Category Archives: Book Review

The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist (Novelette)

Author: S. L. Huang

My rating: 4 of 5

The world is only just beginning to learn about the atargati, a second race of sentient beings who dwell deep in the ocean. And while no human can really be said to know them, Dr. Cadence Mbella comes the closest of anyone, having actually interacted with them,  studied them extensively, and learned to speak their language. Her professional life comes to an abrupt halt, however, when she discovers one of the atargati has been kidnapped for study. Unable to let this stand, Dr. Mbella rescues the atargati, but in doing so, she loses everything . . . and yet, even on the run from her country, she finds her curiosity unsated as she yearns to learn more of this culture.

In The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, Huang gives a dark, reverse retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” And let me just say, this short novelette packs a punch. It’s lovely and moving, but it’s also absolutely heartbreaking. Not a happy ending; consider yourself warned. I really enjoyed this story, though. It’s presented as a log of Dr. Mbella’s that she records as the story progresses, and I enjoyed both her unique voice and the way in which you get snatches of the story as it happens with all the emotion and urgency that each moment entails. The author does a great job of giving us that without losing the flow of the narrative. The portrayal of this utterly alien submarine culture is fascinating–and very notably alien. I loved how Huang uses both details that are rooted in scientific actualities and the strangeness of the unknown and possibly unknowable to flesh out the narrator’s understanding and depiction of the atargati. Dr. Mbella’s moral and ethical quandaries in dealing with this culture–and in interacting with her own in relation to the atargati–is compelling and adds depth to the story beyond a simple fairy tale retelling. Additionally, the author does a good job of portraying the narrator’s struggles with identity as she identifies as lesbian yet finds herself falling for someone of a completely different, non-binary species. On the whole, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist was a fascinating, thought-provoking story that breaks from a lot of traditional molds while giving a solid retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale–non-Disney-fied, just the way I like it.

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Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Ren Eguchi

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Mukouda was perfectly happy enjoying a quiet life in Japan with convenient food delivery right to his door and fun web novels to read on his weekends off work. But somehow, he got accidentally caught up in a hero summoning to another world . . . only, his stats are waaaay weaker than the others who got summoned, plus the kingdom that did the summoning is incredibly sketchy seeming to him. So, since he can’t go home, he decides it’s time to set off into this new world on his own. Turns out, his summoned stats may not make him a hero, but they do come in pretty handy–especially the random ability to order food and other supplies from the same online market he used back home, which are not only delicious but, when consumed in this world, also have cool and unexpected stat benefits!

In one sense, Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill is your typical isekai light novel, and yeah, there are so many of those around now that it’s kind of getting boring. But in another sense, it’s rather unique, which gives it a certain appeal. Like, the main character comes into the story fully aware of what’s happening–he’s actually read enough web novels about this sort of thing happening that he’s just like “nope” and runs off to do his own thing. Mukouda is an amusing combination of lazy and clever, such that he uses what he has–his online market skill, his ability to cook, his connections with others, whatever–to make his life more reasonable, guarantee his safety, and even turn a profit. A lot of the story is just him cooking and interacting with others about food, so if you’re not into that, you’ll likely find this pretty boring, although there’s definitely fantasy monsters, magic, fights and other isekai tropes here as well. But yeah, a lot of the stuff he makes even comes with paragraphs that are basically recipes describing how to make the thing. On the whole, it’s a very casually paced, easygoing sort of story, nice for when you’re looking for something relaxed. Other than the cooking stuff (which some folks may like and others not, obviously), the only big complaint I had was that there are so many unusual ways for depicting communication that it got kind of tangled and confusing at times–one specific character gets bold font, thoughts get another, telepathic communication gets another, oracles from a goddess another, plus with normal communication the speaker is sometimes only indicated in parentheses at the end of the statement. It’s a little annoying, but I got used to it as I read more. Generally, I would recommend Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill if you enjoy casual isekai stories and don’t mind the excessive focus on cooking; it’s actually a pretty fun story.

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Otherside Picnic, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Iori Miyazawa

My rating: 4.5 of 5

The first time Sorawo met Toriko was in the Otherside (well, that’s what she calls it), a strange alternate reality populated with strange, mysterious, and sometimes terrifying things. Somehow, that initial meeting turned into her being roped into exploring the Otherside along with Toriko, searching for Toriko’s lost friend Satsuki. Really, this isn’t the sort of place any reasonable person would go to intentionally. But, well, there’s just something about Toriko that intrigues and appeals to her.

I stumbled on Otherside Picnic completely by accident, but was very pleased with what I found in this quirky light novel. I suppose in a sense, it’s a riff on the isekai genre, but it really breaks the typical mold quite thoroughly. It’s more of a horror novel pulling from pieces of urban legend, creepypasta, and other net lore. Which, yes, could be pretty stupid, but in this case, it’s actually both quite engaging and surprisingly scary. The author does a great job playing with the unknown and the inexplicable, letting the reader’s imagination run away with them. The tone of the writing is fitting, giving us a first-person account of events from Sorawo’s perspective. I enjoyed the characters, as well; they’re unusual and a bit over the top, but that’s honestly the sort of person that would get dragged into this crazy sort of stuff, so. . . . Also, this is advertised as being yuri, but it’s really not, at least not in this volume. It’s more along the lines of growing friendship with maybe a bit of mild shoujo ai thrown in if you squint. The relationship works for these two characters, though, and was enjoyable to read. I think this was probably originally posted as a serial novel, since each section (focusing on a different phenomenon or legend) is distinct and has a bit of a recap/info download near the beginning; however, it’s not enough to be annoying, and there’s a definite story flow between the sections. Definitely recommended.

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Laddertop (Graphic Novel)

Authors: Orson Scott Card & Emily Janice Card

Illustrator: Honoel A. Ibardolaza

Status: Incomplete (One 2-volume Omnibus)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Years ago, a benevolent alien race came to earth, bestowed technology on the people of the planet, and left. Most obvious and vital, they left four towers to space, called Ladders. However, there are some who doubt their good intentions. Whatever the case, there are parts of these Ladders that require maintenance that only children are small enough to perform, and the opportunity to go up and be a part of the work being done in the Ladders is something that the best and brightest students vie against each other for. Among those students, are two best friends–Robbi and Azure–whose destinies will take them to vastly disparate places yet will ultimately draw them to the same mysteries.

I enjoy Orson Scott Card’s writing in general, and I enjoyed Laddertop, but I should point out right from the start that this graphic novel is notably different from much of his writing. Namely, it’s actually appropriate for a middle-grade audience (although it would be enjoyable for older readers as well); I’m guessing that’s the influence of his daughter, Emily Janice Card. There are definitely themes that track with his other writing though–kids getting dragged into space and mixed into stuff way more dangerous than they should at that age, just for instance. The art is a cute, almost manga-like style that works well for the story. The plot of this graphic novel starts out fairly sedate, with fun friendships, school tests, and the typical jockeying for position between kids. But as things get going and we actually follow our characters into space, we begin to see all sorts of plots and mysteries developing, plus some fun and cute friendships (or maybe more?) between characters. It gets quite interesting, which leads to the major downside of this story . . . it’s incomplete. Just where the story is really getting intense, we get dropped at a cliffhanger ending, and it’s been long enough since the original publication (2013 for the omnibus) that I really don’t think we’re getting anymore, which is just sad. I would have enjoyed seeing where the rest of the story went. Still, if you don’t mind the cliffhanger, what we do get of Laddertop is cute, mysterious, and engaging science fiction.

Note: Also, the space robot monkeys are adorable. 🙂

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The Best Girls (Short Story)

Author: Min Jin Lee

My rating: 3.5 of 5

In 1980’s South Korea, a young girl has spent her entire life being told in a million ways that girls are simply not as important as boys. That her family’s hopes are all in her new baby brother. That she and the three younger sisters she’s responsible for will never be good enough, even if they excel. So when her already poor family’s fortunes take an unexpected turn for the worse, she makes a horrific decision in order to be the dutiful daughter her family needs.

Although extremely short, “The Best Girls” packs quite a punch. Since this is part of the “Disorder” collection of stories, I immediately expected some sort of horror story and was surprised to find instead a Korean family drama. It tells of a family making do in the face of poverty, one that preaches (perhaps, one can hope, unwittingly) an extremely patriarchal worldview in its every action. And it tells of a smart, dutiful young girl who has been immersed in this mindset from her earliest childhood. So perhaps we should take it as a warning that kids pay attention to what’s happening around them and draw their own conclusions. In any case, this girl makes a choice that is shocking . . . and yet kind of makes a terrible sense considering her background. It’s pretty horrifying and super sad. I enjoyed the writing, even if it was quite different from a lot of what I have read, and I would be interested in trying more of the author’s work.

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Shadow Magic

Author: Joshua Khan

Shadow Magic, vol. 1

My rating: 3 of 5

Thorn just wanted to find his dad and bring him home, but somehow he’s been kidnapped by slavers, bought and made squire by the executioner Tyburn, and dragged off to the shadowy kingdom of Gehenna where the dead are rumored to walk. Meanwhile, Lilith Shadow (Lily to the friends she mostly doesn’t have anymore) has been forced to take up the mantle of leadership over Gehenna following the tragic death of the rest of her family. Political tensions, forbidden magic, loveless engagements, betrayals, and murder run rife as these two teenagers try to find a way through the chaos.

I should point out right from the start that most people seem to like Shadow Magic more than I did–my dad loved it enough to pass it on to me, and the average rating on Goodreads is a 4.14 at the moment. And I did enjoy the story for the most part in the moment, although I also have a number of issues with it. It’s a fast-paced read that never takes a breath–seriously, you’re thrown from one perilous situation to the next the entire time, which does increase the story’s stickiness and engagement factor but isn’t really the best way to go about doing so. And honestly, overall, the story just feels kind of tropey . . . although, maybe that’s not even quite right. It’s perfect, but in a way that feels like the author tried too hard, like it was run through an algorithm of “what should be in a story” and all the major plot points were spit out from there. Which, again, really isn’t fair because I know the author worked hard to be creative and original, but that’s just the feeling I come away with. There were certainly things I liked–the concept of an ancient giant bat, the spitfire princess  who breaks the rules, the boy who dares to defy those above him in station and befriend the princess. (But let’s be real, even those are kind of tropey . . . well, except the bat. That’s just plain cool.) Other things like the division of the kingdoms based on traditional elemental classes or the naming of everything in Gehenna based on dark, mythological things that are meaningful to some readers but have no contextual basis in the story world . . . I just don’t love those aspects of the story. As for the big whodunit mystery, it seems pretty obvious, and the red herring thrown into the mix just feels unnecessary. I guess I should remember that this book is written for a middle grade audience and is supposed to be exciting, fast-paced dark fantasy, but I would have still liked to see more real character development, some actual humor, a few moments to just pause and breathe. Not on my top recommendations, although it was an ok read and I think most people would likely enjoy it more than I did.

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Burnt Sugar (Short Story)

Author: Lish McBride

Firebug Story

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.

I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.

Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.

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