Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder starts out flat out hard to understand. Not the writing, or the language, or even the plot (though it does take a while to fully unfold). It's the world itself that took me way too long to comprehend. The setting is a sort of blend of science fiction and steampunk and takes place on a planet called Virga. Maybe 'planet' is the wrong word. The description on Amazon defines Virga as a "planet-sized balloon", which is about right now that I think about it. But that fact was never understood, at least not by me. I figured Virga for a gas planet because there is no surface, but, to confuse things a bit more, there are artificial suns within the 'balloon'. People travel about inside this balloon using ships armed with rockets and protected by hosts of flying motorbikes. At one point, they travel to the outer (inside) edge, but can go no further. There is a sentient, all-powerful race outside the balloon, and presumably they're the ones who keep the people inside (?). Again, confusing.

All that strangeness aside, Sun of Suns is a surprisingly entertaining novel: Hayden Griffin wants revenge on the man responsible for killing his parents and forcing the subjugation of his nation. Admiral Chaison Fanning of Slipstream is that man. But as Hayden gets close to the admiral, intent on killing him and selling his own life in the process if necessary, he comes to learn of a threat more dangerous than Slipstream that the admiral intends to meet head on. Forced to join Fanning's crew from circumstance if nothing else, Hayden finds himself growing attached to certain Slipstream crewmembers and unwilling to carry out his original mission.

Schroeder has quite the imagination when it comes to world-building. I only wish he'd stopped for a moment to explain it a little better. While the novel does meander a bit—the main plot points are not revealed until the reader is well into it—a riotous, action-packed ship battle at the end almost makes the whole experience worth it. Add Sun of Suns to your reading list. It’s a five book series, so plenty of time for explanations of how things work later on.

Reiffen's Choice by S.C. Butler

Reiffen's Choice by S.C. Butler is a story that reminded me most of a cross between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. The former because the cast of characters includes a young girl and two young boys, and the latter because the world of Reiffen's Choice is very much traditional fantasy though with some flavoring of its own.

The young adults in this tale are Reiffen, the exiled heir to the throne, Avender, a commoner who is also Reiffen's friend, and Ferris, the headstrong girl who rounds out our Harry Potter-like trio. This edition of the novel was published in 2007, so I don't think I'm being unfair in making this comparison.

Butler distinguishes himself by adding in a Shaper by the name of Redburr, who most often appears as a bear but also as a bat, an eagle, and even a man. Presumably he can take any shape, though these are the ones he makes use of in this first novel of what is a three book series. Also, there is Nolo, a Dwarf who is a bit unlike the usual dwarves we are all familiar with. Dwarves in Butler's novel are limited in number; there are only eight hundred or so, and no women. Their skin is as hard (or harder) then rock and they are completely immune to the effects of magic.

The villains in this tale are three wizards determined to use Reiffen to gain the throne that Reiffen himself will never possess. To this end, they kidnap the boy, setting off a chain of events that culminates in Avender, Ferris, Redburr, and Nolo setting off to rescue him. While Reiffen is tempted by the three wizards, those four make the arduous journey to the wizards' stronghold. Some of the story is taken up with this journey; it's easy to see why tales of this nature fell out of favor as once you've read enough of these sorts of stories, well, the traveling and discovering new places wears thin. Still, while there is definitely some text that could have been cut, it all flows along well enough.

The novel is billed as "YA". While I would recommend it as such, I also didn't think it was only for young adult readers. It's a good story with some interesting characters and ideas. If you're looking for a three book series that has hints of the traditional fantasy many of us grew up with, I'd give Reiffen's Choice a look.

Book Review: The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove

The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove is an alternate history tale in which the Constitution of the United States was never written. The resulting fallout is that the "united states" become the "disunited states," with each state going down its own road. Advances in society, technology, etc. all occur at different rates within each state. Some still have slavery. Others have achieved the relative amount of equality we enjoy ourselves. Still others have reversed the white/black dichotomy altogether; blacks are masters over whites. War amongst the states is frequent. California is one of the most advanced and powerful of the states; no one messes with them.

Beckie lives in this alternate world. Justin, a Crosstime Traffic traveler, is from our timeline, but he comes to this variation of the U.S. with his mother on a sort of educational fieldtrip. Justin and Beckie, both teenagers, meet and hit it off. Chaos ensues as they find themselves mixed up in an escalating war between Ohio and Virginia. For Beckie, it's about surviving so she can return to her family in California. For Justin, it's about getting back to his own timeline.

The Disunited States of America flows along well enough, but for all the premise of travel between alternate dimensions, not much is really done with it. Justin arrives, he has some adventures, he leaves. But it's a quick read, which explains why I finished this novel at all (alternate history is not my usual thing) despite there not really being a lot of science fiction meat to chew on. I almost put it down, but at that point I was so close to the end I went ahead and pushed through.

The Disunited States of America is the fourth book in Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series. If you are looking to start with this series, perhaps you’d be better served by starting with book one and going on from there.

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold follows the basic Tarzan theme: a feral child living amongst the animals (in this case, wolves) is discovered by an expedition and brought back to civilization. The child, a young woman known by wolves as Firekeeper but by humans as Blysse, is thought to be the daughter of the king's brother. Turns out the king has no heirs. As a monarch approaching the end of his years, he is pressured by various parties to make a selection from amongst his eligible relatives. If he doesn't choose, civil war is a very real possibility. The return of Lady Blysse throws a wrench into the plans of those factions and individuals vying for the king's favor as she quickly makes an impression upon the elder statesman.

The story would seem somewhat predictable from there, except it isn't. Not that it is a terribly complicated plot, but Lady Blysse/Firekeeper does not simply step into the role of the king's heir. In fact, when offered the responsibility, she turns it down. From that point on, the suspense is raised a notch as the reader is left hanging nearly until the end before we learn who the king has selected. It may very well be Blysse; everyone assumes it is. I won't ruin it if you decide to pick this one up, but let's just say the not knowing creates some contention amongst otherwise already strained relations.

The writing in Through Wolf's Eyes is excellent. At times suspenseful, funny, and intriguing, it is only because the story unfolds so very slowly at times that keeps me from giving this novel a stellar review. It is most definitely a competent, well-told, and interesting story. But it really lags about midway through as Lindskold spends too much time developing relationships between Blysse/Firekeeper and various other members of the royal household. It reminded me mostly of a Bujold story: interesting characters, a well-developed world, and a smooth, easy-to-read story. But it takes some time before the place Lindskold is leading us to become apparent.

Don’t let the cover fool you, either. It’s dated and could use a refresh, but it’s in no way an indication of the quality of writing or storytelling inside.

There is some history or backstory that Lindskold discusses at times but doesn't explore too thoroughly: long ago, "high" animals coexisted with humans. Blysse brings two such high animals with her in the forms of Blind Seer, a very large wolf, and Elation, a peregrine falcon also larger than the norm. Blysse can communicate with both animals, and they can communicate back. It is something people do not question nor challenge. They just accept it as the sign of madness they believe it is. Lindskold could have gone further with these animals in terms of their prior relationship with humans and possibly she does in a later novel.

Through Wolf's Eyes is the first book in a series that spans at least five novels.

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell is the first novel of Buckell's set in his Caribbean-style sci-fi world. Buckell himself is a native of that region of the world, though he now resides in landlocked Ohio. You can follow the author on his blog. Buckell contributed a Pepper story to the Seeds of Change anthology, of which I received an advanced reader copy and reviewed. I also previously reviewed Sly Mongoose, which is the third novel (and I believe last as the publisher decided to not move forward with anymore novels set in this world) in Buckell's Caribbean sci-fi series.

Events in Crystal Rain are such that Caribbean natives come to a far-off world to colonize and are then trapped there when the wormhole that they arrived through is closed. It's either that or face annihilation from an alien enemy. The mechanism which closes the wormhole also renders inert most technology, so the world is set back into a traditional Caribbean way of life, though there are elements of steampunk in the form of steam-powered watercraft and airships.

Much of the story told in Crystal Rain revolves around John deBrun, a man who arrived on the planet under mysterious circumstances and who doesn't remember anything prior to his arrival. That was some twenty years ago. As the novel opens, another stranger to this world arrives, a cyborg named Pepper. Genetically modified to fight the ancient alien enemy which forced them to close the wormhole those hundreds of years ago, Pepper has come looking for John. John soon learns that Pepper holds the key to his past, and that their destinies are woven together whether John deBrun likes it or not.

Crystal Rain is an enjoyable read, but I couldn't help but feel it was missing something. The character of John deBrun is hard to pin down; he's interesting, but ultimately feels flat. The same goes for many of the other characters with the exception of Pepper who was the most interesting of all. Sadly, the novel is really about John, though Pepper gets his fair share of narration.

The title of the novel seemed a bit misplaced to me. It refers to snow, which the people of the novel experience only when an expedition ventures far north. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning here which I missed.

Overall, Crystal Rain is a good read, but I'm not overly compelled to go read Ragamuffin, the next in the series. I did, however, enjoy reading Sly Mongoose, which is a story that centers around Pepper.

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