of the man responsible for the process.  A zombie story for those readers who don’t actually like zombie stories, tense and well written. 10/26/10

U.S.S.Enterprise Owner's Workshop Manual by Ben Robinson and Marcus Riley, Gallery, 2010, $27, ISBN 978-1-4516-2120-7

It has been quite a while since I saw a new Star Trek related book other than the novels, and the pattern hasn't changed much in the interval, although it's done much better here.  This is, as you might guess from the title, a collection of drawings and articles about the structure, history, and functioning of the famous starship - from the original series or perhaps based on the most recent movie through the various iterations and changes - with accompanying text consisting of articles about the same subjects. The artwork is excellent, the text okay, and the chart showing the various versions all together was interesting.  Series fans should enjoy this.  10/23/10

Hunt for Voldorius by Andy Hoare, Black Library, 2010, $11.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-514-8 3754

Firedrake by Nick Kyme, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-005-4

The first of these two new Warhammer SF version books is a novel of the space marines, a staple of the futuristic half of the Warhammer universe.  This one is about a mission to destroy a demon prince – yes, there are real demons in the future – who has allied himself with more conventional forces.  The formula is an old one but Hoare is one of the better writers working this particular shared world and he certainly never lets the action fade. Space opera and military SF with an arcane twist.  The second title has the same general setting but moves in a different direction.  A chaplain is taken prisoner by the evil alien enemy and his unit attempts to rescue him as much to prevent him from leaking secrets about their defenses as out of a sense of camaraderie. There's more than a slight touch of fantasy in this one.  Not badly written but I found most of the characters less than appealing as human beings.  I certainly wouldn't want them as MY friends.  10/22/10

Echo by Jack McDevitt, Ace, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01924-3

Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath are back for another mystery among the stars.  This time a mysterious stone tablet piques their curiosity because of its link to a man who spent his life trying to find alien civilizations, without success.  When someone makes off with the tablet, and then tries to kill the antique dealer and his assistant, it tips them off that there is more to the story than is apparent.  After pursuing their investigation there are more threats and mysteries than ever, and their quest takes them to several other planets before they uncover the truth.  I had pretty much guessed what was really going on about a third of the way through but it didn't reduce any of my enjoyment of the unraveling of the various bits and pieces of evidence.  Like The Devil's Eye, this is essentially a police procedural without the police, and almost without the crime.  McDevitt does this as well as anyone in the business and I always jump a new Benedict novel to the top of the stack as soon as it shows up.  10/19/10

Gods of Manhattan by Al Ewing, Abaddon, 2010, $9.99, ISBN 978-2-906735-86-9

Part of the Pax Brittania shared universe series set in an alternate history where the British Empire never fell and the American Revolution failed.  In this installment, a mysterious vigilante known as the Blood Spider has gone to extremes, proving himself capable of killing even without the sanction of the law.  Enter also an embittered warrior on a mission of revenge, mix with a pair of less self righteous heroes, and mix thoroughly.  The result is a wild and surprisingly entertaining blend of mild speculation and high adventure that I guess falls somewhere within the boundaries of steampunk and with elements of fantasty.  Wherever it chooses to place itself, it should find some enthusiastic readers. 10/16/10

The Essential Dazzler Volume One, Marvel, 2007 

This female superhero – she can turn sound into intense light – made her debut after I stopped reading Marvel.  Unlike some of their peripheral characters who rarely impinged on the main Marvel characters, she has her early adventures with Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, and she even outwits Doctor Doom when he coerces her into visiting the dimension ruled by Nightmare. She is briefly teamed with the chauvinist Blue Shield and then battles the Hulk singlehanded, and deals with Galactus. She’s briefly imprisoned – and since when do female prisoners all have sexy outfits and their supervillain costumes? – but is eventually found innocent.  Other encounters include Spiderwoman, the Enchantress, the X-Men, Dr. Octopus, the Absorbing Man, Black Bolt – no relation to Blue Shield, and Ironman.  All in all a pretty well written series. 10/14/10

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest, Tor, 10/10, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2578-5  

Cherie Priest returns to the alternate steampunk world of Boneshaker for this new and even better adventure.  The Civil War is still going in the 1880s, but Texas is an independent nation leaning toward the Confederacy.  The Union still has the material and manpower advantage, but they have been unable to push the conflict to a conclusion.  One of their weapons is the Dreadnought, an armored train currently employed in taking a very secret shipment to the Far West.  Our protagonist is a recently widowed nurse from Virginia who receives a message that her father is dying in Washington state. Although estranged from him from many years, she sets out on a perilous journey by zeppelin and train and eventually the Dreadnought itself, pursued by bands of armored car bandits, undermined by spies, careful not to reveal her origin once she has crossed the border, and also disturbed by reports that a unit of the Mexican army has somehow been transformed into flesh eating monsters.  The first novel in this series is highly regarded, but I think this one will make its predecessor pale in comparison. 10/13/10

The Czar of Fear by Kenneth Robeson, 1933  

Doc Savage and crew get entangled in what at first appears to be a labor dispute. The chief villain arranges to frame Doc in an effort to distract him from the case, but naturally Doc eludes the police, proves himself innocent, and brings the bad guy to justice. The crooks have a secret weapon that destabilizes the minds of its victims.  Despite the usual action scenes, this is not one of the better stories in the series.  It’s comparatively tame, unimaginative, and the actual prose seemed to me worse than usual, and at its best Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson wrote less evocatively than did most of the other pulp serialists. 10/12/10

Bones of Empire by William C. Dietz, Ace, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01922-9 

It’s nice to run across an occasional novel that hearkens back to the type of SF I read when I was much younger.  William Dietz, whom I’ve liked much better since he diversified from military SF, fills the bill quite well in the second of his stories set in a future interstellar civilization where human domination is threatened by various subject races, the most serious of which is one which can change shape and impersonate humans.  Our hero discovers that a highly placed government official has been replaced and he must act undercover to foil the latest plot before the infiltrator can use his considerable usurped power to quash the threat to his secret.  Lots of fun. 10/11/10

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2010, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-439-02351-1 

Concluding volume of the trilogy that began with Hunger Games.  Sometime in the future, America has become a rigid dictatorship and brutal games are the order of the day, entertainment to keep the masses quiet.  Unfortunately for the powers that are, there is growing unrest and an active rebel movement which finally asserts itself in the exciting conclusion. The protagonist is a teenager caught up in this and cast into a pivotal role without her knowledge, although she must cooperate if it is ultimately to succeed.  Most YA speculative fiction has been fantasy for several years now and it’s good to see popular, well written series that is actually SF for a change.  It’s written in a style that I generally dislike but I hardly noticed. 1-/7/10

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Blackstone Audio, read by Tom Weiner, 2008

I hadn't read this since I was in high school, although I still had vivid memories of some of the scenes.  To my very pleasant surprise, it's even better than I remembered it, or more likely I'm better able to appreciate it now.  The setting is a future America which is dominated by relatively benevolent Japanese and quite malevolent Nazis after World War II ended.  We see this world through the eyes of a Japanese official, a Jewish artisan, and his estranged wife, each of whom perceives the world in very different ways.  There is also a controversial alternate history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which has infuriated the Germans, a new art form that might enable people to perceive alternate worlds, and a plot to destroy Japan and leave Germany with no rivals.  And entwined with it all is the I Ching, the Book of Changes, an oriental prophetic device which may have more substance than we suspect.  Dick doesn't resolve all of the issues but he provides tantalizing hints.  The novel won a Hugo, deservedly so.  The reader does a good job with the sometimes eccentric prose.  10/5/10

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, Pantheon, 9/10, $24, ISBN 978-0-307-37920-7

Although I’ve never heard of this author before, I suspect that he has read a good deal of SF since this spoof of time travel/change war stories is frequently right on target.  Time travel is an everyday occurrence, but naturally there are people who want to use them to go back and revise history, and naturally there are other people whose job is to make sure nothing like that happens. Our hero – also Charles Yu – lives in a reality of closed time loops, anomalies, and mysterious excursions.  He is also looking for his father, who invented time travel in the first place. He is accompanied by an artificial intelligence – who reminded me a bit of the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide – and a sort of virtual dog.  Nothing I can say about the plot will give you much of an idea about the texture of the book, which is a little difficult to get into initially but which soon becomes clear and fascinating.  There are actually even some serious moments.  At times this felt like a collaboration between Ron Goulart and R.A. Lafferty.  I hope this doesn’t get overlooked because of its odd title and non-genre publisher. 10/3/10

Cinco De Mayo by Michael J. Martineck, Edge, 9/10, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-39-5  

This first novel has a very interesting idea, somewhat reminiscent of Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward.  Some mysterious events causes everyone on Earth to acquire the memories of another human being – apparently randomly – as well as keeping their own.  This might not seem all that monumental, but as we all know, everyone has secrets and it’s unsettling to know that someone out there knows everything we know.  And some secrets are more dangerous than others, and some of those whose memories have been duplicated will go to extraordinary lengths to find out who knows about their illegal or immortal activities and then silence them.  The writing is okay but not exceptional and it’s the idea rather than the prose that will hold your attention.  I found the ending a bit weak but otherwise this was surprisingly interesting. 9/29/10

Avim’s Oath by Lynda Williams, Edge, 9/10, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-46-3  

This is volume six in the Okal Rel saga, and I’ve never seen a copy of number five, so I may have missed something important in the back story.  The setting is an interstellar society of the old school – where swordplay is more common than laser weapons.  The focus of this one is a romantic triangle involving two brothers who are competing for the same woman.  Their obsession grows more compelling and the lives of others are drawn into the vortex of their emotions.  This is an odd series that mixes hints of romance with high adventure and it's an example of a type no longer popular in SF, and probably never particularly realistic.  It does, however, make for a colorful story of high adventure with a touch of, in this case at least, distorted romance.  9/29/10

The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff, DAW, 9/10, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0620-2

Tanya Huff is one of the handful of authors whose fantasy I prefer to her science fiction, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the latter. This is the fifth in this series of military oriented stories set in a galaxy in which humans are among those employed as mercenaries by races which have become too “civilized” to wage war themselves. In the previous book, our protagonist discovered secrets about the war between the Confederation and their enemies which ran contrary to everything she believed about the conflict.  Disenchanted, she partnered in a space salvage operation as a peaceful alternative to fighting, but the fighting  won’t leave her alone because someone appears to be targeting salvage operations. When her partner is kidnapped by space pirates, she calls in some old favors to get him back, but in the process, she learns another secret about what’s actually going on behind the scenes, one even more shocking than the first.  High adventure, nicely told if a tad predictable. 9/24/10

The Sargasso Ogre by Kenneth Robeson, 1933

In Egypt, one of Doc Savage’s crew is lured into a deathtrap, but Doc is wise to the scheme and rescues him in the nick of time. Doc wants to know who hired the men, but they are killed before he can question them. Through a leap of logic, he concludes that it was to dissuade him and his other friends from taking the sea voyage they had planned, thereby suggesting something criminal was going to take place on their ship. One clue points to a string of ships which disappeared at sea, suggesting what is planned by the unknown mastermind.  Aboard ship, two of Doc’s friends are actually killed, although he restores them to life using mysterious medical techniques. The ship is hijacked despite several battles and taken to the Sargasso sea, a place of seaweed and dead ships. The two parties occupy different portions of the ship as it drifts into the center of the Sargasso where they discover that some earlier survivors have created an odd society of sorts.  This is actually one of the best of the Doc Savage novels, with some fairly intricate ploys and counterploys between the two sides. 9/24/10

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk, Wesleyan, 2010, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-6955-4 3786 

I’m somewhat skeptical of a collection chosen by a committee, which is what this appears to be, but I have to admit that the results are excellent.  This very large – 750 pages – collection spans the field from “Rappacini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne to “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang.  Most of the major names in the field are represented here, most of them by one of their best known stories.  There are a couple of surprises – stories by Leslie Stone, Misha Nogha, and Paula Zoline, all of whom have good stories but none with the stature of the balance of the collection.  There’s also a summary of the stories by theme, an interesting introduction, and a suggestion for further reading – of books about the field rather than in the field.  The latter does not include The Wood Beyond the Hill by the Panshins, which I would have thought essential to any attempt to examine the history of the field.  A good summary of the genre for outsiders but nothing here for devoted fans. 9/19/10

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick, Golden Gryphon, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 1-930846-64-9 

This is a collection of two complete novels and a handful of short stories, only one of the latter of which I’d read previously.  The stories are generally humorous and the best is “The Pale Thin God.”   The first of the novels is The Branch from 1984, in which the world is dominated by the entertainment industry, and the industry by a single man, although a brash new challenger seeks to topple him. There’s a messiah theme although the story is primarily adventure.  Walpurgis III from 1982 is much better and presents a more serious theme.  A planet whose culture avowedly worships evil finds itself dominated by a truly evil man, who must be assassinated to prevent a tragic conflict.  Although the novels lack the polish typical of Resnick’s later work, they are both still entertaining and even at times thought provoking.  I remembered the latter quite clearly although the former was only a distant memory. 9/19/10

Noise by Darin Bradley, Ballantine Spectra, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-0-553-38622-6  

The premise of this first novel is that all of the various problems besetting the world come to a head and civilization collapses.  Fortunately, sort of, a group of survivalist hackers has been telling people how to survive the collapse, and later gives directions to a kind of refuge from the ensuing chaos.  The book is told in sparse prose – quick lines of dialogue, not much description, excerpts from documents.  Some of it is clever and interesting.  Some of it is superficial and unconvincing.  Worst of all, I never believed in the collapse or its aftermath.  The publisher would have us believe that the novel is controversial in its portrayal of a post apocalyptic America, but it is neither controversial nor particularly new.  A quick, sometimes interesting book but there’s nothing here to make me push copies on friends. 9/16/10

The Lost Oasis by Kenneth Robeson, 1933

Doc Savage, to whom even the police defer when he takes over a case, and this time he’s appealed to by a young woman who desperately needs his help.  Even as he swims clandestinely to her yacht, there is a mysterious murder on board that resembles a vampire’s attack.  There are hints that the mystery involves a new kind of aircraft, and the woman is in fact an aviatrix supposedly lost at sea. There’s also a parcel of valuable diamonds and a pair of devious Egyptians. Using superscientific devices, Doc and his crew track down the bad guys, but someone puts a bomb in their plane and almost ends the adventure prematurely. Then there’s a flight to Africa by dirigible and the exciting if not very plausible conclusion complete with monster bats, a hidden diamond mine, and slave laborers. 9/16/10

The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, Marvel, 2005 

Luke Cage was one of Marvel’s black superheroes, but he never appealed to me as much as, say, the Black Panther.  Most of his opponents were ordinary crooks or low class supervillains, although in the more than two dozen issues gathered here he does battle Doctor Doom and the Ringmaster, as well as one of the usual contrived intramural superhero battles with Iron Man.  Most of time he’s consigned to fighting Stilletto, Mace, and other less interesting bad guys though.  There’s not as much back story as is the case with most of the other titles and Cage doesn’t even have a particularly colorful costume.  This selection rarely rises above the mildly interesting. 9/15/10

The Red Skull by Kenneth Robeson 1933  

A typical Doc Savage extravaganza opens with a gunfight, aerial acrobatics, and an effort to send a mysterious package to our peerless hero.  Doc sees through an obvious attempt to send him on a wild goose chase but a woman working for his team is kidnapped by the gang because she knows too much.  For some reason, they are reluctant to kill her, which they should have since she leaves a message for Doc to find that helps trace the bad guys.  It turns out to be a plot to seize control of a project to build a dam in Arizona, which Doc discovers after various adventures. Each member of the ownership team falls under suspicion as sabotage continues and a mysterious but unseen character offers to buy them out at a ruinous price.  An okay adventure but I saw the ending coming a mile away. 9/11/10

The Double Human by James O’Neal, Tor, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2015-5  

Sequel to The Human Disguise, and a step upward.  In a post collapse Florida, a police detective is investigating a series of murders when he discovers that neither victims nor the killer are not human.  Yes, it’s the aliens secretly among us novel, but also evidence that there are no tired themes, just tired treatments of them.  O’Neal brings some freshness to the concept, although I found his future world repulsive, which it is intended to be.  Tom Wilner makes a pretty good protagonist though, and the combination of police procedural with post apocalyptic settings and a good mystery works admirably well this time around. 9/7/10

After America by John Birmingham, Del Rey, 2010, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-50291-9 

What might have happened if some fluke of nature wiped out the entire population of North America sometime in 2003?  That’s the premise of John Birmingham’s new series, this title following Without Warning.  Obviously all of that empty real estate and resources is tempting to a wide variety of international organizations, legitimate and otherwise, to say nothing of those few Americans who were not there when the catastrophe occurred. The story devolves into a kind of military adventure story, not surprising given the author’s other work.  As such it is exciting and engrossing, but I couldn’t help wondering just what was going on in the rest of the world.  There are hints obviously but I was unable to accept that the land grab would be so relatively restrained.  High on adventure; low on plausibility. 9/2/10

Omnitopia Dawn by Diane Duane, DAW, 8/10, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0623-3  

There was a flurry of both sf and fantasy involving virtual reality games – people trapped in them like Tron, or games used to affect events in real life, or people seeking immortality in cyberspace, and so forth.  This theme seemed to peter out a couple of years back and this is the first new one on the subject I’ve seen in a while.  Some of the elements of those earlier novels are repeated in this speculative adventure in which multi-player online games have become the most popular form of mass entertainment, and fortunes can be made by participants who come up with some innovative idea. And naturally there are con artists and other criminals who find ways to victimize participants. Omnitopia is the most popular of these and it’s about to launch a new expansion, but there are enemies who wish to bring the whole system to a halt.  Our heroes have to ferret out the plotters and foil them in what turns out to be a pretty good adventure story, but I was actually more interested in some of Duane’s speculations about how the world of online gaming might evolve.  One of her best books. 8/28/10

The Osiris Ritual by George Mann, Tor, 8/10. $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2321-7  

Sir Maurice Newberry and Veronica Hobbes return following their adventures in The Affinity Bridge for another Steampunkian romp.  This time they are matched against Knox, an agent gone bad, whose attempts to achieve personal immortality involve secrets perhaps known to the Egyptians.  There is also a nefarious illusionist, murder, a series of disappearances of young women, capture and escape, villainous speeches and heroic ones, chases, revelations, and lots of good fun.  There are various anomalies – intentional – and some mild humor mixed with a serious adventure story and a truly nasty, if not quite sane, bad guy.  I’m sure we’ll see this investigatory duo again.  I’m not sure if you’d call this sf or fantasy, but it’s good, whatever it is. Mann is rapidly pulling out of the pack of newer writers and distinguishing himself from the rest. 8/26/10

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, read by Victor Bevine, Brilliance Audio, 2010, $49.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-8167-9

This was the concluding volume of the Hyperion series, which pits a young girl with the power of prophecy against a perverted, nearly omnipotent Catholic church which rules the galaxy, but which is actually being manipulated by artificial intelligences inimical to humanity.  There are lots of good things in this book, but it is also the flabbiest novel Simmons has ever written.  The characters talk and lecture as much as they do in Robert Heinlein’s more turgid work, they repeated themselves constantly – do we really need five descriptions of the narrator’s prison cell in the first half of the novel? – and there are frequent diversions into inconsequential detail.  The most infuriating thing for me was the artificial way in which the narrator is told a little bit about a mystery, then told that more will be revealed later even though there is no reason to withhold that information except to set another hook in the reader.  Once or twice would have been okay, but I found myself growing angry as Simmons dangles more and more hints, then snatches them away for completely arbitrary reasons.  He’s too good a writer not to have large sections that are great interspersed among those that aren’t so much, but the total is pretty much a trainwreck.  I was particularly upset by the discovery late in the book that the female protagonist has the ability to transport herself and others – even gigantic starships – at will, which makes most of the chases, escapes, and other adventures that happened earlier totally meaningless. 8/25/10

Primeval by David L. Golemon, Thomas Dunne, 7/10, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-312-37224-8  

The fifth in the Event Group series is a kind of blend of the X-Files with a lost world novel, with added violence.  Our heroes are back, this time involved in a race to find the lost Romanoff treasure, with clues that lead them to the most remote part of British Columbia, along with a number of less scrupulous people who also want the treasure and who are prepared to deal with the competition in very severe ways.  There’s a surprise waiting for all concerned, however, because a prehistoric race has managed to elude human detection and survive in that wilderness, and they survive because they kill every human being who wanders into their territory.  Modern weaponry is no match for a killer that can approach unseen and kill before a gun can even be aimed.  The only unknown in this one was whether or not the creatures would finally be driven to extinction since we can pretty much guess that, intentionally or not, they’re going to be of valuable assistance to the good guys.  Mild sarcasm aside, this is a pretty good adventure story, a bit talky in parts but not quite as testerone laden as a lot of similar thrillers. 8/22/10

Fantasy in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2010, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15624-3

Every time I pick up a new Eve Dallas thriller I tell myself that this time she's probably going to fail to hook me in the opening pages.  After all, these mildly futuristic detective stories - although this one is much more SF than most in the series - are clearly written to a formula and I can check off the elements as I encounter them - an argument between Eve and her husband, two sex scenes, banter with her assistant Peabody, bad memories of her childhood, a consultation with the police profiler/psychologist, an awkward social gathering.  Well, this one sucked me in just like all the others, compulsive reading from start to finish.  A brilliant game designer is found decapitated in a secure room in a secure apartment in a secure building and there's no weapon at the scene.  That's all the good news.  SPOILER ALERT. The bad news is that the solution to this one is first a cheat, introducing a technology that we didn't know existed until the climax, and secondly, a bad cheat because it is not possible to focus light into solid matter. There is no way that a holographic image could be focused in such a way that it could cause a body to be damaged as though it had fallen off a cliff.  Nor would the holographic sword have left metal traces behind which would have been the case if someone had used an actual metal sword to cut off someone's head, and the police analysts would have registered this anomaly and smelled a holographic rat right from the outset.  Still fun, and even though I suspected what the solution was going to be by the end of chapter one I still couldn't put it down.  8/21/10

Bioblast by Raymond Z. Gallun, Berkley, 1985 

This is probably the best written of Gallun’s novels, and the only one I hadn’t read previously, but even at his best he’s definitely forgettable.  The theme this time is human mutation, the discovery of a kind of superhuman with a whole host of new abilities.  The prose is less cumbersome than usual but the plot is even more grandiose and melodramatic than his other novels and his characterization remains flat and unconvincing.  This one was further handicapped by an atrocious cover and a silly cover blurb.  I used to know someone who lamented the days when Gallun was considered one of the more interesting and innovative writers around.  I can’t say that I feel the same way. 8/16/10

Mission of Honor by David Weber, Baen, 2010, $27, ISBN 978-1-4391-3361-3  

I believe the Honor Harrington series is the longest military SF sequence ever, and her latest adventure might be the longest in that series.  I have some problems with the simplistic politics and have found most of the novels to be padded with long descriptions of the technology and weaponry that do nothing to advance the story, but at the same time I’m always fascinated to find out how Honor is going to upset the plans of the Havenite enemy and win all her battles – usually with lots of casualties – and Weber’s strongest asset is his ability to construct and resolve a complex military situation.  This time it’s not just the Havenites who pose the threat and it looks like the kingdom of Mantichore may finally collapse under the weight of the opposition.  But she still has a few tricks up her sleeve.  There’s a lot of bloat in this one, unfortunately.  In fact, there’s a sixteen page appendix just listing the characters, a flaw that has popped up in some of Weber’s other novels.  Since characterization is not really something he’s interested in, why bother to have so many? 8/15/10

The Stainless Steel Rat Returns by Harry Harrison, Tor, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2441-2 

Harry Harrison has written in at least two main voices over the course of his career.  In many of his books, he is serious and straightforward; in others, he uses exaggerated humor and broad satire.  I confess that I prefer the former, although I have enjoyed Bill the Galactic Hero and some of his other humorous novels.  The latest installment in the Slippery Jim DiGriz series falls into the latter category.  Jim is enjoying a kind of retirement on a tourist planet when a horde of his disreputable relatives and a herd of troublesome porcuswine show up to make life difficult and force him and his love, Angelina, to embark on a frequently very funny hegira across the stars in an attempt to find a new home for the dispossessed.  There’s some very funny stuff here, and some very obvious jokes as well.  I had a good time reading it, but I would have rather had Deathworld 4 or the next in the Eden series. 8/14/10

Skyclimber by Raymond Z. Gallun, Tower, 1981

Although I have been less than impressed while rereading Gallun, I'm almost at the end so I'll finish up.  I had only the vaguest recollection of this one being something about a Martian colony, which it is.  Problems on Earth result in its near abandonment so the Martians have to do something to get themselves noticed.  Ponderous, improbable, and severely dated by the passsage of time.  I've been trying to figure out how to describe what it is that bothers me about Gallun's prose, which tends to link disparate elements into the same sentence a lot.  I finally decided that a quote might best illustrate it.  "Such spasms would smother in his weakness and confusion. Then his mind might drop into his far-lost past...Or to the feel and slap of a basketball as he dribbled it down the floor.  In high school! Or, from a little later on, to the sounds of city traffic, the wink of lighted signs, and being on top of an apartment-house rooftop at night, bare-eyed..."  There's one novel to go, which I don't think I ever read when it first came out.  8/12/10

Without Warning by John Birmingham, Del Rey, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50290-2  

In 2003, a massive energy wave struck North America and wiped out all animal life on the continent.  In the aftermath, international politics and the balance of power are altered irretrievably.  We see all this from various viewpoints, mostly Americans who happened to be out of the country at the critical moment. The modern world is complex enough to provide a real wealth of possibilities in this one, more than enough for a single book and at least one sequel – After America – has already been announced.  Most alternate history starts a good deal earlier than this, so Birmingham has found a relatively virgin territory to explore.  I actually liked this one a good deal more than his previous alternate history trilogy. 8/6/10

Children No More by Mark L. Van Name, Baen, 2010, $22, ISBN 978-1-4391-3365-1 

Jon and Lobo are back. This time the mission is to travel to a rebellious planet and rescue a group of children who have become slave laborers, more or less. But it turns out they’re more capable of taking care of themselves than he anticipated. Although this is essentially military SF, the author tackles some serious issues along the way, most specifically how to deal with people – children in this case – who have been so conditioned to function in a violent, hostile world that they are out of place in a more secure and inhibited society.  There are no lectures and no real answers, but it’s a question that continues to trouble modern society.  The story itself is, of course, high adventure with a couple of nice twists.  One of the more intelligent and thoughtful novels of its type, however. 8/4/10

Pathfinder by Laura E. Reeve, Roc, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46344-9

Ariane Kedros returns for her third adventure, and this time she’s going to explore very new territory indeed.  Still wary of her enemies in the human military, she accepts a job with an alien based corporation that requires that she be physically modified for an expedition to a distant star, an operation that is possibly not reversible. The subsequent expedition is exciting in its own right, but things are complicated by the presence of a ringer among the crew, someone who is determined to ensure that Kedros does not return alive.  Reeve is one of a handful of writers who work in the low key part of the space opera spectrum, concentrating on the fates of individuals instead of the fate of worlds.  Her protagonist is an interesting if sometimes not entirely sympathetic character, and her stories are always filled with tension. 8/1/10