A Queen Among Crows by M.S. Linsenmayer, A Review

Steampunk-Alternate History-Magical Fantasy and Talking Crows!

1908-Russia: A scrappy intelligence officer from war torn North America hires herself out as a mercenary in the service of Catherine the Great. Both women are “Queens,” descendants of the Gods possessing certain powers. Eryma communes with crows, and her birds provide reconnaissance and protection. Though bashed, battered and covered in tread marks, she plans to help recover a crash-landed asteroid in exchange for eternal youth. But both Catherine’s court and Eryma’s plans are suffused with intrigue. 

A complex series of events ensues laced with historical distortions, magic, monsters, blood, gore, and a steam punk feel. The plot unfolds gradually, and Eryma’s intentions and history are delivered in bits and pieces, leaving room for reveals and plot twists. And the novel excels in characterization, including Eryma who’s battered but tough and resolute with a goofy sense of humor.

“Other women may have had beauty, class and romance; I had wit, experience, and explosives. The latter, in my experience, solves more problems than romance does.”

Grim, hard-living, violent, and lusty Dame July provides a frenemy-romance, and several acts of savagery. And Eryma’s crow community includes both a corvid genius and a comedian. 

     “So, if I am dead, which religion was correct?” I mused aloud.

“Yog-Slaggoth,” Lois stuck her head through the drapes “The Elder tentacled on is coming to dine on us later. Please be properly shaved, greased, and seasoned by five.”

If you’re after diversity, banter, wordplay, action, and strong female characters, A Queen Among Crows is your book. However, please observe the CLIFF HANGER WARNING sign and don’t tumble off at the end of the novel. Stand alone readers may be disappointed. On the bright side, several additional volumes of this series are already out and available.

  1. Genres: LGBTQ+ Science Fiction, Steampunk Fiction, Alternate History, Fantasy.
  2. Humor: Interlaced
  3. Violence: High
  4. Diversity: High
  5. Sex: Closed Door
  6. Warnings: CLIFF HANGER (but series completed)

Hotel Bars and the Art of Being Conscious by August Delp, A Review

Hotel Bars and the Art of Being Conscious is more of a thought experiment than a novel but a thought experiment well worth reading.

After Daisy drops her teenage son off at boarding school, she’s officially an empty nester. What should she do with the last phase of her life, the phase past child rearing, mate seeking, and striving?

These questions are pretty first world, and Daisy is a highly fortunate first world-type. She played her cards right in the dot.com era and has no economic concerns. So seated comfortably at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, highly cerebral, alone but not lonely Daisy contemplates life.

In the beyond stage, though, a person doesn’t really need anyone else. At that point, all you really need to do is die, and everyone dies alone.

Daisy decides to seek meaning through experience, and the experience she chooses is bar-tending. Sure, bar-tending is social, and she’ll meet all sorts of interesting people, but Daisy is also an alcoholic, highly functional, but an alcoholic none the less. And interestingly, as she dissects her personal meaning of life, she’s entirely untroubled by her alcoholism. Much and varied alcohol is convivially consumed in the course of this tale without ill effect to the point that this book might not suit a reader in recovery.

Through bar-tending, she encounters several characters who aid her search, and the novel includes a subplot revolving around scientist Bianca. The subplot doesn’t add much interest, but the character adds philosophic and scientific street cred to some of the conversations.

But Daisy must defines her meaning of life alone, and the result is interesting, especially for readers traversing middle age and points beyond.

Troll: A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo

In the alternate Finland of Troll: A Love Story, Angel returns to his apartment after a night of drink and thwarted love to find a group of teens tormenting a juvenile troll. Trolls, an accepted denizen of Finland’s forest don’t usually stray into the city. They’re a sort of wild animals, falling somewhere between a cat and a primate on the evolutionary tree. But Angel, falls in love with the fragile beast at first glance, and brings him home, believing he’s rescuing a baby animal. Or is something very different going on?

Troll asks what happens when urban loneliness encounters nature: tooth, claw, and pheromones.

This short novel also explores loneliness, isolation, and transactional sexual maneuvering. The inventive text includes multiple points of view, snippets of poetry and folklore, and excerpts from “scientific articles” about Felipithecus trollius, making for an interesting read. Judging by the beautiful prose, the translation is excellent. Here’s Angel’s description of an unavailable lover:

His eyes are computer icons, expressionless diagrams, with infinite wonders behind them, but only for the elect, those able to log on.

The juxtaposition of myth, science, and modern society, and the tale’s ending twist makes Troll contemporary fantasy at its finest.

Black Hole Apocalypse

Darby Harn’s, A Country of Eternal Light, A Review

Genre: Science fiction, apocalypse

Positives: Stunning prose. Emotional depth.

Negatives: A happy ending isn’t really an option, given the scenario. Difficult main character.

Mairead, traumatized by the loss of her child, her mother’s rapidly progressing dementia, and her father’s relatively recent death is withdrawn and suicidal. And now, a black hole wanders closer to Earth swallowing everything in its path.

At in the novel, I was reminded of the movie Melancholia, in which a rough planet is on course to smash into Earth. And the main character, an acutely depressed basket case, weathers the planetary collision with greater composure than her ‘together’ relatives. Continue reading Black Hole Apocalypse

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed, a Review.

Hugh Hammond of The Hammond Conjecture is an everyman, who thinks with every organ other than his brain. And unfortunately, the fate of Europe lies in his hands.

He wakes in an isolation ward with no recollection of his past. Encouraged to dredge up memories by writing, the confused man diligently types away. But the emerging memories recount an impossible history: WWII ended by 1941, Europe stultifies under Nazi rule, and Britain continues to appease.

While he languishes in home for incurables and relives his spy years, the mystery of how Hammond bounced from 1970 to 1980 is slowly revealed…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Hammond’s decade-old memories of his spy career are beyond embarrassing. He’s an Austin Powers, saddled with an early 1970s attitude toward woman and the raging ego of a young man, but possessing low self-esteem and a talent for making the wrong choice. Every. Single. Time. Not dissimilar to my character, Martin. Fortunately for the reader, many of Hammond’s choices and much of the dialogue are quietly hilarious.

And the alternate Europe in which the spy-action occurs is complex, believable and depicted in detail. The author does an excellent job of describing the ramifications of an early treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, clear even to a reader with no detailed knowledge of WWII.

This novel will interest alternate fiction and time travel readers, as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The ending is left open, suggesting a sequel is on its way. And I appreciated the professional-level editing and formatting.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Branches, by Adam Peter Johnson – a Review.

Branches, an alternative universe novel rings frightfully true, a precision hit on a raw nerve. 

Still reeling from the loss of his mother, a man dives into the social media black hole surrounding an unnamed right wing president. Several of my Facebook acquaintances went this route. And at times, I worried for their mental health. Several of the negative reviews of this novel complain about the character’s political angst. But his obsession is warranted. In his alternate timeline, the worst has happened and the US has descended into storm-trouper, police-state, racial-cleansing fascism.

Then, a shadowy company extends a bizarre offer, allowing him to shift timelines. Can he find peace in the multiverse?

What follows is a series of alternate nows and near-pasts; so more alternate universe than alternate history. And the author handles these subtle and not so subtle shifts cleverly. The plot never lost me, and I found the prose entertainingly of the moment. Most of the character’s heavy-lifting is psychological, but the novel includes plenty of action. 

Certain readers, including avid Trump supporters, social conservatives, and racists, will struggle with this novel. Those readers might want to lay aside their prejudices or give this book a miss. 

But I highly recommend this book to those of you that can lay aside politics and the other factors that divide society. Because this book is not actually about those issues. It’s about a more insidious problem in our society. It’s about becoming lost in adulthood and missing one’s own life. The last five years, packed with hatred and anxiety, have given many excuses to lose themselves. I hope this novel gives some the insight to get back on track.

This indie published first novel appears professionally edited and formatted. And the prose is high quality. 

Descendants of Power, The One Percent on Mars

In P.N. Shafa’s near future dystopia Descendants of Power, the 1% flee to Mars, leaving behind a ravaged climate and starving post-apocalyptic survivors.

But on Mars, the colonists continue with business as usual, i.e. predatory capitalism, the usual “how much can I get for myself” mentality. And turns out, that ethos doesn’t work well in an incredibly fragile situation like living in an oxygen bubble and eating off a slim range of genetically modified foodstuffs. Go figure. Continue reading Descendants of Power, The One Percent on Mars

Time Travel Via Sea Anemone! Tentacle by Rita Indiana, A Review.

Pros: Fantastic world building. Interesting Dominican Republican setting complete with sea anemones and pirates. Rich prose. Excellent portrayals of unpleasant people in desperate circumstances.

Cons: Interesting and well-crafted but unlikeable characters who don’t grow. Disappointing ending.

 

 

 

Time travel by sea anemone powered by Olokun, the great spirit who knows what lies on the ocean floor: what’s not to like about a novel based on this premise? And initially, I was quite excited to read Tentacle by Rita Indiana. Because young Achilde is more than a transsexual maid living in a plague ridden Dominican Republic surrounded by a sludge-brown sea. He’s the chosen one, heir to oceanic power, the only one able to harness the power of a sea anemone electroencephalogram and travel back in time to save his homeland.

But what Achilde really wants is a sex-change operation, not a problem in of itself, but part of the problem with this novel; the principal characters are too busy chasing self-interest (drugs, desire, public acclaim) to take right action. And they don’t grow during the novel. I’d even categorise the other main character, failed artist Argenis, as a passive-aggressive narcissist, brilliantly portrayed, but being inside his mind while he self-destructs becomes a chore. Sure, both these characters haven’t had the best lives, even so, a touch more selflessness while they skate back and forth in time. would have been appreciated. Admittedly, the author convincingly conveys her character’s humanity but the type of humanity that will drive us to extinction. And I’m still hoping we’ll redeem ourselves.

The book ends very abruptly and on a multilevel betrayal. Hoping Olokun would whip a tentacle from the ocean and drag the protagonist to a watery grave, I flipped the page, only to encountered an advertisement. Disoriented, I thought, “how strange, the publisher inserting an advertisement into a book mid-chapter.” But sadly, our time tripping protagonist wouldn’t be reconsidering his choices. I would be reading an advertisement.

The ad, however, was of interest. Tentacle’s publisher, And Other Stories, sells subscriptions to offset the cost of releasing innovative literature. And while Tentacle may not tick all my literary boxes, I’d love to read more wildly creative literature from all over the world. If you agree, check out the And Other Stories website. Hopefully, this group will navigate COVID and continue to produce mind-blowing weirdness like time travel by sea anemone.

Wake Up And Dream by Ian R. MacLeod, a Review

 

Bottom line: Wake Up And Dream is a terrific alternate history read. Fascinating, haunting, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

The career of has-been actor, Clark Gable, didn’t make the jump from the talkies to the “feelies.” Now he’s a two bit private eye specializing in matrimonial cases, sniffing pillow cases and peering under beds. But a fresh case drags Clark back into acting and to the dark side of the technology underlying the feelies, the mysterious Bechmeir Field.

The average citizen craves to escape the Great Depression in the dream of the feelies. But Clark’s skin crawls whenever he’s in the cinema. And the technology may have other uses in politics and advertising capable of drifting the United States closer toward fascism and collusion with Nazis. Can Clark Gable, unlicensed private eye, solve the case, save his own life, and prevent a socio-political disaster?

Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up And Dream is alternate history at its finest. The twisting plot combines hard-boiled private eye tropes, an imaginative, speculative technology, Hollywood angst, history, and social commentary. The stellar writing expertly captures the beauty and grit of Depression era Los Angeles.

        Peg Entwistle (Wikipedia)

In my last review, I criticized “celebrity cameos” in alternate history as disruptive and self-indulgent. But while players from Hollywood’s Golden Age appear in Wake Up And Dream, the celebrity characters are integral to the plot or provide plot-relevant information, so the scenes in which they’re featured don’t read as forced. And since the era is so remote, their fame is remote. Sometimes very remote, so a reader might not even recognize a celebrity. For instance, I’d never heard of Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the famous Hollywood sign.

People, when they first came here from back east to make movies, they said it was because of the quality of the light. But what they didn’t talk about was the quality of the darkness. I mean, whatever’s lurking underneath…

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, A Review

1968 London: the careers of four talented, young musicians are floundering on the rocks. Recognizing their promise, a visionary manager assembles them into a dream band, Utopia Avenue. Will they make it to the top? Or will the fates intervene?

Pros: Crossover from the author’s other novels. Vivid portrayal of the era.

Possible Cons: Mostly soap opera with a secondary speculative fiction element. Disruptive celebrity cameos.

I’ve been a David Mitchell fan for some years and was pleased to run across this novel because the tale overlaps in setting so much with my own novel Harmony Lost. Both describe the travails of a band struggling to make it to the big time, despite demonic possession, personal difficulties, and the music industry’s corruption.

The rickety van, a disastrous first gig at a university, a predatory pass at the female band member — familiar elements cropped up at every turn. Of course, neither David Mitchell nor I are old enough to have experienced 1968 as young adults and were probably mining the same source material. And there are only so many stories one can tell about a rock band coming together.

But I avoided using genuine people in Harmony Lost. First, my interest in historical accuracy is tenuous. And I didn’t want to crowd anybody with my guess of what ‘so and so’ said or did, since some of the relevant people are alive, or if deceased, have surviving relatives and fans. So I set Harmony Lost in an alternate London of 1970, populated by an alternate group of pop stars.

Utopia Avenue, on the other hand, includes cameo appearances by several big-name stars of the late sixties. In each case, the author announced the walk-ons with two repetitions of the star’s full name, and this peculiar repetition bounced me out of the story. And sometimes, I didn’t recognize the famous name and was thrown out of the story while consulting Wikipedia. Also, the star-studded interludes weren’t pertinent to the plot. Most discussed issues of the day or other matters that contributed somewhat to world building. However, I don’t think these episodes were worth disrupting the story’s flow.

I did very much enjoy the weaving-in of elements from several other David Mitchell books. A speculative fiction subplot trickles over from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and as a speculative fiction reader, I found this plot element by far the most intriguing.

A woman who first appeared in Cloud Atlas captures the heart of one band member. And mostly, Utopia Avenue is a soap opera, crowded with tumultuous love affairs and deaths. One character, thick as a brick and impulsive Dean, creates a fair share of the drama. I found myself skimming the details of Dean’s poor life choices. And I have to say, the novel jumped a shark for me at the second death.

I also page flipped through some descriptions of gigs, drug excursions, and irrelevant chats with famous people, particularly following the resolution of the speculative fiction plot element.

So while I wouldn’t mind a rewrite with more Jasper (perhaps also more Elf, Levon and Mecca) but less Dean. But many readers have and will find the entire book enthralling as written.