book reviews by Althea

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The Awakened City – Victoria Strauss ***

The sequel to ‘The Burning Land.’ (I would recommend starting with that one first.)

For centuries, Âratist doctrine has promised the coming of the Next Messenger – a prophet of the god who will come out of the Burning Land, bearing the blood of the god. His coming will be marked by an act of destruction and an act of generation.

When, in the last book, Brother Gyalo Amdo Samchen returned from his dangerous mission to the Burning Lands, he met all of those criteria – but it was noted by only a few. The Brethren – leaders of his religion – were too busy denouncing him as an apostate to note that there was an option to see him as holy.

Now, one of the last survivors of the ‘heretic’ settlement known as Refuge is out for revenge – against the Brethren and the whole world. A talented Shaper, Râvan is also arrogant, violent and self-entitled. He intentionally sets himself up as a false prophet, claiming to be the Next Messenger, with the aim of destroying everything and everyone he can, body and soul.

Tales of prophecy are all too common in the fantasy genre, but Strauss does manage to accomplish something complex and original here, through her tale of two possible prophets and an interesting ambiguity about which – if either – of them are actually fulfilling the god’s will. It’s also nice that she gets in the fact that there are alternate viewpoints – including atheism and those of members of other religions altogether.

However, it was disappointing that Axane, one of the main characters of the previous book, spends most of this one as a prisoner, meaning she doesn’t get to do much, and has little viewpoint-time given to her.

The book also spends a great deal of time with Râvan – who is just not someone who’s what you could call fun to spend time with.

In addition to Râvan and Gyalo, this volume introduces the viewpoint of Sundit, an elderly woman who’s one of the Brethren. Her chapters give an interesting insight into religious schisms and also, eventually, give voice to a doubt the reader might have had about some of the tenets of the Âratist church.

Worthwhile reading both for fantasy fans, and for those interested in the power structures and methodologies of religion and belief.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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Cold Wind – Nicola Griffith ****

When I’m promised ‘urban fantasy,’ now THIS is what I want to be served!!

An unnamed observer enters a women’s bar on a holiday evening. Conviviality is all around her, but she is watching and waiting… for who? or what? Gradually, small clues are dropped that this isn’t going to be your usual bar pick-up or one-night-stand.

Rather, it’s a tale of predators and prey…

Beautiful, vivid writing, as can always be expected from Nicola Griffith.

Available for free at:

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The Burning Land – Victoria Strauss ***

Here, we enter a fantasy world that’s clearly inspired by the real-life situation involving Tibet and China. The Âratists have recently come back into control over their land, after the fall of the previous regime. (Which was one that was fueled by a populist revolution, set up communal methods of doing agriculture and industry, was strongly atheist, but quickly became authoritarian and oppressive.)

Brother Gyalo is a devout Âratist monk. He is also a Shaper – a wielder of magic. Shapers are both revered and feared. They are required to become monks (although Gyalo embraced his lot in life enthusiastically) and their magic is tightly controlled through mandatory use of an addictive drug.

Now, Gyalo has been chosen to become leader of an expedition. A rumor has persisted that a splinter group Âratists survived the purges of the revolution by fleeing across the harsh desert known as The Burning Lands. If they survived, the Brethren (reincarnated leaders of the Church) believe they should be contacted and brought back into the fold – and, if necessary, purged of heresy.

Meanwhile, a disaffected young woman, Axane, who holds a secret talent of her own, lives in the hidden cave dwellings of Refuge. Alone among her people, she knows that there is something more to the world than her small community.

When this true believer and this secret heretic meet, a chain of events will be thrown into motion that may shake the foundations of both their worlds.

At first, I felt rather skeptical of the whole Tibet/China parallel that the author draws, here. I also found some of the characters and events to fall too neatly into familiar fantasy tropes. I still wish it had been a more fully original fantasy world. But as the story developed (this is quite a long book) I was won over. It transcends mere magical battles and becomes a very interesting discussion about religion. What will belief lead a person to? What sacrifice, what actions? When fear of change, fear of the ‘other’ is added to the mix, what then? When political expediency meets individual power and ego – what then?

Strauss keeps her world’s ‘truths’ nicely ambiguous throughout this volume, which allows the reader to consider different characters’ viewpoints well. We don’t know who is ‘right’ about their god – or if anyone at all is correct.

This book is first in a duology. It ends at a nice stopping-point, but I look forward to seeing where Strauss takes the story in the next volume.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media to introducing me to Victoria Strauss’ writing through this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Operation Arcana – John Joseph Adams, ed.

**   RULES OF ENCHANTMENT—David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell
Tolkien’s world and our own have had a portal open between them. It’s taking both modern military technology and strategic alliances to fight off threats such as trolls and dragons. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like the second-person voice, and the tongue-in-cheek style with geeky references to D&D and the LoTR movies didn’t do it for me either.

**** THE DAMNED ONE HUNDRED—Jonathan Maberry
Classic sword-and-sorcery, plus vampires, plus a situation reminiscent of the Battle of Thermopylae. I really enjoyed this one.

**** BLOOD, ASH, BRAIDS—Genevieve Valentine
Historically interesting, AND a rousing good tale. A group of Russian WWII fighter pilots, all women, are assigned horribly dangerous missions. A bit of witchcraft may help them stay alive…

**** MERCENARY’S HONOR—Elizabeth Moon
I’m sure a lot of people will buy this anthology just for this story – a ‘Paksworld’ tale – and I don’t believe they’ll be disappointed. Familiar characters (including Kieri Phelan and Halveric) make their appearance, but this is a fully stand-alone, and cleverly entertaining tale of two mercenary commanders and how they work out a situation which initially seems untenable for both of them.

***  THE GUNS OF THE WASTES—Django Wexler
Bonus points for being what I personally feel that steampunk ought to be (weird sci-fi, not faux-Victorian romance). However, this is really a fun action scene with quirky characters, rather than a fully-developed story. It feels like (and I hope it might be) an excerpt from a forthcoming novel.

I really enjoy Yoon Ha Lee’s takes on the ideas of lexical magic. I found echoes here of some of her other work: ‘Effigy Nights’ and ‘Iseul’s Lexicon’ – but this is a piece that works on its own.
A brilliant magician has been forced into a dangerous military position in official retribution for the groundbreaking – but status-quo-threatening – ideas she came up with in university. Now, her mission will require her to explore even more radical ideas – and may demand the ultimate self-sacrifice.

***  AMERICAN GOLEM—Weston Ochse
The main character goes AWOL in Afghanistan to pursue his true mission: to kill the Osama-bin-Laden-like terrorist who was responsible for his brother’s death. The twist is: the ‘brother’ is actually a golem, created just for this purpose. The author has clearly drawn on his own experiences in Afghanistan to inform this story.

A long and rather harrowing story of a group of goblins from a nomadic tribe who have been taken  prisoner by their enemies. It’s a quite bleak and agonizing experience.

***  HEAVY SULFUR—Ari Marmell
Alternate-history WWI, with trench warfare and mages on both sides summoning spirits and demons. A dangerous mission behind enemy lines, with a magical element thrown into the mix.

***  STEEL SHIPS—Tanya Huff
A quick, action-oriented episode. Selkie-type shapeshifters in the midst of a war come up with a dangerous mission to protect their side from the threat of the enemy’s new ironclad riverboats. Feels like an excerpt from a longer tale.

*** SEALSKIN—Carrie Vaughn
A burnt-out American military man goes to Ireland, like so many tourists, in search of his ‘roots’ – and faces a dramatic decision about which part of his heritage to choose to follow.

***  PATHFINDER—T.C. McCarthy
In an underground military hospital complex in Korea, a young nurse fulfills her traditional/supernatural role of escorting the souls of the dead to the afterlife. However, both her jobs are full of more than the usual hazards, both paranormal and mundane.

**** BONE EATERS—Glen Cook
The Black Company is back! And in classic form! This is another one where fans of the series may very well find this one story alone worth the price of admission.
I’ll defer to those who are more detail-oriented if I’m wrong, but the events here seem to take place around the time of the events in ‘The White Rose.’ Croaker is the annalist and narrator, and Darling is the leader of the Company. The group is magically led to a village of Hungry Ghosts, and must use ingenuity to escape and/or nullify the threat.
Will Cook’s long-promised further entries into this series be finally forthcoming soon? We can only hope…

**   MOON—Simon R. Green
This is an example of exactly what I don’t like alternate history to do. It takes a morally and politically complex real-life situation (the bombing of Dresden) and attempts to remove any ambiguity from it by adding in a compelling reason for the attack which never existed, and quite literally making it a battle between the forces of Good and Evil, complete with a misguided, traitorous opponent to the action. I’m sure some will see this as nothing more than an action story, but I see it as a misguided attempt to assuage historical guilt through rewriting.

**** IN SKELETON LEAVES—Seanan McGuire
Recommended for those who enjoyed Lisa Jensen’s ‘Alias Hook’ and/or who are interested in darker explorations of the Peter Pan story. What happened in Neverland after the stories of Peter that we’re all familiar with? Is the otherworld as stable as it seemed, or might it change, gradually and depending on the children that are brought to it? Children can be not just heartless, but vicious, and there’s always a disturbing aspect to not growing up.

*** THE WAY HOME—Linda Nagata
A military team has somehow been caught in a hostile otherworld populated my attacking demons. By trial and error, they’ve learned that each death opens a temporary portal home – for only one soldier. Can the commander manage to get every member of his team home safely?

Many thanks to NetGalley and Baen books for the opportunity to read this anthology of quality military fantasy! As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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Know-It-All – New Scientist ***

This volume is a collection of the highest-rated questions and answers from the New Scientist magazine’s Last Word column. The column, which is almost like a moderated forum for New Scientist’s highly knowledgeable readership, is available freely online at:

The goal is to provide answers to daily science questions which are not easily ‘google-able.’

This does beg the question: if all of this material (and more) is already online to be read, why the book?
I think it’s a valid question, however, if not for the existence of this book, I more-than-likely would still be unaware of the magazine’s existence, and I undoubtedly would not yet have read all the fascinating tidbits of information here, which are nicely arranged (roughly) by topic.
As it is, I did read the whole book, and I’m considering becoming a subscriber to the magazine, which looks a lot more reliable and informative than say, ‘Popular Science.’

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book and also for thus introducing me to New Scientist! As always, my opinions are my own.

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Aura – Carlos Fuentes ****

From descriptions I’d read before starting this, I was expecting something in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But no, the aesthetic here is much closer to Poe or Baudelaire. I’d call this a classic horror tale, more than ‘magical realism.’

A young man, Felipe Montero, answers a help-wanted ad that seems tailor-made for him. It shouldn’t be too difficult to prepare a widow’s late husband’s memoirs for a vanity publication, and the generous salary will allow him the leisure to pursue his own studies.

Still, once he meets his prospective employer, the widow is so clearly eccentric that he hesitates… until he is introduced to her lovely niece, Aura. The presence of an alluring woman tilts the balance of his decision, and he agrees to live in their home until the job is completed.

It’s not giving anything away to hint that more weird and disturbing revelations are to come…

The flow of the story is lovely, and while a reader might guess at part of the truth, the full finale is sure to come as a surprise.

Excellent story – I do have to say, however, that the way expectations change over time is on full display here. ‘Aura’ was published as a ‘novel’ – today, it’d be classified as a short story; not even a novella.

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Marked – Sarah Fine ***

I picked this up because I was curious about this whole “new adult” genre. I think that this was the first book I’ve read to be marketed under that category. And – it was pretty much what I expected: occasional explicit sex scenes mixed in with the tropes popular in YA today.

Eli and his sister Galena have managed to get out of the desolate wasteland that is a near-future Pittsburgh. They’ve both got jobs in Boston – which is better-off than much of the US, but still pretty dystopic. Galena is a brilliant bio-researcher, who’s snagged a position at Harvard. Eli is a paramedic, and ready to get down to business saving lives.
However, his new partner, Cacy, is distractingly sexy – AND intimately connected with the most wealthy and powerful family in Boston. And that’s just what Eli knows. What he doesn’t know is that she – and her whole family – are supernaturally connected, with the job of ferrying the souls of the dead to their just reward.

Soon, Eli is up to the neck in a paranormal power struggle involving Cacy, her family, his sister’s research, and other forces which he knows nothing about. Pursuing a relationship with Cacy, and just staying alive become his primary concerns…

This is an essentially silly book. It’s not trying not to be. However, the sex scenes were pretty hot, and it’s better than a lot of other material coming out lately under the ‘paranormal romance’ umbrella. A quick and entertaining read.

Many thanks to NetGalley and 47North for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.