Book Review: The Final Girl Support Group, by Grady Hendrix

Oh hey, it’s October, isn’t it? Which is a good excuse as any to read (and subsequently review) some horror novels!

I decided to start things off with a bang, which brings us to Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group. The guy is one of my favorite modern horror writers, and most everything I’ve read of his delivers. I actually finished this book a couple days ago, but I’m a bit behind on my reviews these days on account of having a Real People Job keeping me fairly busy. But hey, we’re back on track now! Maybe!

As one might from the title, The Final Girl Support Group draws on the concept of the “final girl” from horror movies. Much smarter people than I have written thousands of words of analysis on the trope of a lone (usually white) woman being the last one to survive the rampage of a mask-wearing, knife-wielding maniac. In The Final Girl Support Group, Hendrix explores the idea of what that woman does after the credits roll.

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Of course, you need more than one woman to create a whole support group. And so, Hendrix creates a grisly history of massacres, with riffs on Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other, more obscure slasher flicks. A lot of the background info is presented through ephemera like newspaper clippings, movie reviews, and interview transcripts. Which would have been a lot easier to read if I opted for a hardcopy of the book instead of the e-book version, but hey. Guess I should’ve learned my lesson after Horrorstor.

In any case, more plot stuff. Decades after surviving their respective nightmares, these women meet for a weekly support group– but when one of them doesn’t make it in, it soon becomes clear that somebody’s trying to kill them off, one by one. Taut action and gory mayhem ensues.


The book’s narrated by Lynnette Tarkington, who, years after surviving a Santa-Suit wearing maniac’s rampage, copes with the trauma through hypervigilant paranoia. Lynnette narrates the book in first person, present tense– which, combined with Lynnette’s point of view, makes for an exhausting read. I mean that in the best possible way. The novel is an exercise in tension, which only gets more and more prevalent as the book goes on. As, despite Lynnette’s exhaustive preparations, things just keep getting worse and worse. Lynette’s paranoia makes her something of an unreliable narrator, and I soon found myself second (and third) guessing her motivations, which was a fun way to spend the book. Though thankfully things never go too far into left field, which is nice.

Where Horrorstor is about the soul-crushing banality of work, and We Sold Our Souls is about the brutality of the modern world, The Final Girl Support Group is about trauma and misogyny. You know, light reading. The most notable difference between The Final Girl Support Group and Hendrix’s other novels is that the antagonists are 100 percent human, which paints things in a far different light.

The Final Girl Support Group focuses on the slasher genre– and on slasher fans. As there’s some business in the world of the novel where the Final Girls also have sold their stories to have million dollar film franchises built around them. This makes Lynette and the rest of her support group equivalent to Scream Queen actresses, complete with fans and stuff. It’s a weird choice, and arguably a bit contrived, but it still serves as a commentary on slasher movie fandom. Though with that said, I wonder how the book might read for someone who’s not familiar enough with the slasher genre to have opinions about whether Black Christmas is better than Silent Night, Deadly Night or not.

It’s hard to review Hendrix’s books, honestly, because they’re, y’know. Good. I kept finding time to open up my phones’s e-reader app to devour another tautly written chapter, which is always a sign of a good chapter. As far as Hendrix novels I’ve read, I’d rank The Final Girl Support Group as better than Horrorstor, but not as hell-yeah-awesome as We Sold Our Souls.

Book Review: Ash Kickers by Sean Grigsby

I admit it, I picked this book up off the shelf based entirely on the pun of the title. However, the blurb on the back was what pushed Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers into impulse buy territory.

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“Firefighters vs. Dragons vs. A Phoenix.”

Not exactly a premise you see every day.

The firefighter thing in particular got my attention, as I honestly most Urban Fantasy books center on a spooky private detective of some stripe, if not an outright “magic cop” who’s part of an official police organization that hunts monsters. Because honestly, there’s a lot of thematic stuff to dig into once the “thin blue line” is protecting the world from literal bloodsucking monsters. Which in turn butts up against the common thematic reading of vampires and werewolves and whatnot being metaphors for the “other” in our society, and … yeah. Honestly if I were of a more academic bent I could probably write a whole research paper on this sort of thing. But at the moment I’ll settle for rambling about it on the internets. Lucky you?

So yeah. Kind of surprised firefighters + monsters hasn’t been used before. I mean, as Snoop Dogg said, “No one ever made a song called Fuck the Fire Department.” Although, firefighter thing aside, Ash Kickers isn’t exactly your standard Urban Fantasy novel. For one, it’s set about a century in the future, so the main characters have hover-trucks and laser cannons and power armor. And past that, there’s also the fact that the world has been devastated by an inexplicable dragon invasion, so there’s also a post-apocalyptic vibe of bastions of civilization being protected by power armored firefighters-turned-dragonslayers. Honestly, between the various cool toys and the monsters they’re used on, the world of Ash Kickers has a very 80’s Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe to it, a-la Inhumanoids or Ghostbusters (just with a lot more swearing). I mean, they even have to deal with the fact that anyone a dragon kills comes back as a wraith– which they deal with by trapping them in a little electronic gizmo, and … yeah. Though thankfully, outside of a few little nerdy references here and there (including an obligatory Anne McCaffrey reference), things never get too derivative.

A lot of this comes from the fact that Gigsby is a professional firefighter himself, and thus brings his first-hand experience to the book. There’s a genuine authenticity to the attitudes (and colorful vocabulary) of the dragonslayers, even though I’m fairly certain that Grigsby hasn’t slain any dragons recently.

Another neat way in which Ash Kickers differs from the standard Urban Fantasy novel (or a lot of nerdy fiction in general) is how diverse it is. Instead of a snarky white guy in a trenchcoat, the book is narrated by a black woman named Tamerica Williams. The rest of the book has a fairly diverse cast as well– not to mention the fact that the smoke-eaters find themselves butting up against a bunch of ignorant xenophobes lead by a rabble-rousing demogogue. According to the blurb inside the cover, Ash Kickers was published in 2019, but is still sadly entirely too relevant today. Ain’t exactly subtle, but hey.

So yeah. Ash Kickers has an original premise and just enough social bite to it to make it a notable read. This said, it’s not quite a perfect book– it kind of drags a little in the middle, and the ending is a bit abrupt. Admittedly, Ash Kickers is the second in a trilogy. The book works fairly well as a standalone, I might have enjoyed it a little more if I’d read the first one beforehand in order to get a better feel for the setting. Likewise, the cliffhanger of an ending is there to make the reader want to track down the third book, Flame Riders. And since it does a fairly good job of that, well, I guess I can’t complain too much.

Book Review: Colonyside, by Michael Mammay

For awhile now, I’ve been reading more ebooks than paper ones. It’s something I never would have thought of years ago, but honestly the convenience offered by library apps like Libby and Overdrive make it wonderfully easy to snag an ebook or audiobook to read at my convenience. A phone takes up even less space than most paperbacks, and I almost always have it on me. That’s the 21st century for you.

However, one thing that ebooks haven’t quite managed to duplicate is that feeling of browsing the shelves at the library or bookstore, and picking out a random book on the shelf … just ‘cause. It’s just easier to take a book off the shelf and read the back blurb than it is to wait a couple seconds for a book’s page to load up on the library app, though that loading time probably just means I should upgrade my phone and/or wifi router.

This said, I still try to capture that feeling of randomness when browsing through Overdrive, which is what brought me to Michael Mammay’s Colonyside. It’s actually the third of Mammay’s -side novels, preceded by Planetside and Spaceside. So, y’know, points for a consistent title gimmick, at least.

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As one could expect from those titles, Mammay’s books are pulpy ‘boots and lasers’ sci-fi. They center on Col. Carl Butler, a former space-army officer who gets pulled out of quiet retirement to get sent on various space adventures. As you do. In Colonyside, the daughter of an ultra-rich space-businessman goes missing on an isolated, deadly jungle planet, so Butler gets hired on to investigate.

While Colonyside was the third in the series (and the library didn’t have the first two available for some reason), it’s not completely inaccessible. Most of the book’s action takes place on a single planet, and centers on Butler’s investigation. There are some nods to Butler’s background and what he got up to in previous books (including nuking a hostile alien species of some sort?) but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot.

From the description and the cover, one might think Colonyside to be a mil-sci-fi shoot ‘em up, but Mammay makes things more complicated than that. As while there are indeed a couple of fun action scenes (including giant carnivorous space-apes), most of the book is devoted to Butler’s investigation. He interviews people, chases leads, gets into trouble, and so on. Honestly, the whole thing reminded me more of a noir mystery than anything, down to Butler’s snarky first-person narration and penchant for whiskey. Though it’s also worth noting that Mammay doesn’t go full noir, either; nobody wears a fedora, and there’s not a single femme fatale in the whole book.

The mashup of mil-sci-fi and noir is a fun one, but Colonyside never quite gels as a story. Again, I haven’t read the two books before it, so I may have missed some important backstory or character development for context. But even if I were familiar with the previous books, a lot of the setting and action feels … vaguely generic. Like, I can’t even remember the name of the colony or planet in a book called Colonyside, which … hm. It’s a jungle planet with a toxic atmosphere that forces the colonists to live in big domes, which I’m gonna be nice about and not compare to James Cameron’s Avatar movie. (Also there aren’t any blue catpeople).

The thing is, I never got the reason why the colonists were, uh, colonizing the planet, apart from the fact that it was apparently along some potentially lucrative space-trade routes? It just strikes me that, by adding something like Spice or Unobtanium or some other kind of super-valuable sci-fi MacGuffin resource, Mammay could have easily raised the stakes and given the setting a lot more flavor. As it is, there’s just sort of a vague conflict between people who want to develop the weirdo-deadly jungle planet, and some environmentalists who want to leave it alone. Thankfully, things never get into making fun of Strawman-Greenpeace space-hippies, so that’s nice. Still, the bad guy’s plan– not to mention how Butler foils it, never quite clicks as a thing. Which is a shame, as it makes a big fighty battle against a horde of carnivorous alien apes feel kind of tacked on?

All and all, I enjoyed Colonyside well enough– and I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read the prior two books. But at the same time, some tighter plotting and a more engaging setting could have made the book into a real page-turner, instead of a mildly amusing distraction to read on my lunchbreak. This said, I might at least give the first book, Planetside a read, just to see if there’s some key aspect of the setting that I’ve missed that brings the whole thing together.

That is, if it ever pops up on my library app.

Book Review: Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames

Heavy Metal may be the nerdiest of music genres.

Fantasy imagery has been baked into the genre from the beginning, ranging from ‘picture of a dude with a sword on the cover’ to ‘we wrote a concept album about the Silmarillion.’ However, apart from some spiky heavy metal imagery about vikings and stuff, the influence doesn’t go both ways. After all, it’s a lot easier to write a song about dragons than it is to capture the raw transcendence of a great musical performance in print. (Which isn’t to say it can’t be done, but I digress).

Nicholas Eames tries to fix that.

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Bloody Rose is actually the second book in Eames’ The Band series, which … technically is about multiple different bands, but that’s just quibbling. Bloody Rose is a sequel to Kings of the Wyld, but at the same time it stands well enough on its own merits– a lucky thing too, as Bloody Rose was at the library but the first one wasn’t for whatever reason. Ehem.

In any case, the premise of The Band novels is pretty simple: “what if D&D adventuring parties got treated like rockstars?” See, in Eames’ novels, bands (see what he did there?) of mercenaries roam the land, fighting off monsters and such. In the glorious old days, you’d find your monsters ‘free range,’ but by the time of Bloody Rose, most mercs earn their coin through sold-out arena shows. It’s an interesting equivalent to actual rock shows– and at the same time, Eames makes it a point to highlight how screwed up it is to keep goblins and orcs and such prisoner for bloodsport.

Bloody Rose centers on Tam, the daughter of former adventurers. Like any teenager, she yearns for something bigger than what life has to offer her, so when she’s offered a chance to accompany the famed adventurer Bloody Rose and her band to chronicle their latest (and final) quest, she leaps at the opportunity. A hard-partying coming of age adventure ensues, complete with sex, drugs, and rock & roll. And, y’know, dragonslaying. Bloody Rose has lots of slam-bang action sequences that are really fun to read. Eames has a talent for ass-kicking action scenes, done by well defined characters– guy sets out with something specific in mind, and does exactly that.

It’s all wrapped in semi-goofy fantasy trappings; their manager is a satyr, their tour bus is a giant armored wagon, and so on, and so forth. As if that wasn’t enough, Eames even has made spotify playlist “soundtracks” for his books, which is a nice touch.

The musical influence just isn’t in the structure, either. Bloody Rose is absolutely littered with references to 80’s music, from Prince to Men Without Hats, to a whole bunch I probably missed on my casual read-through. The whole ‘musicians with swords’ gimmick is a tricky one to manage without getting too goofy with it, but Eames thankfully never devolves into the “Hey, look at THIS reference!” level of obnoxiously forced nostalgia like, say, Ready Player One does.

The key difference that keeps Bloody Rose from turning into a reference-fest is that the underlying story works even if you take away all the jokes and Easter eggs. Because, first and foremost, Bloody Rose is a fantasy novel. More specifically, it’s a particular KIND of Fantasy novel: a D&D-esque fantasy adventure about some roving adventurers who wind up having to save the world from a horde of undead monsters led by the obligatory Dark Lord of Darkness™. There’s even a map at the start of the book!  It’s the kind of novel that I read over and over again in different forms as a kid– but made fresh with more modern sensibilities.

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Sticklers might argue it’s a bit too modern, with all the snark and smoking and coffee that one typically doesn’t see in a more ‘historical’ fantasy pastiche. The whole vibe is similar to the Rat Queens comics, or any other number of RPG-inspired fantasy works out there. Like, I want to come up with a name for this– ‘Snarky Sunglasses Fantasy,’ maybe? But that’s a bit clumsy of a term.

In any case, Bloody Rose is a solid, rollicking read, and one I’d suggest for anybody who can appreciate a bloody monster fight. It’s enough to make me want to track down a copy of Kings of the Wyld sometime, and I’ll eagerly look forward to the third book in the series (whenever it comes out).

Book Review: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

I read a book about salt. It’s pretty dry.

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I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t make that joke.

Cheap gags aside, Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is exactly what it says on the cover. It’s a book about the history of salt, along the lines of Kurlansky’s other books such as Paper or Cod. At a glance, this might seem like a pretty dull subject for a book, until one realizes that humanity has used salt for food preservation for literal millennia, across the entire globe. So, y’know, there’s a lot of salt history to cover here.

Kurlansky uses salt as a lens to view world history, with surprising success. Given how essential salt is to food preservation (especially for the vast majority of history in which people didn’t have access to, say, canning or refrigeration), taxation and control of salt often became one of the foundational aspects of world powers, ranging from the Romans to the Han dynasty all the way up to the British empire. Salt: A World History flits from one era and locale to the next, detailing many of the unique ways salt was produced, controlled, and used throughout history. The book is chock full of interesting facts, such as how the Chinese first harnessed natural gas as a fuel for their saltworks thousands of years ago, or the origins of Tabasco sauce. Of course, Kurlansky doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of history, either, as he covers how slavery was essential to salt production in the Americas, or how the British used salt taxes as a way to control colonial India.

And, while Salt: A World History is supposed to be about the world at large, it often comes off as a bit Eurocentric. Then again, given how a lot of other history books have the same problem, perhaps this sort of thing should be expected. There are chapters where Kurlansky gets bogged down with “and here’s how this tiny European village produced salt, and here’s their quaint regional salted food– and now let’s look at another tiny European village …” and so on, and so on. The book’s also littered with various recipes from cookbooks from around the world, which I kinda skimmed over, mostly ‘cause I don’t have much desire to try my hand at making garum or salted herring or whatever.

While Kurlansky occasionally dabbles into the science behind saltmaking, and technological advancements in its production, most of the book’s focus is on historical saltmaking. Which is fine, I guess? Though at the same time there’s plenty of more modern stuff to cover as well. The book gives brief mention to the development of iodized salt, and even briefer mention to the health effects of too much or too little sodium– but Kurlansky doesn’t even touch on the industrialization of food production, and how there’s a ridiculous amount of salt in any processed food. Though apparently Kurlansky also wrote a book about the guy who invented modern frozen food, so maybe he was saving all the good bits for that one?

All and all, Salt: A World History isn’t quite as engrossing or cohesive as Paper: Paging Through History, but it’s also covering an even larger swath of history. And while I may quibble, I still learned quite a lot from the book, so I’ll happily recommend it to anybody with an interest in food history– or just history in general.

Book Review: Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson

I read more than one book a month, I swear.

However, as I get back to … well, I don’t know if I’d call the current state of affairs ‘normal,’ it’s certainly different from the kind of quarantine pattern I was in for … most of the last year and a half.

Still! I find time to read when I can– and this time, I was in for a treat when I found out Tor.com’s ebook of the month was Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, which is the first of his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I’d heard about the series in passing before, but it took a free giveaway to get me into it– partially because I wasn’t even sure where to start with a series that’s got 10 volumes and counting.

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And yeah. Gardens of the Moon is long, dense, and more than a little weird. I mean this as a compliment. The novel (along with the rest of the series, presumably) is an epic fantasy, complete with a map at the beginning of the book. Gardens of the Moon is a grand tale of warring empires and quarreling gods– but despite the high stakes, the book is centered on a whole cast of fascinating characters, each of whom could easily be the protagonist (or antagonist, for that matter) of their own novel. So while there may be great grand conflicts going on in the background, the motives and plans of the characters can be surprisingly personal.

Erikson steeps all of this in rich, descriptive prose, all the better to give the setting a strange and otherworldly feel. Instead of yet another Tolkien retread, Erikson draws inspiration from other fantasy authors. The weirdness of the setting reminded me of authors like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock– especially since one can draw something of a line from Elric of Melnibone to one of the major players in Gardens of the Moon. But I’d probably say that about any character swinging around a soul-eating sword made of darkness. garden 2

The funny thing is, while Gardens of the Moon certainly starts as a departure from the standard fantasy tropes, it kind of veers back into them as it goes on? There’s the aforementioned dark-sword-guy, as well as various hooded assassins, plucky thieves, eccentric wizards, hapless swordsmen, and even an obligatory Dark Lord Waiting to Return™. Erikson twists these tropes in new and unexpected ways, however, which makes the book entertainingly unpredictable.

My only criticism (and a fairly shallow one at that) of Gardens of the Moon is that it’s not going to be for everyone. There’s the dense prose and cavalcade of strange names and terms, for one. Most of it is far better thought out than the typical made-up fantasy vocabulary, given that Erikson is an anthropologist by trade, but at the same time there will probably be multiple points where the reader will have to reference a glossary and/or wiki in order to figure out just what the hell the characters are talking about. Furthermore, the book is more than a little grim, with several particularly gory sequences towards the start of the novel. Though at the same time, Erikson never delves into perverse exploitative glee and sadism as some authors might (lookin’ at you, George R.R. Martin), nor does he use sexual assault as a sleazy way to raise the stakes. And admittedly that last part is a pretty low bar to clear, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Overall, though, Gardens of the Moon is well worth the read, particularly for somebody who’s looking for something different after reading a bunch of more derivative stuff. Just, ah, make sure you’ve got plenty of time to read it, ‘cause honestly it might take you a little while.

Hopefully not as long as it took me, at least.

Book Review: Six Sacred Swords, by Andrew Rowe

I don’t know when I realized that self-published e-books have become the modern equivalent of the dollar paperback bin, but that epiphany made me a lot more open to self-publishing. After all, I love the dollar paperback bin. It also helps that I’ve gotten into the habit of reading e-books on a regular basis. And so, when I stumbled across Andrew Rowe’s Six Sacred Swords being given away for free, I figured I’d check it out.

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And, uh. They can’t all be winners.

Six Sacred Swords is the first in Rowe’s “Weapons and Wielders” series, which in turn is connected to a bunch of other books he’s written. As I’ve gathered, Rowe mainly writes “progression fantasy,” which is a sub-subgenre that focuses on, well, characters who get progressively stronger (See also: Unsouled). Though thankfully Rowe never delves into actual XP totals and level caps, as that would make his books “LitRPG,” which is a different sub-subgenre. It also happens to be a subgenre I personally find to be kind of … trite, at best, and openly problematic at worst. But that’s a post for a different time.

Anyway! Six Sacred Swords is ostensibly supposed to be a jumping-on point for Rowe’s greater body of work. And, uh … it honestly kind of fails at that.

Right off the bat, Six Sacred Swords has some issues. I mean, to begin with, there’s a little author’s note at the beginning of the book where Rowe explains some of the text conventions he’s going to use regarding telepathic dialogue. (It’s, uh, that kind of book). Which … like, I get where he’s coming from, but it honestly comes off as a bit amateurish and unconfident? In comparison, Elizabeth Bear’s Machine uses similar text tricks with italics and brackets and such to delineate different kinds of alien speech, but she just throws it out there, letting the reader figure it out for themselves. Which, uh– comparing Rowe to Bear may be a bit unfair, but that’s gonna be something of a recurring theme in this review.

Anyway, the book centers on a dude named Keras, a mysterious swordsman with a cursed sword, as he … does … stuff? For some reason? The first few chapters in particular come off as a bit clumsy. Keras’ mission and motivations are laid out in blandly generic terms– he’s been randomly teleported to a different continent by “a sorcerer” so he can recruit “a goddess” to … fight some dark lord guy? I think? Rowe might have given some more specific names at some point I missed– but at the same time the little details became fairly irrelevant. Especially early in the book, stuff just kind of … happens, and I found myself not really caring about it. Given the video-gamey nature of the book (Rowe lists Zelda and Final Fantasy among his inspirations), it almost feels like when you’re blundering around in an open-world RPG and stumble across a random sidequest? Which, while it can be an entertaining surprise in a video game, doesn’t work well for a novel.

Keras has a whole mess of backstory (some of which we get in some clunky expository flashback chapters), which is … fine, I guess? It’s just that one of the first major obstacles Keras faces is an illusion of some of his friends and enemies from earlier books in the series. And that’s not even the only flashback-illusion we get in the book, either. The whole thing had me wondering “wait, why should we care about these randos again?” If I’d read the earlier books in the series, I might be more enthusiastic about these cameos, but as it is, it’s kind of like jumping into an Avengers movie without having done the “homework” of reading the comics and watching earlier movies. (“Why does the raccoon have a laser gun again? Who is the prune face man with the bling-glove? How come Sherlock Holmes is a wizard?”)

Eventually, Keras blunders around until he fights (and then makes friends with) a shapeshifting dragon-lady, and then through some mild schenanigans, he comes into possession of the only titular sacred sword in the book. Said sacred sword is also sentient, and also kind of flirty– though thankfully Rowe never gets into the Mike Truk kind of sexytime self-publishing.

The problem is, Rowe spends a bit of time poking fun at video game tropes. For example, Dawn, the sword, is a bit miffed that Keras has yanked her out of her magic rock without collecting the requisite magic amulets first. It’s an amusing bit of comedy (if not exactly Pratchett, to make another wildly unfair comparison) … except that after getting the sword, Keras decides to go dungeon-crawling to get the magic amulets he cheated his way out of needing before, for … reasons? It’s all very arbitrary and aimless– which, well, you’d think a mysterious swordsman on a quest to recruit gods to fight a big dark lord guy would have a little more focus, but hey. Sidequests, man.

What’s most frustrating (apart from the fact that a book called Six Sacred Swords only has one sacred sword in it), is the fact that there are the bones of a fun adventure novel in here. In particular, Rowe has a lot of fun writing the characters. They’re a little tropey– but at the same time, a semi-cursed swordsman, a flirty sentient sword, and a dragoness with a hoard of cheap romance novels all make for a fairly entertaining cast. It’s just that while there’s plenty of action in the book, there really isn’t much in the way of plot. It’s just ‘go here, fight a monster, do a dungeon, have another boss fight, repeat.’ If Keras and co. had more stuff to actually do and/or higher stakes to make the reader care about what happened, Six Sacred Swords would be a much stronger book.

So yeah. Six Sacred Swords was … okay. Like, it’s got its fun bits, and it’s not offensive or anything. But at the same time the book just didn’t hook me to the point where I’d find excuses to read more of it, or give me the burning desire to read the rest of the series. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of confidence. Six Sacred Swords is littered with expository passages that slow the book’s pace to a crawl so Rowe can lay out the exact details of which characters use which weapons and/or flavors of magic. And it’s not even in a Brandon Sanderson-esque “here’s how these unique and strange powers interact, see details in Appendix C” sense, either. With every little detail laid out in such a straightforward matter, Six Sacred Swords lacks the sense of weirdness and wonder that can be found in great fantasy novels. And that, I dare say, was the biggest disappointment.

But hey, at least the book was free, right?

Book Review: Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is an author I’ve been … tangentially aware of for awhile, as I keep on seeing her name get bandied about. It helps that she’s really prolific, having written dozens of novels over the years. Also apparently she married Scott Lynch back in 2016, so good for them?

In any case, I didn’t set out to look for one of Bear’s novels specifically, so much as her book caught my eye while I was browsing the library (or, well, the library app), which is what brings us to her 2020 novel, Machine.

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Machine is the second in Bear’s ‘White Space’ series (make your own joke about typesetting here), but it works perfectly fine as a standalone novel. I didn’t read the first White Space book, Ancestral Night, and once things got going I didn’t have too much trouble following along. Though really, Machine doesn’t draw as much from Bear’s earlier novel as it does from the golden-age-era “Sector General” books by James White. Which, uh, I haven’t read either, but I still was able to follow along.

So, White’s Sector General novels and stories centered on, well, Sector General, a space-hospital that had to deal with all kinds of weird alien patients and their subsequent strange ailments. In turn, Machine is about Core General, a space-hospital that has to deal with all kinds of weird alien patients and their subsequent strange diseases. Which isn’t to say that Machine is derivative– it stands tall as its own work, more of a tribute than a pastiche or a parody.

The ‘space hospital’ gimmick allows for all kinds of new problems and logic puzzles and such. Like, how do you perform surgery on a species of sentient crystals that live on a planet so cold that something as simple as a flashlight would give them a lethal dose of radiation? Or how can human doctors get when the smell of coffee is nauseating to every other sentient species in the galaxy? In that, Machine feels like a golden-age SF novel … except for the fact that the novel’s narrator, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, is decidedly not a golden-age SF protagonist, on account of being, you know. A woman. A gay woman, to boot. Neither of which are the focus of her character, either. Dr. Jens is entertainingly snarky, not to mention subbornly determined and notably observant. There’s a hint of noir-PI to her character, actually– which is entirely intentional on Bear’s part, as Machine is, at heart, a mystery.

The book opens with Dr. Jens’ space-ambulance finding a lost colony ship decidedly where it’s not supposed to be, with its crew in cryogenic stasis, watched over by a half-mad AI and a strange, self-replicating machine (hey, title drop!). Things get even stranger when Jens brings her patients back to Core General, where she’s soon assigned to investigate mysterious acts of sabotage going around the hospital. And, naturally, Jens soon discovers some deep dark secrets connecting it all. As you do.

So yeah. While Machine certainly has a lot of slam-bang space opera action, it’s also interesting in that nobody’s running around with a laser gun, either. (Though, admittedly, there is at least one stompy mecha thing). Dr. Jens is an ex-space-cop, sure– but one of the more harrowing (and interesting) parts centers on disaster triage, because first and foremost, Dr. Jens is a doctor. The medical sequences, even centered on greebly aliens, are written well enough to make me if Bear ever worked in a hospital herself.

All and all, Machine is a blend of oldschool mystery-box sci fi combined with modern day social commentary (and a bit of snark). Bear embraces the fact she’s drawing from a bunch of other sources– but at the same time she makes the book fresh and entertaining. You don’t need to read the first White Space novel to understand Machine, nor do you need to dig into White’s Sector General books either, but at the same time Machine is good enough to make me want to. Or really, I should start reading more of Elizabeth Bear’s work in general, as if her other books are as good as Machine, that means I’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Book Review: The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

Afro-futurism has been A Thing for a while, breaking out into broader culture with the Black Panther movie from a few years back. And, since Sci-Fi and Fantasy are interconnected genres, it makes sense that afro-fantasy (is that the proper term?) has also grown in popularity, with works like Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf and, for this week’s book, Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons.

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I first heard about Evan Winter while perusing various fantasy sci-fi book reviews on Youtube, and pretty much everyone had nothing but good things to say about his debut novel, The Rage of Dragons. That, combined with the fact that Winter self-published the book before getting scooped up into a book deal by Orbit books, got me curious. And here we are!

The Rage of Dragons immediately marks itself as different from ‘standard’ fantasy with its setting, which is inspired by bronze age West Africa instead of Ye Olde Timey Europe With Wizards and Stuff. It takes a little bit to get used to the different setting, particularly with some of the terms Winters tosses around.

The book centers on a young man named Tau, who grows up in a militarized, caste-based theocracy (that also has dragons) that’d pretty much be the villains of any other book. The plot really gets going when Tau’s father is murdered, and so Tau swears he will become the kingdom’s greatest swordsman and so he can get reveeeeeenge on the obligatory evil vizier-guy responsible. It’s kind of interesting that Winters has such an original setting, but more straightforward plot.

This isn’t to say the plot is bad, mind you. Winter is a talented writer, and he does a good job of keeping things moving at a fairly brisk pace. A good chunk of the novel is devoted to Tau’s obsessive training– kind of reminded me of an old Shaw Bros kung fu flick, in that respect. Of course, Tau’s quest for revenge gets complicated once he stumbles into conspiracy and politics. But the various machinations are mostly there to give Tau an excuse to fight.

And he fights a lot. The Rage of Dragons is possibly the sword-fightiest book I’ve ever read. Like, literally, there’s some kind of fight or another every third chapter or so. They’re almost always specifically sword fights, to boot. Though honestly one of my little quibbles about the setting is that the militarized caste-based theocracy is exclusively focused on sword-and-shield soldiers, when spears are easier to make and use in a combined formation, but that’s just me being a nerd.

Winter manages to make each fight unique at least in terms of its stakes, and he’s got some clever business with a demon-infested dream world that allows for even more variations on fighting. It’s almost … too much swordfighting? Which is something I never thought I’d say about a book. Like, after a bit, some of the battles begin to blend together, and honestly Winter could have probably cut out some stuff in the middle without impacting the plot too much.

Still, the near-constant battles give The Rage of Dragons a snappy pace. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, the novel turns into a quick but compelling read. I wouldn’t call The Rage of Dragons a perfect novel by any means, and it may be a bit grim and gory (though not hopelessly grimdark) for some readers, but it’s still all and all pretty fun. If you’re a fan of oldschool swords & sorcery a-la Howard or Lieber, you could do worse than giving The Rage of Dragons a go. And since Orbit picked Winter up for a four-book deal, with the second book out already, I’ll look forward to seeing where this series goes, ‘cause there’s a lot of room to explore the plot and the setting. Should be fun! Or, well, as fun as a book about a revenge-obsessed swordsman can be.

Book Review: Hard Reboot, by Django Wexler

There are countless books about spaceships, or time machines, or dragons, or any other fantastical means of transportation. But there are a scarce few books (at least that I’m aware of) about giant robots. And even most of the ones I have stumbled across have been tie-ins to established media properties like Robotech, Gundam, Battletech, Transformers, et-al. Not much in the way of original stuff.

Which is why I pre-ordered Django Wexler’s Hard Reboot as soon as I heard about it.

hard reboot cover

An original novella, Hard Reboot centers on Zhi Zero, a scrappy mecha pilot, and Kas, the offworlder academic she cons into betting a ludicrous amount of money on a giant robot arena fight. When said bet (and the giant robot arena fight) goes bad, the two must work together to hatch a scheme in order to get out from under the thumb of the crime cartel that rules over the post-apocalyptic remains of old Earth. Oh, and Kas and Zhi fall in love along the way, so bonus. (That last part shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that a queer romance was central to the last Wexler novel I read). Though for the record I should probably note I read this book in May, not June, so no Pride points or whatever.

Wexler pulls off the lesbian romance pretty well (including a rather amusing excuse to stick both women into the cramped cockpit of a giant robot), as well as the big punchy robot fights. In addition to that, however, he also tosses in a bunch of other neat ideas, such as how the war-torn ruins of Earth are plagued by omnipresent malware that can overwhelm unprotected computers (such as Kas’ cybernetic implants) in a matter of seconds. Death by spam. Or, in more serious matters, Wexler also explores some themes of classism and privilege, giving the book a bit more depth than an out and out slugfest would offer.

Speaking of slugfests, though, I dare say that’s my biggest complaint. As I wanted more robot punching. Or really, just more book in general. There’s only two mecha battles in Hard Reboot— which, while that’s two more mecha battles in the oeuvre of most writers you can name, (shoulda thrown in some Gundams, Faulkner), I’m still terribly greedy and want more. There’s easily enough meat to Hard Reboot that Wexler could have expanded it into a novel. But, I suppose that’s just a quirk of the novella format, as they offer more depth than a punchy short-story without expanding to a full novel’s length. Still, while Hard Reboot’s ending wraps everything up pretty well, there’s still enough there that Wexler could revisit the characters and setting for more mecha mayhem.

And if we’re lucky, he will. I’m all for mecha fiction becoming the next ‘big’ thing.