Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Imagine that right this second you could be anywhere else in the world: Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you seek out? Where would your dreams take you?
Cent dreams of space. She can jump anywhere in the world. Space is a whole other set of challenges.
The ticking heart of a Steven Gould book is the hard science underlying a fantastic premise. Yes, Cent and her parents can jump anywhere in the world, but it's underpinned by physics. Playing around with the implications of instantaneous travel is only part of the package. Much of the rest of it comes from examinations of present day and near future space travel. The third pillar of a Steven Gould story is relatively normal characters living through the fantasy.
Exo is the fourth book in Gould's Jumper series, which climbed all the way to the box office in an almost completely unrelated movie. Every single book has looked at the implications of instant travel, and every book has shown new revelations. This is the first to take the concept into space and ponder questions with serious real world implications. We're unlikely to ever have the ability to teleport freely, but any method that could allow for cheap or free launches could change the course of human history in large and small ways. A long, positive look is taken at the idea of letting senior citizens spend time in the comfort of zero gravity, for instance.
It's not all science. There are broken hearts, patchy relationships, awkward family bonding and an organization of spies lurking in the background. But Exo is a fun, fast romp that plays with some big ideas.
Thirty years ago, mankind gained access to virtually unlimited space. By means of a small box containing a potato, people could step "West" or "East" into an unknown number of alternate Earths where humankind had never evolved. Given open spaces, mankind did what mankind has always done, and colonized millions of other worlds. They weren't nearly enough.
Willis Linsay disappeared 30 years ago after releasing humanity into the Long Earth. No one knows where he's been, or what he's been looking for all that time, but now he's back and dragging his daughter along to Mars. For Mars, it turns out, also has an infinite number of alternate worlds, and one of them might just hold a whole new gateway to the universe. Back on the Long Earth, Captain Maggie Kauffman has been sent on an entirely new exploration, all the way out to Earth 200 million. Joshua Valiente, the Long Earth's oldest explorer, has set out to find a new kind of people who may be humanity's future.
The third book in the Terry Pratchett Long Earth series, The Long Mars' weakness is its plot, which feels like the set up for a bigger story. While there may be a functional double climax, most of the story is exploratory ramble, but that exploratory ramble remains absolutely stunning. Every world in the Long Earth and a few in the Long Mars developed in radically different ways. The alternate world premise may be fantasy, but every world of the Long Earth has real science behind it. Here, an entirely different evolutionary pathway, there a different sociological slant on civilization. It's possible to learn more about climate science in in a single passage of The Long Mars than an entire high school science course, and be entertained besides by Terry Pratchett's arch commentary.
While living in Borneo in the 1920s, Serena Lenore discovers a rare flower and cultivates it until she returns to the United States, where she turns one flower into an empire. Serena grafted the flower until she had acres upon acres of the unique white bloom. From these exceptional blossoms, she created a perfume with the ability to change the fortunes of the women wearing it. The perfume became a widely kept secret and Lenore Incorporated grew (by word of mouth) into a legacy that Serena could pass on to her daughters.
Three generations later, the business is still booming and Willow, Serena’s granddaughter, is ready to retire from the family business. First she must select a successor. The obvious choice is her daughter Mya, who has lived on the farm all her life learning the ways of the business. When her estranged daughter Lucia returns home, Willow realizes she has a tough decision to make.
Season of the Dragonflies is Sarah Creech’s debut novel, but as a professor of English and Creative Writing, this isn’t her first experience as a writer. Creech uses her Blue Ridge Mountain background as a foundation for her book, creating carefully depicted images of rural Virginia and working in stories she heard as a child. The characters’ relationships are at times strained, but in the end comforting and relatable despite the novel’s fantasy aspects.
Everything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.
By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.
If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.
When Richard Simnel invents the locomotive, it's Steam Engine Time in Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city of the Discworld! With financial backing from Harry King, King of the Golden River and Moist von Lipwig, the Disc's wiliest civil servant, everyone and everything is on the move. A bid to get seafood that's still fresh spawns the tourist industry. But where there's change, there's people who don't want to change, and the budding rail has to fend off attacks of Deep Dwarves.
As a story alone, this is solid material, but Terry Pratchett remains one of the greatest living satirists. (He's also better than quite a few who are dead.) With Raising Steam, he looks at societal change driven by technology bringing people together. At the same time, it's an homage to rail culture, engineers and all the people who make the transportation industry go. It's also a blistering indictment of people who try to burn the world down rather than letting their neighbors move on with the times. "Tak does not require that we think of him, but he does require that we think."
At the same time, Raising Steam is also clearly the book of a man struggling with Alzheimer's. It remains a wonder that Pratchett can still write at all, much less as well as this. His earlier books may have been stronger (a few plot threads appear and vanish in Steam, never to be seen again), but it's still a gem. Written with the understanding that any book he turns out could be his last, he gives us a chance to check in with old friends throughout. The Discworld may be a long-running series, but every book stands alone while providing bonuses for the fans who have read the books that came before.
Raising Steam is a reminder that big things often start with little things. Here they start with a load of octopus on a midsummer's day.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
Teacher, blog and forum editor, roleplaying game designer and writer Jeremy P. Bushnell’s debut novel The Weirdness is the perfect amalgamation of his mediums of creativity. Only someone who has spent their life marinating in nerd culture would be able to devise a plot and cast as imaginative and unique as Bushnell has in The Weirdness.
Billy Ridgeway is growing too complacent with his life; all he has to show for himself as a self-proclaimed “writer” is a couple of short stories and a novel vomited forth at the tail end of a post-college-dropout bender of forced artistry. While his former peers are paying mortgages and spawning children, he’s stalled making sandwiches for eight hours a day at a Greek deli.
Of course, this all changes one morning when Billy awakens to a suave-looking dude he doesn’t know sitting on his couch. Introducing himself as “Lucifer Morningstar,” the dude offers Billy some coffee, and with it an only slightly nefarious proposal that would launch his writing career. In a rare bout of good judgment, Billy declines and tries to go about his day; unfortunately for him, Lucifer is a supernaturally persistent guy, and he’s about to make things weird—like, warlocks and sex-wolves and plots to take over the world weird.
Bushnell’s novel is a swirl of contemporary geek humor and sci-fi, blended with a unique, refreshing writing style. He uses unconventional means—absurd similes, unexpected question marks, hypothetical maybes—to create an amusing feeling of doubt and disbelief in his narrative voice, which allows his characters to act with as much hyperbole as the reader wants to perceive. The Weirdness has to be read to be believed, and should not be missed by anyone who enjoys contemporary, surreal fiction.
Often, the second entry in a trilogy — film or book — is the low point. It's the halfway point between the excitement, plot and world-building of the first book and the resolution, justice-meting out, comeuppance-slinging grand finale. That is not the case in The Crimson Campaign, the second book in Brian McClellan’s grand flintlock fantasy series, The Powder Mage.
The action in this sequel starts several months after the end of the first book, Promise of Blood. Tamas, McClellan’s analog for Napoleon, is facing a massive invasion on his country’s southern flank, but he has devised a counterattack that might turn the tide of the war. Tomas’s son, Taniel Two-shot, is just coming out of a coma after shooting the returning god Kresimir through the eye. Adamat, one of the few magical protagonists, is still looking for Lord Vetas, the man who holds Adamat’s wife and son hostage after unsuccessfully blackmailing him.
These three narratives soon explode and set off in separate directions, although with definite consequences for the others. Tamas and part of his army are cut off and presumed dead deep in enemy territory. Without supplies or reinforcements and constantly hounded by enemy forces, they must make a long, difficult march home. Taniel reacts to his father’s apparent death by traveling to the front to stop the enemy invasion and to face a General Staff that has already given up on the war. He will also face an angry, out-of-control god that he failed to kill. At home in the capital, Adamat finds himself outgunned, outmanned and facing powerful forces; meanwhile, he tries to unravel a conspiracy that may leave the capital city defenseless to political intrigue and foreign invasion.
McClellan turns the heat up in this second outing, raising the stakes even higher for the book’s protagonists. He has broadened his world by geographically separating the point of view characters. The pacing is frenetic, and the setting is derivative of the crisis period that faced France post-revolution. Yet, while there are many historic similarities, McClellan has gone in new exciting directions by creating a unique world much like a musician using familiar chords in a different progression. While some plot points are resolved and a tantalizing conclusion is in sight, McClellan has pulled off a bit of magic, making the reader hope the last book of this trilogy won’t be the last we see of this world or his characters.
Raising Steam is the 40th book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s incredibly long-running and hugely popular Discworld series. The Discworld is a disc shaped world being supported on the back of four elephants that are themselves being carried through space on the back of a giant turtle called A’tuin. The series is known for its humor and use of fantasy tropes to skewer the foibles of the modern world.
The Discworld has rapidly progressed from late feudalism to early industrial revolution as the era of railroads suddenly comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Through the lens of the some of our favorite characters, we watch the explosion of new services and new trade suddenly made available via the railroad as well as the great social upheaval it causes amongst races of Ankh-Morpork. There are definite echoes of Britain’s own rapid industrialization in Raising Steam. Also prevalent is the rise of religious fundamentalism and the attempt of fanatics to arrest progress at any cost to themselves and others. If there is slightly less humor and understated satire on this subject, it is understandable, and Pratchett makes up for with an unusual amount of action and fight scenes.
As the series has progressed, we the readers and the denizens of the Disc are feeling as if we are rushing to some final end – a feeling intensified with Sir Terry’s announcement several years ago that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Sir Terry has named his daughter as successor when the time comes that he can no longer write, and with 40 books and more to come set on Great A’tuin, that time may come sooner than many of us would like. One thing is certain: Sir Terry, like his character Lord Vetinari, has been engaged in a “Great Work.” He has taken a series of light-hearted, slapstick, fantasy satires and transformed them into the one of the longest-running series of literature in the English language. These books are fun, spirited and have a deeper meaning that will hit you when you least expect it.