Hidden Huntress, by Danielle L Jensen

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 2, 2015

Summary: Beneath the mountain, the king’s reign of tyranny is absolute; the one troll with the capacity to challenge him is imprisoned for treason. Cécile has escaped the darkness of Trollus, but she learns all too quickly that she is not beyond the reach of the king’s power. Or his manipulation.

Recovered from her injuries, she now lives with her mother in Trianon and graces the opera stage every night. But by day she searches for the witch who has eluded the trolls for five hundred years. Whether she succeeds or fails, the costs to those she cares about will be high.

To find Anushka, she must delve into magic that is both dark and deadly. But the witch is a clever creature. And Cécile might not just be the hunter. She might also be the hunted…

Thoughts: Following up on Danielle Jensen’s hit YA novel, Stolen Songbird, Hidden Huntress continues the story of Cecile and Tristan, and the trolls that influence their lives. Cecile is in Trianon, following in her mother’s social footsteps and building her social and musical career while at the same time searching for Anushka, the woman who cursed the trolls so many centuries ago. Tristan is still trapped in Trollus, reviled by half-bloods and full-bloods alike for his deception, trying to regain influence and uncovering some disturbing truths along the way. The troll king wants freedom, wants Anushka’s curse broken, and Angouleme wants control of the throne. Politics and prophesy come to a head as the layers get peeled back and the mystery comes undone.

It’s interesting to see Cecile and Tristan far apart for the better part of the book. With the two of them being magically bonded, they remain aware of the other’s strong emotions, which influence them in various ways. Tristan’s pain from having iron spikes shoved through his arms affects Cecile’s health and energy. Cecile’s bonded vow to the troll king to find Anushka brings Tristan to desperation, and the two feed off each other in a mostly detrimental way. I actually liked the way this was handled quite a bit, since it was a major inversion of how most psychic bonds are done in fiction, especially between two people in love. Most of the presentation of that bond were actually quite detrimental. The bond doesn’t stop someone from cheating on their partner, for instance, but it does make the partner aware of what’s going on, and the cheater feels the emotional pain of the one they’ve wronged. The death of one is often the death of the other. Often you see such bonds as romantic and wonderful, but here it was shown to have as many or more drawbacks as it has benefits.

The mystery of Anushka was an interesting one. Who is she? Where is she? How has she lived for so long? Cecile’s sections were highly focused on that investigation, and it was fun to see where all the clues went. I started to form my own theories on Anushka’s identity about halfway through the book (and I’m glad to see that I was right in my theory!), but even though I saw that big reveal coming from a distance, the way all the pieces fit together in the end still surprised me now and again, and here were a few times I put things together only a page or two before it was said outright. I love it when mysteries can do that, and I think Jensen’s got a great talent for writing the exact sort of mystery I like best.

In the same vein, I also love how Jensen added sympathy to Anushka by revealing more of her backstory, and from her point of view. Why she did what she did, how she was wronged so many centuries ago, and why she started on her path to revenge. I love shades-of-grey villains like that, ones who do terrible things but still have their reasons for it. Better still, reasons that even her opponents – Cecile, Tristan, and the readers themselves – can understand and to a degree agree to. But rather than taking that to extremes and presenting Anushka as the wronged misunderstood party, she was still very much a villain. I agree with Cecile when she said that Anushka deserved to get revenge for what was done to her, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s a murderer and someone who has punished an entire race for the wrongs of a few individuals. I adored this scene in the novel, where all of that is revealed; it’s probably one of those most powerful and moving scenes in the whole novel.

Also of note, I really liked Cecile’s character development in Hidden Huntress. While she wasn’t exactly a timid little mouse in Stolen Songbird, she’s grown in some very interesting ways, and much of that comes from the situations she’s confronted as the story progressed. Her encounters with blood magic influence her very strongly here, as she twice chooses to do a terrible thing that sickens her in order to get the needed power to do what is expedient rather than take the slower and less certain path. I do like that the story didn’t devolve into some personal battle to stop using blood magic, though, since while that’s an interesting enough journey for a character to take, I feel it would have weakened the rest of the story as a whole, adding a dimension that didn’t need to be added. So Jensen gets much praise from me for being able to walk that balance well.

But incidents like that did seem to prepare Cecile for moments when the right thing to do was also the horrible thing to do. (Spoiler alert: such as sticking a knife between her own mother’s ribs to prevent her mother from killing someone else.) A brilliant ending to a very moving scene, and a fantastic expression of the woman Cecile has become over time. Painful, emotional, and necessary.

The novel ends on a cliffhanger, and what a cliffhanger it is! But it doesn’t leave the main plot thread dangling; that’s wrapped up very nicely, and the cliffhanger ending is much more a consequence of what happened in the novel rather than an attempt to drag the events out further. Between this, and Stolen Songbird itself, it’s easy to see why Jensen is making such waves in the YA genre. Her writing is gorgeous, the plot tight and well-paced, villains you love to hate, and characters who are fantastically unique and not without many the many flaws that make a person a person. Suffice it to say that I’m already looking forward to the next book! This series is a definite stand-out in a saturated genre, rekindling interest and giving me greater respect for the gems that can be found on the YA shelves.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Altdorf: The Forest Knights, by J K Swift

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 21, 2013

Summary: At the end of the thirteenth century, five hundred orphans and second sons are rounded up from villages in the Alpine countryside and sold to the Hospitaller Knights of St John. Trained to serve as Soldiers of Christ, they fight in eastern lands they know nothing about, for a cause they do not understand.

Thomas Schwyzer, released from his vows by the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers, returns to the land of his birth a stranger. Once a leader of men, and captain of the Order’s most famous war galley, he now settles into the simple life of a ferryman. He believes this new role to be God’s reward for years of faithful service fighting the Infidel in Outremer.

Seraina, considered a witch by most, a healer by some, is a young woman with a purpose. A Priestess of the Old Religion, and the last Druid disciple of the Helvetii Celts, she has been gifted by the Great Weave to see what others cannot. Her people need her guidance and protection now more than ever. For Duke Leopold of Habsburg, in his efforts to control the St. Gotthard Pass, builds a great Austrian fortress in Altdorf. Once finished, the Habsburg occupation will be complete, but the atrocities visited upon her people will have just begun.

Thoughts: I’m going to start off by saying this book really wasn’t what I expected. Specifically, because I expected fantasy, since it was part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and, well, it rather lacked in fantastical elements. It was, for is part, pretty decent historical fiction, with vivid descriptions and interesting characters set in medieval Switzerland. And it may well have been alternate history, but I’m not so familiar with that time and place that I can say for sure. But the only elements of fantasy that were really a part of this book were a few small incidents that could have just as easily been hallucination and the vagaries of weather as they could have been magic.

It did, however, get me thinking that sometimes the only difference between fantasy and historical fiction is the setting. Were this to be set in some secondary world, the plot could have remained the same and yet I would have classed it as fantasy. Which is weird, when you think about it.

Altdorf is a relatively quick read, being less than 80,000 words, and with the exception of a large number of missing commas, Swift’s writing style is quite good. The beginning is a little awkward, but after a couple of chapters it’s very easy to fall into the story and get lost in the political games being played. Swift paints a vivid picture of the various settings, drawing the reader into beautiful scenery and medieval buildings.

As in many good stories, there is no clear right or wrong side of the fight; only layers and shades, and that’s what makes this exploration of history so interesting and so realistic. Abuses of power abound on all sides, people have their reasons for doing what they do, and I enjoyed seeing the justifications that everyone used for themselves and their actions. The characters are the high point of the novel, I’d say. There were a couple that didn’t get as much development as I’d hoped, but on the whole, they were quite fleshed-out and unique.

Over all, this reimagining of the William Tell legend is pretty decent, though, unfortunately, one that won’t be passed on to the second round of the SPFBO due to the lack of identifiable fantasy. But for those who enjoy decent historical fiction, then I urge you to give Altdorf a try. It’s currently free for Kindle and Nook, so it’s a no-risk venture if you do want to read it, and the writing is impressive enough to stand out in the self-published crowd. It may not have been entirely to my taste nor what I was hoping for, but I’m still glad to have read it.

The Two of Swords, by K J Parker (parts 1-3)

K J Parker’s The Two of Swords is being released in small chunks over time, chapter by chapter, as serialized fiction. Whether or not this works out in the long run, I can’t say, but I can, at least, comment on it as it goes along. So today I’m bringing my thoughts on the first 3 parts of the story.

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 21, 2015

“Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it’s better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings,” he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, “mostly from force of habit.”

A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no one knows how it will end.

Thoughts: Each chapter is told from a different character’s viewpoint, and chapter 1 follows the story of Teucer, a surprisingly good archer who, along with other young men from his village, has just been called to war. The war has been raging for what seems like forever, and it quickly becomes apparent that Teucer has no idea why. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. They fight the war because they were told to, and they’ve always fought. Nor, it seems, does that army have particularly good organization skills; they’re largely left to get lost along the way and then almost arrested for desertion. But when Teucer’s friends are massacred and only he and another man named Musen are left alive, Teucer really starts to suspect that there’s far more going on here than meets the eye.

I thought Teucer was a pretty good character to start the story off with. He’s not quite a blank slate character, but he’s pretty close to it. He’s fleshed out and has his own personality, but he’s also quite ignorant of a lot of things, he leaves it to others to lead the way, and he asks a lot of questions, so even when they don’t get answered, you’re still left with the feeling that you’re not supposed to know any better than he is regarding what’s happening. And Parker does a good job of conveying the frustration felt when Musen keeps dropping hints and then and then refusing to explain them. Definitely a good intro to the story, filled with plenty of action and tension and the beginnings of what could well be an interesting world.

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Thoughts: This chapter is told from Musen’s perspective rather than Teucer’s, and it’s here that I got a greater understanding of the title of the whole story. A variation of tarot cards plays a fairly large role in Musen’s chapter, part of his faith and his position as a craftsman. Typically in tarot, the Sword arcana represents thoughts, power, and conflict, and twos often represent meetings and the acquisition of information. Each chapter, I noticed, was told from the perspective of a character met by the main character of the previous chapter, who brought them information (and often confusion; I guess the card was reversed in the reading!)

(Why yes, I do know how to read tarot cards…)

So Musen and Teucer have been captured, and Teucer sent away while Musen remains. He gets involved with the army, mostly helping out in stores, but indulging his habits of thieving now and again. Musen becomes more than just the irritating “I know something you don’t know” character we saw in the first chapter. We get to see more of his faith in the gods, and what being a craftsman means to him. He’s still very much a jerk, but he has layers, and there’s a good deal of interest to him. Especially toward the end of this chapter, when he’s confronted by a strange woman who tells him that he ought to get training to be a better thief, and to use that skill for good.

I wasn’t as fond of this chapter as I was of Teucer’s, mostly because this one seemed to range between interesting things and just very boring things. Lots of ups and downs. The ending was fantastic, and I want to know more about what happens to Musen at this thief school, but getting to that scene felt a bit tedious. Still, not bad, and it’s early days yet. Any confusion I felt about events in the first chapter slowly faded, too, as more and more of the world was revealed through the eyes of a much more knowledgeable character, and it makes me appreciate how the first 3 chapters were released at the same time. Had it just been part 1, with part 2 coming out a month later, I can’t say that my interest would have held.

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Thoughts: This part is from Telamon’s perspective, the woman who meets Musen in the previous chapter and influences him to train to be a better thief. We see that she’s in deep when it comes to politics, going where and doing what is needed. This is a good thing for the reader, since we get to see deeper into the inner workings of politics (which, after all, are central to war), and her mission to assassinate an important figure definitely keeps you reading.

But I have to say that I liked this chapter least of all, and it gave me a better appreciation for Musen’s chapter. I’m not sure if this is going to be a trend in future installments of this story, or whether it’s how I read a lot of books and just don’t because more often than not, I get to just move straight on with the story and see most of it in retrospect anyway. Hard to say.

She’s an interesting character, for sure, but for all that you’d expect her position to bring major excitement to the story, it feels rather flat, like she’d rather be doing anything else and thus so does the reader. A good chunk of her section is also about current performances, too. On one hand, this is a good way to introduce someone central to her mission. On the other hand, it felt like those parts needlessly inflated the chapter at times, and I’d rather the chapter skipped to her actually getting on with her mission than talking with people about the performance she just saw.

Personal taste. It didn’t ruin the chapter, but it didn’t do anything to endear itself to me either.

So far, though, I’m impressed with the early parts of the story, and I do want to continue and see where it all leads. It’s more military than I usually like my fantasy, but there’s enough intrigue and a complex world that I’m compelled to keep going, to see which characters get their time in the spotlight and what new tantalizing layers of the world get peeled back.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Thoughts: There are so many glowing reviews of this book that chances are my review isn’t going to tell anyone anything they haven’t already heard elsewhere. This is a very good book. Surprisingly good, in many ways. That isn’t to say I went into this book with low expectations, but at the end, I was still quite impressed with just how enjoyable Uprooted really is.

Agnieszka lives in a village by the Wood, and every 10 years, a wizard in the nearby tower chooses a girl to live with him. 10 years go by, the girl is let go, and never returns home. He always chooses someone of talent, of skill, and Agnieszka expects that it will be her friend Kasia who is chosen. But when she shows signs of magic, the wizard, called the Dragon, chooses her instead. That one upset in everyone’s plans turns into something momentous when the cursed Wood starts acting against humans even more than normal, and Agnieszka finds herself caught up in a battle not for her own life, but for the lives of everyone across multiple kingdoms.

As much as most of the characters are written well, I actually find the characters to be one of the biggest drawbacks this book has. Agnieszka’s all right, as far as main characters go, and she shows a lot of growth as the story goes on. She ends up in a far different place than you’d expect her to when you see her early on. The Dragon, also called Sarkan, probably gets the most development after Agnieszka, and stars alongside her in just about every scene. Problem is, he’s not a nice guy for the most part. He’s the sort of man who’d teach someone to sew by throwing a ripped shirt at them and telling them to get on with it. He’s interesting, for sure, but his abrasive nature made him very hard to read at times, because there were so many occasions where I just wanted to reach through the boundaries of the book and smack him upside the head until he stopped being such a jackass.

Interesting to read about, but not the kind of person I ever want to have to associate with in real life.

But other characters really don’t get much development, and they often come across as character outlines rather than characters in their own right. Kasia plays a role through the entire novel, and the most development she gets is when she’s corrupted. Then she just goes back to being a background character who still manages to be in every major event. Same with the prince, with other wizards and witches… The Queen gets a fair bit of spotlight shone upon her, but pretty much only right at the end. Otherwise, she’s just like everyone else; playing a part that needs to be played for the story to advance.

But the story itself is fantastic, even if the characters aren’t. The level of detail that went into the creation of this fantasy world, pulling a lot of inspiration from European history and myth and melding it wonderfully with fantastical elements, was just beautiful, and Novik has real skill at bringing a scene to vivid life. The history of the Wood, the way magic works, it all comes together so very well to create a brilliant world that’s filled with stories, and I want to read more of them. It was enough to make me overlook the problems I had with the characters. More often than not I was distracted by events in such a way that it was easy to just get caught in the flow and forget that the people I was reading about weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. You know something’s a strength when it makes up for a weakness. Novik’s got some major talent here, and now that I’ve read Uprooted, I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t read anything else by her yet.

Must make an effort to change that.

Every other review has commented on the romantic aspect, and so I feel compelled to as well. For my part, I’m not that fond of romance as a major element, and happily, the romance kept to its place as a side-dish rather than the main course. I couldn’t personally feel for Agniezska and Sarkan’s romance, but that may well be because I just didn’t like Sarkan that much. However, this book is pretty notable for seeming to be geared toward young adults and yet still containing a pretty tasteful sex scene. Most media presentations of YA sexuality show sexual tension and then just stop. Or make eventual sex some big flowery thing that characters debate over for weeks. Here, it’s two interested people getting caught up in the moment, one of them young and the other young in appearance only, and it’s detailed without being exceptionally graphic. So kudos to Novik for walking that fine line; I think that was very well done.

I see no sign that this is anything but a standalone, which is good in that it’s easy to pick up and read without feeling any obligation to continue on, but also bad in that it’s definitely something I want to continue with, were it to become part of a series later on down the road. Tight pacing, a good balance between tense action and calmer discoveries, and a strong compelling plot all combine to make something that’s well worth reading. It’s a quick read in part because you so easily can get caught up in everything, reading for hours until you don’t know where the time went. A fun read, a magical read, and one that’s likely to stay with you for a while.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

GUEST POST and GIVEAWAY: This Craze About The Undead Just Won’t Die, by Marc Turner

Today I’m playing host to Marc Turner, whose novel, When the Heavens Fall, was released just yesterday. He kindly agreed to drop by with a guest post about the current undead craze.

Many years ago I was reading the blog of an SFF literary agent. In a post-Twilight world, she was bemoaning the number of books in her submission pile that were about vampires. Vampires were supposed to be blood-sucking horrors, she said, not something teenage girls should be swooning over. To make it worse, she was starting to see writers do the same thing to werewolves as they’d done to vampires. Where would it all end? Would zombies be the next monsters to be recast as cool, misunderstood, angst-ridden heartthrobs?

You can see why zombies might be something of a hard sell. Some people like a bad guy no matter how bad he is, but I suspect most readers would be put off by a protagonist who kills in cold blood then promptly starts munching on their victim’s raw flesh. Also, unlike zombies, vampires and werewolves retain a degree of humanity. They can kill someone and feel bad about it afterwards, which I’m sure will come as a great comfort to their victims. Zombies, on the other hand, are just mindless creatures whose only thought is where – or who – their next meal is coming from. How could you win and retain a reader’s sympathy for a character like that?

Do zombies have to be mindless, though? Why does the virus (or whatever it is that turns them into undead) have to strip them of their humanity? What if it didn’t? And what if those undead were then forced to fight for a cause they didn’t believe in, maybe even against their own people, or their own gods? Could you empathise with them then?

A while back I spent some time thinking of a tag line for my debut novel, When the Heavens Fall. The one I came up with was ‘Lord of the Rings meets World War Z’. I should note that this is not a zombie apocalypse story, but if you read the book (if? When!) you’ll understand the reference. WtHF tells the story of a mage who steals an artefact that gives him power over the dead, then uses it to resurrect an ancient civilization in order to challenge the Lord of the Dead for control of the underworld. Crucially, the undead in WtHF are not witless monsters governed by hunger. They are people brought back to (un)life against their will, and compelled to serve the man who has raised them.

If you were designing a force to fight for you, you can see why an army of undead would be a formidable proposition. An undead army has unquestioned obedience, does not tire or feel pain. Mark Lawrence uses undead armies in his Broken Empire trilogy, and in his Red Queen’s War trilogy. Tolkien had them in The Lord of the Rings. Then there is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series. When I think of Game of Thrones, I don’t usually think of undead because in Martin’s books it is the people who are the monsters. But even he gives us White Walkers who are able to reanimate the dead as wights.

In a sense, undead are an ‘easy’ enemy – a bit like orcs and goblins. They’re evil. There is no reasoning with them. Put an undead or an orc on the other side to your protagonist, and she won’t have to worry about trivialities such as right and wrong when she gets stuck into them with her sword. The world becomes very black and white. That’s something I wanted to move away from in When the Heavens Fall. One of my viewpoint characters, Romany, starts the book in the same corner – sort of – as the man who raises the undead. She sees the undead not as people, but as tools to be used and discarded. Much the same as she sees everyone else, in fact.

But then she meets one of them – a girl called Danel – and she gets to know her. She unravels some of the mystery behind how Danel and her kinsmen died centuries ago. She learns about Danel’s family, and what has become of them. And that knowledge begins to change her. It is easy for Romany not to care from a distance, but it is harder when she sees first hand how the undead are suffering. Danel certainly does her best to make it harder for her. Before the end of the book, Romany will face a choice: turn her back on the undead and return to her life of comfort and privilege, or risk everything to aid Danel’s people – a people she has helped to condemn to misery and enslavement.

What she chooses to do, and what the consequences of her decision are . . .

Well, you will just have to read the book to find out.

marcturnerMarc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman of Tea and Jeopardy fame, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website.


If that doesn’t have you interested in Marc’s new novel, I don’t know what will. Oh, wait, maybe the chance to win a copy might do the trick!

If you pick a fight with Shroud, Lord of the Dead, you had better ensure your victory, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book giving its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artifact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian who is commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud. The greatest threat to each of their quests lies not in the horror of an undead army but in the risk of betrayal from those closest to them. Each of their decisions comes at a personal cost and will not only affect them, but also determine the fate of their entire empire.

  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday May 31, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday June 01, 2015

Thanks very much to Marc for the guest post, and to Tor for the giveaway!

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: volume 9, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Editor’s website| Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: DISTANT WORLDS, TIME TRAVEL, EPIC ADVENTURE, UNSEEN WONDERS AND MUCH MORE! The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume nine and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents. Previous volumes have included stories from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, Garth Nix, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Bruce Sterling, Adam Robets, Ellen Klages, and many many more.

Thoughts: As with any multi-author anthology, there are stories I enjoy more than others, stories where I feel the quality shines above the rest or where it just appeals to me more. I feel both that this should go without saying, and that I should mention it each time I review such a book, so that people don’t feel that I’m rating every single story 4/5 stars. Some are 5s, some are 3s. That’s the nature of the beast.

But I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that of all the SFF anthologies that I’ve read, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. In part because it seemed this collection really saw which way the winds were blowing and made a fantastic effort to include a huge amount of diversity in its writers and characters. That isn’t to say that there were no straight white males featured here. But there were a large number of stories with either authors or characters who were decidedly nonstraight, nonwhite, or nonmale. And it was wonderful to see, because with such a balance, you really start to get the feeling that fantasy and science fiction can and does encompass the vastness of human potential, and can be applied to and enjoyed by people who aren’t in the dominant social group in the West.

There were just so many amazing stories in here! Paolo Bacigalupi’s Moriabe’s Children is a creepy cautionary tale involving krakens and escaping from danger. I could read Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox half a dozen times over and love it every time. Holly Black’s Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a wonderful exploration of expectations and surprise, and was really entertaining to watch the story unfold. Joe Abercrombie’s Tough Times All Over was fun, though the ending wasn’t that big a surprise once you got into the flow of the narrative. Greg Egan’s Shadow Flock was a technological thriller that I would really love to see expanded, because it was so tight and fast-paced and hinted at a lot going on in the background. Rachel Swirsky’s Grand Jete was a heartbreaking look at whether a transplanted personality is a whole new person or just a continuation of the original person, and at what point those two things differ. Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was horrifying in more ways than one, with its take on racism and the price of magic. Michael Swanwick’s Tawny Petticoats was just hilarious, and gave me a few moments where I had to chuckle aloud while reading. And Theodora Goss’s Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology was insightful and full of thought-provoking content about creation and culture, as can be implied from the title.

And K J Parker’s I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There… My introduction to Parker’s work left me wondering what people saw in his writing, which was good but not so good that I figured it was worth the hype I’d seen it get. However, in his short stories, I’ve found some wonderful things, this most definitely being one of them (it was one of the major highlights of he anthology), and I think again that I really ought to give his novels another try, and that maybe I just started with one that really wasn’t as good as the others anyway.

Those are the best ones in the anthology, I think, and that’s well over half of them. The others were definitely good, too, but now and again there was just one that wasn’t to my taste, so my enjoy of them was an issue of personal preference rather than the quality of the content.

There’s straight-up science fiction, there’s urban fantasy, secondary-world fantasy, horror, just about everything a lover of speculative fiction could ask for in a Best Of anthology. It’s one to keep on the shelves, for sure, and one that I’ll likely revisit in the future so that I can dip my toes back into a dozen or more great stories and worlds. Strahan’s name tends to be associated with some of the best SFF anthologies, such as this one, so from the get-go you expect something that’s full of top-notch stories. He doesn’t fail to deliver on that promise. While I didn’t get introduced to as many new-to-me authors as I have in past anthologies, I have no doubt that I experienced some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

GIVEAWAY WINNER: The Devil’s Only Friend, by Dan Wells

This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Finding out who won the copy of Dan Wells’s The Devil’s Only Friend.

Lisa, from Tenacious Reader!

Just send me your mailing address at bibliotropic.reviews(at)gmail.com, and I’ll forward it to the publisher for shipping.

Thanks to everyone who entered! Don’t forget to enter the other giveaway I currently have going, for 1 of 2 copies of the extended edition of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl!

GIVEAWAY: The Windup Girl (expanded edition) by Paolo Bacigalupi

I always enjoy being able to do giveaways for my readers. Which is why today I’m thrilled to announce that thanks to the good people at Night Shade Books, I have 2 copies of the expanded edition of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl to give away to a couple of lucky US readers!

Anderson Lake is AgriGen’s Calorie Man, sent to work undercover as a factory manager in Thailand while combing Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. Emiko is not human; she is an engineered being, grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in this chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits and forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly-acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

In this brand new edition celebrating the book’s reception into the canon of celebrated modern science fiction, accompanying the text are two novelettes exploring the dystopian world of The Windup Girl, the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Also included is an exclusive Q&A with the author describing his writing process, the political climate into which his debut novel was published, and the future of science fiction.

I read and reviewed the original edition in 2011, and I really enjoyed it, so I’m excited to be able to be able to see the expanded edition, with the extra novelettes and the interview.

So if you’re interested in possibly getting your hands on 1 of 2 copies of this fantastic sci-fi novel, here are the rules:

  • Must have a US mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday May 24, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday May 25, 2015

Bacigalupi will also on tour through multiple US cities these next 2 months, so if you’re near where he’ll be speaking and signing, definitely go see him!

5/26/15: Denver, CO Tattered Cover, reading, Q&A, and signing
5/27/15: Boulder, CO Boulder Bookstore, reading, Q&A, and signing
5/28-29/15: New York, NY, BEA and NYC media
5/30/15: Boston, MA Brookline Booksmith, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/2/15: Chicago, IL Anderson’s Bookshop, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/3/15: Salt Lake City, UT The King’s English, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/4/15: Phoenix, AR Changing Hands Bookstore, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/6-6/7/15: San Francisco, CA, Bay Area Literary Festival
6/6-6/7/15: San Francisco, CA, Borderlands, signing
6/8/15: San Diego, CA Mysterious Galaxy, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/9/15: Los Angeles, Vroman’s, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/10/15: Portland, OR Powell’s Bookstore, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/11/15: Seattle, WA University Book Store, reading, Q&A, and signing
6/18/15: Crested Butte, CO Rumors Coffee and Tea House, reading, Q&A, and signing

GUEST POST: Barbara J Webb on Writing Urban Fantasy in a Secondary World

Barbara J Webb is one of the participants in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Her book, City of Burning Shadows, intrigued me partly because it was an urban fantasy set in a secondary world, and you just don’t see many of those. She was kind enough to write a guest post, talking about just that.

The truth is, I’m in it for the lizards. Everything else grew out of that.

Urban fantasy is a genre close to my heart. Like any imaginative kid, I grew up looking behind doors, under beds, around trees for any sign of magic in the real world. I wanted to open the wardrobe and go to Narnia. I wanted Gaudior the unicorn to swoop down and scoop me up to go save the world.

What is urban fantasy if not an extension of those desires? The hero or heroine moves through a world that looks a lot like ours, except that they can see the cracks, the hidden places, the magic. By the end of the book, they’re invested in the secret world, citizens of a place the rest of us can only dream of.

So if that’s the soul of urban fantasy, why would any author try to write it in a completely different world? Doesn’t that miss the point?

Urban fantasy’s roots are sunk deep in mystery and noir. Mystery is a genre all about details, about making sure the reader has enough information that when you give them the answer, their reaction is, “Of course!” and not, “What?” Noir is a romance of setting. It’s a tattered hero moving through a worn, familiar city and finding darkness in the hidden cracks.

These things are, quite frankly, easier to pull off in a setting familiar to the reader. It’s a challenge to write that kind of story in a second world. When everything starts out strange to the reader, you have to work hard to build the world in a way that they will recognize the things that are supposed to be strange and unusual within the setting verses the elements that are unfamiliar to the reader but everyday common to the characters. And if you fail, it’s not just the worldbuilding that falls apart. It’s the whole story.

All that extra work. Which brings us back around to…why?

The answer: lizards.

The not-really-a-secret secret is that a lot of the time we writers don’t know why we’re writing what we write. Ideas come (from the idea-of-the-month club, mail order from Nantucket, from the idea fairy once you leave him the proper offering of Dickens and Shakespeare) and we put them down on the page, and that’s enough work without trying to figure out their genesis.

I wanted to write about hulking lizard warriors. And bird-people. And people so made of magic that they don’t have a true shape. I couldn’t do that in the real world. So I built a city—a dying city in the desert—and into that city I placed a hero.

Ash is bruised and broken. He’s lost his family, his faith, his purpose. He’s watching his world collapse around him and feels powerless to stop it. But when he’s faced with an old friend in need and a new friend who holds the key to saving Ash’s dying city, he can’t turn away. That one act of humanity drags him into a world of lies and plots and monsters he never imagined.

A secret world.

Once I started writing him, it didn’t take me long to recognize that Ash is a quintessential urban fantasy hero, and City of Burning Shadows was going to be a quintessential urban fantasy story. Which meant—yes, a lot of work. It meant layering the world in fast and deep, so deep that it starts to feel familiar. To build it well enough that when Ash gets to a point of recognizing something isn’t right, the reader is there five seconds ahead of him. Hopefully I pulled it off.

I got my urban fantasy, my noir hero in his broken city. I got the setting I wanted to build with all the magic I wanted to give it, along with the hidden world lurking beneath.

And I got my lizards. In the end, that’s what matters.

barbarajwebbGrowing up in a house that included a library of thousands of science fiction and fantasy books, Barbara J. Webb had no choice but to become a writer herself.

A midwesterner at heart, Barbara has lived in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, but finally settled in only two blocks away from the house in which she was born. She enjoys her small-town life with her husband and her cat, and occasionally dreams of keeping horses. Or even better, unicorns.

Her novel, City of Burning Shadows, can be purchased via Amazon.com or B&N.