Sci-Fi November

Sci-Fi Month, an event celebrating science fiction hosted by Oh the Books! and Rinn Reads, officially begins today! I participated in the first Sci-Fi Month last year and had a lot of fun so I’m going to once again. Although I love science fiction, I tend to read more fantasy so I found it was a great way to get myself to read some SF books I’d been planning to read for awhile. Last year I finally picked up Warchild by Karin Lowachee and discovered a new favorite book, and this frequently happens when I try reading more science fiction. It’s how I came to love books like Primary Inversion and The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro, The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, and the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m hoping to discover more great science fiction through Sci-Fi November once again.

This year there are almost 90 participants so there will be all kinds of discussions and reviews to read, and I’m sure that will also help with discovering more great science fiction! There is a schedule available if you want to see what you can look forward to.

I added a few reviews to the schedule, but I haven’t started reading any of these books yet and this is subject to change. I moved recently and am still not done unpacking, and I’ve had trouble concentrating on reading lately since I feel like I should be unpacking instead of reading so I might just have to see how it goes! Like last year, I would like to discuss books that I don’t see reviewed very often including at least one book by a new-to-me author and at least one book that isn’t a new release. I have myself tentatively scheduled to review Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress, Burndive by Karin Lowachee, and Kesrith by C. J. Cherryh, but this may change since I also have been considering other books such as Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee and City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. However, there will definitely be guest posts by Karina Sumner-Smith, whose debut novel Radiant I found very unique and well-written, and Martha Wells, whose Raksura books are wonderful!

Steles of the Sky is the conclusion to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, following Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars. Though this story has been completed, there will be a second trilogy of books set in this world with the first book scheduled for release in 2017, The Lotus Kingdoms.

For this mini-review, I am not going to write about the plot. Instead, here is the book description with my thoughts on the book below.

Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy Eternal Sky trilogy in Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, legitimate heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers. But Temur’s enemies are not idle; the leader of the Nameless Assassins, who has shattered the peace of the Steppe, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. All the world seems to be on fire, and who knows if even the beloved son of the Eternal Sky can save it?

Steles of the Sky was one of my most anticipated books of 2014 since the first two books in the Eternal Sky trilogy, Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, are phenomenal. Both are beautifully written with a variety of well-developed characters, and the series is set in a vividly drawn world inspired by Central Asia. Range of Ghosts set the stage by introducing the world and characters, largely through the stories of Temur and Samarkar. In Shattered Pillars, the story expanded to focus on more individual characters, but I felt that having this view of different events and character motivations made it a better book despite some slower pacing. I thought this middle volume maintained the right balance between too much detail and too little—scenes were vivid and easy to visualize without bogging down the story.

Unfortunately, I felt that Steles of the Sky failed in this respect and was bogged down by too many scenes that added nothing to the story other than additional pages. It does contain a decent, satisfying end to the trilogy; however, I had to read nearly as many pages as those within the first book alone to get to the compelling parts. Steles of the Sky is about 100 pages longer than each of the first two books in the trilogy, and it really did not need the extra length. The beginning and middle mostly focused on traveling and getting the different characters in place for the end without many engaging scenes, making a significant portion of the book quite dull. Though there is still some lovely writing, it’s missing the strong character development or sparkling dialogue that could have kept me invested in the story despite its slow forward momentum as it made its way toward a conclusion. Instead, I ended up setting this book aside a couple of times to read other books because I had such difficulty forcing myself to slog through all those pages. Even though it does greatly improve as it nears the end, the pacing is still awkward since the finale picks up the pace too much and is hastily wrapped up.

I have very conflicted feelings about Steles of the Sky, and it was difficult for me to write this review since I do not want to discourage anyone from reading the series, particularly considering that my opinion on the final book does not seem to be a common one. The first two books in the Eternal Sky trilogy were both on my Hugo ballot since I thought they were excellent for myriad reasons—the gorgeous writing, the well-written characters, the world, the magic, and the way it subverted some common fantasy tropes including the damsel in distress and magic vs. science. The final book does contain much of what I loved about the first two, but it was poorly paced and I found it quite frustrating that there were not as many pages dedicated to the good parts of the story as the dull ones.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Steles of the Sky

Other Reviews of Steles of the Sky:

Reviews of the Previous Eternal Sky Books:

  1. Range of Ghosts
  2. Shattered Pillars


The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (often unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This week brought four books, one of which I’m particularly excited to read! I’ve already talked about one of these before, but in case you missed it, here’s where you can find more information on it:

Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool (Blackthorn & Grim #1) by Juliet Marillier

This first book in a new adult fantasy series is currently available in Australia and will be released in the US on November 4 (hardcover, ebook). The author’s website has an excerpt from Dreamer’s Pool.

I love the sound of this one and have been hearing it’s excellent. There is a giveaway for a copy of this book currently running on Goodreads, but it’s closing on October 28 so there’s not much time left to enter! This one is open in several countries.


Award-winning author Juliet Marillier “weaves magic, mythology, and folklore into every sentence on the page” (The Book Smugglers). Now she begins an all-new and enchanting series that will transport readers to a magical vision of ancient Ireland…

In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.

Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.

With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven #1) by Sam Sykes

This thick fantasy novel will be available in the US on January 27, 2015 (trade paperback, ebook*, audiobook) and in the UK on October 30, 2014 (paperback, ebook). An excerpt from The City Stained Red is available on the author’s website.

* Edited on 11/13/14 to add: The ebook was released earlier than the print version and is now available!


The first book in a new trilogy from the acclaimed author of the Aeon’s Gate series.

A long-exiled living god arises.
A city begins to break apart at the seams.

Lenk and his battle-scarred companions have come to Cier’Djaal in search of Miron Evanhands, a wealthy priest who contracted them to eradicate demons — and then vanished before paying for the job.

But hunting Miron down might be tougher than even these weary adventurers can handle as two unstoppable religious armies move towards all-out war, tensions rise within the capital’s cultural melting pot, and demons begin to pour from the shadows…

And Khoth Kapira, the long-banished living god, has seen his chance to return and regain dominion over the world.

Now all that prevents the city from tearing itself apart in carnage are Lenk, Kataria, a savage human-hating warrior, Denaos, a dangerous rogue, Asper, a healer priestess, Dreadaeleon, a young wizard, and Gariath, one of the last of the dragonmen.

The Tree of Water by Elizabeth Haydon

The Tree of Water (The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme #4) by Elizabeth Haydon

This fantasy novel for young readers will be released on October 28 (hardcover, ebook). An excerpt from The Tree of Water is available on

The previous books in the series are as follows:

  1. The Floating Island
  2. The Thief Queen’s Daughter
  3. The Dragon’s Lair

The epic voyages continue in The Tree of Water, the fourth adventure in bestselling author Elizabeth Haydon’s acclaimed fantasy series for young readers, The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme.

As Royal Reporter of the land of Serendair, it is the duty of young Charles Magnus “Ven” Polypheme to travel the world and seek out magic hiding in plain sight. But Ven needs to escape the clutches of the nefarious Thief Queen, ruler of the Gated City, whose minions are hunting for him. His friend, the merrow Amariel, has the perfect solution to his dilemma: Ven and Char will join her to explore the world beneath the sea.

As they journey through the sea, Ven finds himself surrounded by wonders greater than he could have ever imagined. But the beauty of the ocean is more than matched by the dangers lurking within its depths, and Ven and his friends soon realize that in order to save thousands of innocent lives, they may have to sacrifice their own. For everything in the ocean needs to eat…

“A delightful epic fantasy that will attract a readership both older and younger than the target audience.” —Booklist (starred review) on The Floating Island

Eight books by award-winning fantasy author Robin McKinley will be published as ebooks on November 18. These books include her Newbery Award-winning book The Hero and the Crown, as well as her other beloved young adult fantasies Beauty and Rose Daughter. Also included is Sunshine, recipient of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature—and I’m delighted to have an excerpt from this novel to share with you today to celebrate its upcoming ebook release!

About Sunshine

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature: In a world where darkness threatens, there is Sunshine . . .

Although it had been mostly deserted since the Voodoo Wars, there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years. Rae Seddon, nicknamed Sunshine, head baker at her family’s busy and popular café in downtown New Arcadia, needed a place to get away from all the noise and confusion-of the clientele and her family. Just for a few hours. Just to be able to hear herself think.

She knew about the Others, of course. Everyone did. And several of her family’s best regular customers were from SOF-Special Other Forces-which had been created to deal with the threat and the danger of the Others.

She drove out to her family’s old lakeside cabin and sat on the porch, swinging her feet and enjoying the silence and the silver moonlight on the water.

She never heard them coming. Of course, you don’t when they’re vampires.

When I was ten the Voodoo Wars started. They were of course nothing about voodoo, but they were about a lot of bad stuff, and some of the worst of them in our area happened around the lake. A lot of the cabins got burned down or leveled one way or another, and there were a few places around the lake where you still didn’t go if you didn’t want to have bad dreams or worse for months afterward. Mostly because of those bad spots (although also because there simply weren’t as many people to have vacation homes anywhere any more) after the Wars were over and most of the mess cleared up, the lake never really caught on again. The wilderness was taking over—which was a good thing because it meant that it could. There were a lot of places now where nothing was ever going to grow again.

It was pretty funny really, the only people who ever went out there regularly were the Supergreens, to see how the wilderness was getting on, and if as the urban populations of things like raccoons and foxes and rabbits and deer moved back out of town again, they started to look and behave like raccoons and foxes and rabbits and deer had used to look and behave. Supergreens also counted things like osprey and pine marten and some weird marsh grass that was another endangered species although not so interesting to look at, none of which seemed to care about bad human magic, or maybe the bad spots didn’t give ospreys and pine martens and marsh grass bad dreams. I went out there occasionally with Mel—we saw ospreys pretty often and pine martens once or twice, but all marsh grass looks like all other marsh grass to me—but I hadn’t been there after dark since I was a kid.

The road that went to what had been my parents’ cabin was passable, if only just. I got out there and went and sat on the porch and looked at the lake. My parents’ cabin was the only one still standing in this area, possibly because it had belonged to my father, whose name meant something even during the Voodoo Wars. There was a bad spot off to the east, but it was far enough away not to trouble me, though I could feel it was far enough away not to trouble me, though I could feel it was there.

I sat on the sagging porch, swinging my legs and feeling the troubles of the day draining out of me like water. The lake was beautiful: almost flat calm, the gentlest lapping against the shore, and silver with moonlight. I’d had many good times here: first with my parents, when they were still happy together, and later on with my gran. As I sat there I began to feel that if I sat there long enough I could get to the bottom of what was making me so cranky lately, find out if it was anything worse than poor-quality flour and a somewhat errant little brother.

I never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.


I lay there, breathing, listening to my heart race, but feeling this weird numb composure. We were still by the lake. From where I half-lay I could see it through the trees. It was still a beautiful serene moonlit evening.

“Do we take her over immediately?” This was the one who had noticed I was awake. It was a little apart from the others, and was sitting up straight on a tree stump or a rock—I couldn’t see which—as if keeping watch.

“Yeah. Bo says so. But he says we have to dress her up first.” This one sounded as if it was in charge. Maybe it was the Breather.

“Dress her up? What is this, a party?”

“I thought we had the party while …” said a third one. Several of them laughed. Their laughter made the hair on my arms stand on end. I couldn’t distinguish any individual shapes but that of the watcher. I couldn’t see how many of them there were. I thought I was listening to male voices but I wasn’t sure. That’s how weird sucker voices are.

“Bo says our … guest is old-fashioned. Ladies should wear dresses.”

I could feel them looking at me, feel the glint of their eyes in the firelight. I didn’t look back. Even when you already know you’re toast you don’t look in vampires’ eyes.

“She’s a lady, huh.”

“Don’t matter. She’ll look enough like one in a dress.” They all laughed again at this. I may have whimpered. One of the vampires separated itself from the boneless dark slithery blur of vampires and came toward me. My heart was going to lunge out of my mouth but I lay still. I was, strangely, beginning to feel my way into the numbness—as if, if I could, I would find the center of me again. As if being able to think clearly and calmly held any possibility of doing me any good. I wondered if this was how it felt when you woke up in the morning on the day you knew you were going to be executed.

One of the things you need to understand is that I’m not a brave person. I don’t put up with being messed around, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. The short version of that is that I’m a bitch. Trust me, I can produce character references. But that’s something else. I’m not brave. Mel is brave. His oldest friend told me some stories about him once I could barely stand to listen to, about dispatch riding during the Wars, and Mel’d been pissed off when he found out, although he hadn’t denied they happened. Mom is brave: she left my dad with no money, no job, no prospects—her own parents had dumped her when she married my dad, and her younger sisters didn’t find her again till she resurfaced years later at Charlie’s—and a six-year-old daughter. Charlie is brave: he started a coffeehouse by talking his bank into giving him a loan on his house back in the days when you only saw rats, cockroaches, derelicts, and Charlie himself on the streets of Old Town.

I’m not brave. I make cinnamon rolls. I read a lot. My idea of excitement is Mel popping a wheelie driving away from a stoplight with me on pillion.

The vampire was standing right next to me. I didn’t think I’d seen it walk that far. I’d seen it stand up and become one vampire out of a group of vampires. Then it was standing next to me. It. He. I looked at his hand as he held something out to me. “Put it on.” I reluctantly extended my own hand and accepted what it was. He didn’t seem any more eager to touch me than I was to touch him; the thing he was offering glided from his hand to mine. He moved away. I tried to watch, but I couldn’t differentiate him from the shadows. He was just not there.

I stood up slowly and turned my back on all of them. You might not think you could turn your back on a lot of vampires, but do you want to watch while they check the rope for kinks and the security of the noose and the lever on the trap door or do you maybe want to close your eyes? I turned my back. I pulled my T-shirt off over my head and dropped the dress down over me. The shoulder straps barely covered my bra straps and my neck and shoulders and most of my back and breast were left bare. Buffet dining. Very funny. I took my jeans off underneath the long loose skirt. I still had my back to them. I was hoping that vampires weren’t very interested in a meal that was apparently going to someone else. I didn’t like having my back to them but I kept telling myself it didn’t matter (there are guards to grab you if the lever still jams on the first attempt and you try to dive off the scaffold). I was very carefully clumsy and awkward about taking my jeans off, and in the process tucked my little jackknife up under my bra. It was only something to do to make me feel I hadn’t just given up. What are you going to do with a two-and-a-half-inch folding blade against a lot of vampires?

I’d had to take my sneakers off to get out of my jeans, and I looked at them dubiously. The dress was silky and slinky and it didn’t go with sneakers, but I didn’t like going barefoot either.

“That’ll do,” said the one who had given me the dress. He reappeared from the shadows. “Let’s go.”

And he reached out and took my arm.

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
N/App (Audiobook)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.21/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.09/5

(Note: Hi! I’m John. Not Kristen. Sorry. I used to contribute to this site a while ago, but then grad school happened. And then grad school happened again. Now they’ve run out of degrees to give me, so I’m back to having some time to write here! It probably won’t be very often, but I’ll pop in from time to time.)

The Golem and the Jinni is a melting pot-era urban fantasy released in 2013 and Helene Wecker’s debut novel, which makes it all the more remarkable that it was nominated for this year’s best novel Nebula as well as many other honors. I would describe it as a gentle story, well-crafted and familiar, and in this case marvelously performed by George Guidall on audiobook.

The Golem Chava’s first vision of the world was from the inside of a crate, deep in the hold of an ocean liner steaming toward America. Her master, gravely ill, had woken her well before they and the rest of the ship full of immigrants were to make land in New York City. By the time the ship arrived Chava was alone, masterless, and without any experience of the world or idea what to do with herself; she only knew the one thing her master had told her, that nobody could ever learn she was a golem. Though she looked human she could not act human and was quickly identified by a New York rabbi who–presented with the choice of destroying a dangerous creature or saving an innocent mind–decided to teach her how to live.

The Jinni Ahmad also arrived in New York City at around the same time, though his history went back far further than Chava’s. Trapped in an anonymous lamp for a thousand years, he was accidentally released by a tinsmith who thought he was just patching an old heirloom. Though Ahmad was freed from the lamp he was shocked to find he was not truly freed: he remained bound in human form by an artifact and a wizard of whom he had no memory. Like Chava, Ahmad had to be taken in by the tinsmith and taught the ways of the world he hadn’t seen for centuries.

The Golem and the Jinni is a well-crafted tale that has earned the accolades that have been lauded upon it over the last year. I do mean crafted, too; the writing is beautiful and incredibly appropriate for the story being told. The writing style adds to the level of immersion in both the turn of the century (er, last century) setting and the mythological nature of urban fantasy. It is a story that is meant to be comfortable, and it would not have worked nearly so well without Wecker’s excellently polished language.

Since I listened to the audio book I also had the privilege of listening to George Guidall read Wecker’s words. Here again, the performance was so good and so fitting to the content of the story that it made the entire experience of the book better. I don’t listen to that many audio books, but some of the ones I have heard have been dragged down by a poor reading that masked the quality of the story itself. If anything, the opposite was true in this case. Guidall’s reading was so masterful that I keep wondering if my impression of Wecker’s writing has been artificially boosted by his voice and that maybe I’d think it less well crafted if I’d read it on the page. Either way, the presentation of the story as I heard it was great, and one of the strongest parts of the book.

I’d say that the story itself was somewhat less developed than the presentation, though. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with it, but it was what I assume it was meant to be: comfortable, familiar, and non-threatening. Those are all valid choices that resulted in a good book, and not every book needs to set out to deconstruct the genre, but I prefer books that have a bit more of an edge to them. In the same way that many books that are marketed as young adult feel like they are aimed at or best appreciated by more mature readers, this book felt like an adult novel in its themes and references but was wrapped in language and narrative that seemed like they’d be better appreciated by readers who were less familiar with the genre. It just wasn’t narratively challenging in the way that I, as someone who knows the tropes and has been bathed in fantasy and myth for most of my life, might have preferred.

This might have bothered me less if I had seen less opportunity to push at those edges. For instance, I can see Wecker playing at the edges of some interesting thoughts about gender roles at the turn of the century. The female golem, designed from the ground up to be a good wife (read: servant), who has to figure out how to live for herself with nobody to serve; the male jinni, captured and chafing for freedom but lacking compassion or a sense of responsibility; the supporting characters who all come across as well pegged into their respective spots in society–all of them are archetypical characters who walk through the stories you’d expect them to walk through over the course of the book. They learn the things you’d expect them to learn, both about themselves and about the world, and then wrap things up in time to get home for supper. Their need to blend and remain hidden comes with the requisite rebellion against the roles that have been chosen for them. All of this absolutely fits the time, place, and immigrant experience that forms the core of the book, but I can’t help but feel like there was a missed opportunity to go against the grain and use the symmetries Wecker creates between the golem’s and jinni’s tales to tell a tale that would stick with readers for a long time. As is, while it was pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure that The Golem and the Jinni will stay in my thoughts for all that long.

Again, though, that is not to say it is not a good novel or that it is not worth reading. Any disappointment comes from comparing the novel as written to the novel I imagine could have been. I’d still recommend The Golem and the Jinni as a tender tale to read and an even better one to listen to. Since it was her first book, I’m interested to see where Wecker goes from here and if she brings the level of immersion and craft demonstrated in The Golem and the Jinni to a deeper world in the future.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my review copy: Purchased the audio book

Read an Excerpt

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (often unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This week brought one book in the mail. It’s from a fantastic series!

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam (Discworld #40) by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam was released in the UK last year and was made available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook in the US earlier this year. This national bestseller will also be available as a trade paperback in the US on October 28. An excerpt from Raising Steam is available on the publisher’s website.

This is one of only two novels in the main Discworld series I have not yet read. It’s a wonderful series—sharp and funny. Since this is number 40 in the series and some of the books focus on different characters, it can be difficult to know where to start if you are new to it. Here’s one suggested reading order guide. Since some of the earlier books are not as good as many of the later ones, it is often suggested that it’s best not to start with the first book published. I started with a couple of the more stand alone books in the series then went back and read them starting in publication order, and I’d agree it’s better not to start with the first book until trying some of the others. My personal recommendation would be one of the first ones I read, Small Gods, since it’s one of the best books in the series and also works pretty well as a stand alone.


Steam is rising over Discworld. . . .

Mister Simnel has produced a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and it’s soon drawing astonished crowds. To the consternation of Ankh-Morpork’s formidable Patrician, Lord Vetinari, no one is in charge of this new invention. Who better to take the lead than the man he has already appointed master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank?

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work—unless it is dependent on words, which are not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. He does enjoy being alive, however, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs, and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all from going off the rails.