September 2017

First in a fantasy series set in a pseudo-Victorian world.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 333
Illustrated by Todd Lockwood

“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
Isabella is a child who is cursed with curiosity for the natural world. Cursed because she’s a girl and studying anatomy, of any creature, just isn’t proper for a young lady to do. However, Isabella is the only girl child in her family, with five brothers and they live in the countryside so there aren’t too many restrictions on her. At the tender age of seven, she becomes obsessed with dragons. And once she confesses to her father that she’s very interested in the natural sciences, he decides to help her. He allows her to borrow books from his library from time to time, provided that her mother doesn’t know about it.
But when she’s 12, the locals go out to hunt a wolf-drake, Isabella is determined to go with them. She knows how to ride but not how to shoot. She disguises herself as a boy and blackmails her way into the hunting party. Unfortunately, things don’t go well and she has to abandon her studies for years and become a proper lady instead. Then, she has to lure a husband.

This book is written as a memoir so we know that Isabella is able to do very impressive things and survive to a ripe old age to write the books. Often enough, she puts in small interjections, such as how foolish she was when she was young or how she didn’t know something that she knows now. If you don’t like that style, don’t pick up this book!

This also not an action book, either. It focuses on the relationships between the characters and on adventure and discovery. The dragons are very dangerous animals which eat humans and cattle, so it’s hard to observe them. Also, they’re more talked about than seen. But when we do seem them, it’s always special. As a wealthy gentlewoman at a time when she’s supposed to just stay at home and have kids, Isabella encounters and overcomes many obstacles. However, thanks to a supporting husband those obstacles aren’t too much (of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a book or it would a very different kind of book). To be fair, she also observes how the society restricts men as well.

Isabella is a smart woman but, like her older self admits, she’s also very young and inexperienced at this point. Her obsession with dragons takes over her life, leaving little time for anything else. She can be stand-offish to people around her. But she’s not deliberately cruel, just thoughtless and very, very imperialistic. She doesn’t bother to learn the names of some of her servants and describes them rather uncharitably. She’s also the only woman (or man for that matter) in this book who rises above society’s expectations.

There are several kinds of dragons in this world. Some we only see once and don’t know much more about them. Sparklings are the smallest, the size of insects. Indeed, they are classified as insects before Isabella starts to study them in earnest. Rock-wyrms are far larger and more dangerous to humans and other creatures. All the dragons seem to share a peculiar feature: their hollow bones disintegrate in sunlight, leaving nothing behind to study after they die. However, sparklings can be preserved in vinegar.

This is an alternate world fiction so things like religion are somewhat different than in our world but their inspirations are quite recognizable. I enjoyed the book and the writing style, which rather reminded me of Amelia Peabody.

I was expecting an excruciatingly long courtship with lots of unsuitable suitors but thankfully that didn’t happen. I’ve read a few reviews and knew beforehand that this first book at least wouldn’t have many dragons in it, despite the name. And I’m also fascinated by treating the dragons as wild, untamable animals. I can’t help but hope that in a later book they might turn out to be intelligent, after all. But I don’t really think that’s likely.

Collects issues 1-18 of the digital comics.

Writer: Marguerite Bennett
Artists: Marguerite Sauvage, Laura Braga, Stephen Mooney, Ted Naifeh, Garry Brown, Bilquis Evely, Mirka Andolfo, Ming Doyle, Sandy Jarrell, M. L. Sanapo, Marc Deering

This is an alternate history story where the world is still embroiled in WW II. Many men are off in the war and so women have taken up their roles. The majority of heroes (and villains) in this story are women, reimagined into 1940.

Gotham is defended from muggers by Batwoman who is billionaire Kate Kane who lives with her lover detective Maggie Sawyer. Then commander Amanda Waller recruits her for the war effort. The Batwoman goes undercover in Berlin.

Meanwhile, near Greek coast Steve Trevor is fighting Nazi warplanes. He sees a group of women attacking all planes and his fighter goes down. The Amazons take him prisoner but their Princess Diana is interested in the news Steve brings from the outside world: of a great war where millions of people are being killed. The Amazons aren’t interested in the war and indeed their queen is going to execute Steve. But Diana together with her friend Princess Meru from Atlantis free Steve. They want to help fight the Nazis.

In Russia, Kara Starikov and Kortni Duginovna are part of the Russian female elite pilots, the Night Witches. However, on their first mission, Kara’s plane is destroyed and she’s forced to show her great powers. The Russians take her prisoner. In exchange for the lives of their parents, the girls agree to become figureheads for the Motherland: Supergirl and Stargirl.

In Berlin, Joker’s Daughter and Zatanna are preparing to bring about something monstrous to help the Nazis.

This is a very interesting reimagining, with many, many female characters. Big Barda is part of Waller’s organization. However, the story has lots of storylines, which makes it a bit fragmented. However, I’m sure all the storylines will join near the end. Personally, I would have liked to know the characters more and more about the world. Now we get quite short scenes with each character focusing heavily on the plot.

Zatanna is an interesting, conflicted character. She’s the daughter of a Jew and a Romani. So, Joker’s Daughter is essentially blackmailing her into working at the club and with the magic. Meanwhile, Diana, Mera, Kara, and the rest are very straightforward heroic people.
Despite having lots of artists, their styles actually seem pretty similar, so I didn’t have a problem with the art.

This is loads of fun! The only section that didn’t work for me was the Harley Quinn one, others I quite enjoyed, even if the art is rather cheesecakey.

The second Fiction River short story collection.

Publication year: 2013
Format: Audio
Running time: 7 and 15 minutes

Narrators: Matthew Buckman, Jerimy Colbert, Kristine Rusch, Dean Smith, Barton Grover Howe, Jane Kennedy, Alison Longuera, Stephanie Reid

Like the name implies, these stories focus on solving problems that humans are facing today. They each focus on a different problem, though, which shows just how many problems we have. All of the stories overcome problems that humans themselves have created, not outside threats like an asteroid hitting the Earth.
I liked most of the stories and my favorites are “Flight of the Little Bird”, “Neighborhoods” and “The Legend of Parker Clark and Lois Jane”.

“The Gathering” by David Gerrold: In this story, a group of people who want to save the world have gathered together and discuss their past successes and failure. And why they always fail.

“Positive Message” by William H. Keith: Sunrise Earth is a company which specializes in solar power. But when the company starts to get real successes, the old oil companies fight back.

“The Legend of Parker Clark and Lois Jane” by Ron Collins: Clark is working on reducing carbon emissions when suddenly his boss tells him to stop work. However, he was very close to a breakthrough, so that decision makes no sense. Until Clark realizes something.

“Your Name Here” by Laura Resnick: the main character works in the population control office. Some people desperately want to procreate despite not passing the tests.

“Flight of Little Bird” by Stephanie Writt: Tara hates her job and feels that she’s very small and worthless. She wants to be so much more, but doesn’t know how. But then she has an idea and everything changes.

“Staying Afloat” by Angela Penrose: many fields are suffering from too much rain. Paola is trying to find some good and cheap solution that small and poor farmers could use.

“The Shape of a Name” by Annie Reed: Anisha is a war orphan who has lost her arm. One day, one white woman comes to the refugee camp and takes her away, to a girl school.

“Neighborhoods” by Dean Wesley Smith: an eccentric millionaire is disgusted with the news of continuing violence in his home city of Chicago and he decides to do something about it.

“Heaven Backwards” by Lisa Silverthorne: In the future, the Earth is a desert because of the sins of people who didn’t follow the Word. But one small settlement still survives. However, some of their children have been disappearing. Then, three outsiders are at the gates.

“Earth Day” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: the mother of the main character was obsessed with saving the Earth and her son continues that trend, although probably not in the way that the mother intended.

“Deus Ex Machina” by Travis Heermann: the world’s first functional artificial intelligence awakens.

An alternate history story set in Ancient Egypt.

Publication year: 1998
Format: ebook
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 401

Senenmut was born to a lowly merchant but his mother made sure that he got into the scribe school, so that he could build a better life for himself. At the lofty age of fifteen, Senenmut knows that he’s the best of the students. He knows that he’s meant for a better life than the one he has with his common-born family of parents and two younger brothers. When his master Seti-Nakht sends him to the royal palace, Senenmut dreams of working for the king and impressing him. But when he’s instead directed to the queen’s palace, his wounded pride makes him refuse her offer to become her scribe and tutor. Because Senenmut knows that he’s meant for better things than to serve a proud and arrogant child-queen Hatshepsut.

But on his way back to his crowded home, his hot temper cools and he starts to fear that the queen will fling him to the crocodiles for his proud answers. Instead, she calls him back and gives him the job of tutor. This time, he accepts and soon the young queen charms him, too.

This is not an adventure story. It’s the life story of Senenmut who was born a commoner but rose to a high office and through his eyes also the story of Hatshepsut, a queen who rose to become a pharaoh. The story is told mostly through Senenmut’s eyes but another POV character is Nehsi, the chief of the queen’s bodyguards. All of the characters are proud, even arrogant, and prickly in their pride. They’re also driven and buck the conventions of their time and to do that, they can’t be very likable.

Hatshepsut is shown here to be arrogant and imperious which she no doubt was, because she was raised as a pharaoh’s daughter. But she’s also very aware of her place as the leader of her people and a conduit (or symbol) between the gods and the people. She wants to rule well and learns how to do it, despite the limits to what she’s allowed to do as a woman. On the other hand, she also seems to despise her brother-husband the pharaoh Thutmose II and extends that feeling to his son (whose mother is a concubine).

While this is an interesting take on her story, it takes quite a few liberties with what we know today about Hatshepsut. Of course, it was written 1998. I do find Hatshepsut fascinating and I’m probably going to get Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning.

Collects: Strange Tales V1 #110-111 and 115, Dr. Strange V1 #172-173, Marvel Premiere #10, Tomb of Dracula V1 #44, Dr. Strange V2# 14 and 50-51, Dr. Strange Sorcerer Supreme #48-50, Dr. Strange The Oath #5, Dr. Strange From the Marvel Vault.

Writers: Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Steve Engleheart, Marv Wolfman, Roger Stern, Len Kaminski, Brian K. Vaughn

Artists: Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Marshall Rogers, Geof Isherwood, Marcos Martin, Nell Vokes

This collection showcases Dr. Strange stories through the decades, from the very first stories to 2011. The first two stories are from Strange Tales by Lee and Ditko. They’re only four pages long each. The third story is the good Doctor’s origin. Right from the start, Strange battles his bitter foe Baron Mordo. Also, the doctor’s origin story has stayed the same: it’s the same story we got in the movie.

I’m actually not very familiar with Dr. Strange. I’ve never read his own comics so I’ve seen him mostly in team-ups and huge crossover events where he’s often been integral with planning and/or required magical aid. So, it was very interesting in seeing him on his own. He doesn’t seem to have a huge cast of characters around him (like Spider-Man). Instead, he only relies on himself and his abilities or trickery. His abilities are granted by cosmic entities, such as Vishanti or Ikonn. The few people around him, like Wong and Clea, often require his help.

In the first two-issue story (172-173) he battles Dormammu and Dormammu’s sister Umar while his love interests Clea and Victoria have been kidnapped and are held hostage.

In the next story (Marvel Premier 10) Shuma-Gorath forces Strange to kill his mentor, the Ancient One.
In the next two issues, Doctor Strange battles Dracula. The story starts with Wong’s death but, of course, he doesn’t stay that way.

In the next two issues, Dr. Strange travel through time to WWII. Baron Mordo kidnaps Clea and Morgana Blessin so the good doctor has to follow him. Nick Fury guest-stars.

Next is a three-issue story where the entities from whom Dr. Strange have gotten his powers from, want something back. Specifically, first Vishanti and then the others want Strange to lead their armies in war. Unfortunately, they estimate that the war will take about 5000 years. Strange declines and has to denounce their aid. However, at the same time, Dormammu and his sister are again up to no good and Strange has to call for Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and the Ghost Rider for help.

The Oath issue 5 is apparently the last issue in a mini-series where Dr. Strange battles another student of Ancient One’s while Wong’s life hangs in the balance. He also has a new love interest, the Night Nurse.

And the final issue brings us back full circle to the day when Strange first sees the house which will be his sanctum sanctorum.

These are pretty interesting stories and easy to follow even though I haven’t read the rest of the stories. Some plotlines are left dangling but nothing significant. No doubt some of these stories, especially the death of the Ancient One and denouncing the aid from the entities, were turning points for the series. But that’s hard to appreciate in this collection.

Recommended for people wanting to know more about Strange.

The first book in the fantasy series Spells, Swords & Stealth.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 7 and 51 minutes
Narrators: Roger Wayne

This book starts with metafiction in a table-top RPG. I’m a long-time table-top role player so I really enjoyed the book.
Four characters, played by four male role players, drop dead suddenly in the tavern of a small village of Maplebark. The players had found some mushrooms on a critical failure roll and made the characters eat them. A couple of NPCs (non-player characters, all the characters in the world which aren’t controlled by the players) think of looting the adventurers but to their horror they find a scroll among the characters’ possessions: a scroll which tells them that a king has commanded the characters to appear before him. Unfortunately, the king is known for his blood-thirsty nature and if he finds out that the characters had died in Maplebark, he’ll send his troops to raze it to the ground and torture to death everyone in it. So, the four NPCs decide to save their loved ones and take on the roles of the adventurers.

Even though the characters names aren’t mentioned in the scroll, their classes are: a barbarian, a paladin, a rogue, and a wizard. So now, the local mayor’s guard Eric, the half-orc tavernkeeper Grumph, Thistle who used to be a minion to adventurers, and the local mayor’s daughter Gabrielle sneak away and try to at least die far enough from their village that the king can’t blame their families. However, they’ve hardly gotten out of Maplebark when the local goblins capture them. Not an auspicious start…

The book starts with a scene with the players and their gamemaster so I was waiting for more of this meta-level writing, but we didn’t get much of it. Most of the book are the exploits of unlikely adventurers. At the start, the NPCs choose their roles and they’re pretty predictable but during their adventures, they develop skills and abilities which are less predictable.

This was a fun book and I recommend it for other role players.

A full cast audio production, based on Joe Harris’ X-files comics. Contains five cases so apparently the first five issues.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 4 hours and 4 minutes
Narrators: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis, and rest of the X-Files cast.

I’m a long-time X-Files fan but I haven’t read much of the X-Files tie-in fiction. But after reading glowing reviews of this audio production, I succumbed and bought it. So, quite likely I had too high expectations. However, I really think that there should have been more thought put into adapting a comic book script, which is visual, to the radio drama format. And no, sound effects can’t substitute for a description. In fact, because I listen to a lot of audio books, which don’t have sound effects, I was quite distracted by the sound effects. The first story is particularly bad in this way and it was hard for me to even understand what was happening. The other four stories are either better in description or I got used to filling in the blanks.

This sounds awfully negative but I loved to revisit the characters and hear the familiar voices. Pretty much every significant secondary character has a part, even some dead ones. The Lone Gunmen faked their deaths and are now hiding under Arlington cemetery and so they are back, but so are some of the dead villains.

However, the stories don’t give anything new. They have the same old familiar stuff: a cult is after Scully’s on, Scully is kidnapped, mysterious people saying mysterious things, the black ooze resurfacing. One episode is titled “More musings of the cigarette smoking man” and centers on his past.

This was a fan and campy take on the X-Files. Recommended only for hard core fans because you really need to have watched the whole show before attempting to listen. This is not the place to start with X-Files. As is usual for the show, we don’t get much closure at the end: in fact two agents who disappeared at the start are still missing.

Collected the miniseries issues 1-5.

Writer: Peter David
Artist: Will Sliney

In this 2099 world, the megacorporation Alchemax owns the rights to all super beings. If a super being doesn’t work for Alchemax he, she, or it is, by law, a super villain. The head of the company is Miguel Stone. The Avengers include Captain America (Roberta Mendez who has been brainwashed so that she doesn’t remember being the Cap while she’s Roberta and vise versa), Hercules (the original but with a depression and a drinking problem), Black Widow (who is a seductress with so spider powers), Iron Man, and Hawkeye (who has real wings and talons instead of a bow). They also have the Vision but she’s a woman in a tank who sees visions.

Someone sends assassins after Roberta and that someone seems to be Martin Hargood. The team goes to arrest him but another super team is already trying to question Hargood, the Defenders: Hulk, Silver Surfer, the new Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner (blue-skinned Roman), and Valkyrie (Brunnhilde). Of course, they fight.

This one was fun and the new Cap was very interesting. Pretty light stuff, though. There’s a subplot about the Black Widow but it didn’t go anywhere. I’ve read some of the 2099 titles years go and it was fun to revisit them. Doesn’t affect the main story at all.

A stand-alone sf/f book.

Publication year: 1993
Format: print
Publisher: ROC
Page count: 384

Traitors has an sf premise: the book is set is another planet which humans colonized centuries ago and the people know it. However, mostly it reads like fantasy. The countries in this setting are islands so you need to have either a ship or an air-born shuttle to go from one country to the next. All high tech is controlled by one nation, Vorgel, and while other nations can use them, the Vorgellians keep tight reins on the tech so nobody else can build anything high tech, anything from laser pistols to shuttles.

The Kingdom is a place where, at the surface anyway, art and artists are regarded highly. However, the Kingdom has a very cruel and rigid caste system. In it, young children are tested for their level of Talent (in any form of art, such as dance, poetry, or music and also in Magic). Those with A-level Talent are then expected to perform so that their performances bring money to the government. Those without A-level Talent are essentially used for scouting rich targets (in foreign countries) and robbing them. Also, a person can have only one Talent and only one A-level Talent in one family. Of course, the Kingdom don’t admit that they steal to anyone outside. Golga is a neighboring country where all frivolous thing, such as fiction and other arts, are forbidden. Supposedly, the Golgans kill all Kingdom members they get their hands on.

Emilio Diante is an A-level Dance Talent. One day, he comes home and finds his family brutally murdered. He knows that the Queen has done it. So, he stows away on a ship, heading for somewhere else, anywhere else. He’s rather become a slave than stay in the Kingdom. However, a mage aboard notices him and the only place where he can stay is Golga. Diante is sure that he will be killed but instead the ruler of Golga, the Golgoth, gives Diante one chance to prove himself and stay. Diante takes that chance. 15 years later, he’s the head of detectives in the Golga capital and one of the ruler’s most trusted advisors. Then, he finds a badly beaten and burned Kingdom woman near the port. He and his closest friend, a wine merchant, take the woman to heal in a resort where they can hopefully rebuild her broken body. On the island resort Diante meets and falls quickly in love with a stunningly beautiful woman. He suspects that she’s from Kingdom but waves away his concerns. That turns out to be a mistake.

As usual with Rusch, I loved the setting. However, this is one of her earlier books and it shows a little.

The various nations we’re given a glimpse of are fascinating. Apparently, the people who founded them, made them opposites of each other. For example, Golga was once part of the Kingdom but the future Golgans rebelled and when they founded their own country, they forbade anything resembling the Kingdom, namely the arts.

Diante is the only POV character so his opinions color everything. He’s a very serious and duty-focused man. He’s only loyal to the Golgoth who trusts Diante. But few others trust Diante. The wine merchant is his only friend and he’s closed himself off from other people so much that he hasn’t had a romantic relationship until he meets the woman at the resort. Also, when he gives someone his loyalty, he has very hard time letting go.

Sheba, the woman Diante falls for, remains a mystery. We don’t see her reasons for her choices. The other major characters change through the story. The Golgoth is another very duty-bound man who will do anything for betterment of his country. He’s also quite different from his reputation in the Kingdom. The wine merchant starts out like a plot device (urging Diante to do something he normally wouldn’t do: take a vacation) but gets deeper during the story. The same thing happens to the wounded woman.

I rather enjoyed this book but it’s not one of Rusch’s best, even though it has some quite unusual twists which I quite enjoyed and the ending was also somewhat unusual (for fantasy).

The first in a humorous fairytale series aimed at younger readers.

Publication year: 2005
Format: Audio
Running time: 6 hours and 9 minutes
Narrator: L. J. Ganser

The parents of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm vanished without a trace about a year and a half ago. The orphanage has sent them to a couple of families who turned out to be rotten. Now, an elderly woman has sent for them, claiming to be their grandmother. However, Sabrina knows that they don’t have any living relatives, their father said so. So, 11-year-old Sabrina is determined to keep her guard up and escape with her younger sister as soon as possible.

But Granny Grimm seems like a cheerful person willing to feed them very well, even though she is somewhat odd at first. But soon Sabrina starts to think the Granny’s insane. For one thing, she thinks that giants are real and that she’s some kind of detective. Sabrina is more determined than ever to be the voice of reason in this madness.

Then there’s Mr. Canis, a tall and thin old man who helps take care of the strange house Grandma Grimm lives in.

In this book, fairy tales are real, or at least some version of them. Fairytale characters (called Everafters) are also real but they’re confined to one town. The Grimm family is kind of sheriff types to them. Magic is also real. The characters aren’t just confined to fairytales, though. However, most of the Everafters are pretty unpleasant characters, even those who should be nice. For example, Mayor Charming continually verbally abuses everyone around him, unless he’s fishing for votes. Also, this book is quite reminiscent of the Fables comics. The foster care system is presented as pretty much a criminal system where children are abused, more or less systematically.

It takes a long time for Sabrina to accept that people aren’t lying to her and at first she tries to furiously deny it all, like, you know, a sane modern person would do. I liked her stubborn streak a lot. She’s also determined to protect Daphne and be “strong” for her, which is a lot of responsibility for a girl who is almost twelve.

Daphne accepts everything far quicker, too, quickly in Sabrina’s opinion. Daphne has a lot sweeter personality than her sister.

This is a fun and funny book. Unfortunately, there are some glaring holes in the background. But this is apparently the first in a series of books, so maybe they’ll be explained at some point.

“New York City is a place where everyone lived on top of each other, and that was exactly how Sabrina liked it. Living out in the middle of nowhere was dangerous and suspicious.”

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