The Light at the Bottom of the World: A Review

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London ShahThousands of feet underwater, humanity tries to find a way forward on a planet that changed forever sixty-five years ago when the water levels started to rise and never stopped. Strange as it may be, it’s the only world Leyla McQueen has ever known.

When her father is accused of the worst possible crime and arrested with no chance to defend himself, Leyla knows she has to get him out. Even if her best chance to do that is trying to win the ultra competitive, ultra dangerous London Submersible Marathon.

When the race doesn’t go to plan, Leyla realizes her father’s arrest is tied to much bigger secrets in London. With no other options and no help in sight, Leyla has to leave the only home she has ever known and confront dangerous truths to save her father before it’s too late in The Light at the Bottom of the World (2019) by London Shah.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is Shah’s debut novel and the start of her Light the Abyss duology.

Leyla is a great narrator who has obvious affection for her small corner of this underwater world while acknowledging the devastation that led humanity to it. Despite a strong premise and evocative setting, the stakes of Leyla’s mission never translates to an actual sense of urgency even as she is caught in a race against time to save her father before she is detained by the authorities herself.

The story and its slang remains very grounded in modern cultural references and terminology even though the story is set decades in the future. The varied cast of secondary characters are unfortunately under-utilized for a lot of this plot-driven novel.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is a classic dystopian featuring a kickass Muslim girl, lots of submarines, lots of water, and lots of action. Recommended for readers seeking any or all of the above in their science fiction.

Possible Pairings: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron, The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Matched by Ally Condie, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Warcross by Marie Lu, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, The Program by Suzanne Young

Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin GrossmanDoctor Impossible wasn’t always an evil genius, diabolical scientist, and supervillain extraordinaire. He just doesn’t talk about it because it’s really only the heroes who spend time worrying about their origin stories. Doctor Impossible would rather focus on taking over the world. As soon as he breaks out of prison. Again.

Over his long and villainous career Doctor Impossible has tried to take over the world in all of the usual ways with nuclear, thermonuclear, and nanotechnological doomsday devices. He’s tried mind control. He’s traveled backwards and forward in time. He’s used a robot army, insect army, dinosaur army. Even a fungus army, fish and rodents too.

All failures. Even the alien invasion was a failure.

But that’s okay. Because this time Doctor Impossible has a new plan. One that will work.

Fatale doesn’t remember much about her life before she become a cyborg. She’s been told she was on vacation in Brazil. Then she wasn’t. And now she’s Fatale: part skin, part chrome–a technological marvel meant to be the next generation of warfare until the NSA left her out in the cold.

It’s not easy making it as a superhero cyborg on your own, so Fatale is thrilled when she’s invited to join the Champions even if it is to replace their slain robot. The Champions used to be a rock solid team but now cracks are starting to show between the heroes–cracks that might be just the break Doctor Impossible needs in Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) by Austin Grossman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is a charming pastiche of classic superhero plots with chapters alternating between Doctor Impossible and Fatale. (If you read audiobooks, try the audio which as two actors and is a lot of fun.)

Doctor Impossible is a classic supervillain so don’t go into this one expecting a lot of depth and morally grey areas. He is definitely a villain and he definitely doesn’t feel bad about it at all. Sure, he’s learned some things from his rivalry with CoreFire over the years and his failed attempts at world domination. But mostly that was about what didn’t work.

Fatale, in contrast, feels like she’s been thrown into the deep end here and is worried her previous experience working solo has done little to prepare her to join the Champions–especially alongside Doctor Impossible’s old ally Lily. If Fatale feels a little superficial compared to Doctor Impossible’s big personality, blame it on the strict moral code.

Hints of clever world building and a surprise reveal about Lily’s origin story at the end save this one from being too predictable. Soon I Will Be Invincible is entertaining if sometimes expected superhero fare. Recommended for comics fans looking to branch out into prose and, of course, anyone who can’t help but root for the villain.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Proxy by Alex London, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Vicious by Victoria Schwab, The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

A Beginning At the End: A Review

A Beginning at the End by Mike ChenA global pandemic has changed the societal landscape and devastated the population. In the wake of the End of the World, while many people are waiting for life to return to normal, four people are trying to move forward as best they can.

Moira, a former pop star, used the initial outbreak as a chance to break away from her controlling father and start a new life. Six years later, Moira is living as normal a life as anyone can now. At least until her father begins a public campaign to try and find her.

While everyone else hides inside or behind surgical masks offering flimsy protection, Krista throws herself into the world planning events for people unwilling to risk the physical interactions themselves. But not many people are planning parties with the threat of a new outbreak looming and Krista is one cancelled event away from losing everything.

Rob survived. His wife didn’t. All Rob wants is to bring up his daughter, Sunny, as best he can. The only problem is new government regulations threaten to take Sunny away to place her in a more stable family environment.

In a world waiting to return to a normal that might never come Moira, Krista, Rob, and Sunny will need each other more than anything if they want to survive in A Beginning At the End (2020) by Mike Chen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Chen’s sophomore novel explores themes of connection and survival against a post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting with chapters alternating between Moira, Krista, and Rob’s perspectives.

Evocative descriptions and thorough world building make this story of a global pandemic eerily timely although a slow start fails to build the momentum needed for later plot points and twists.

A Beginning at the End is a character driven, post-apocalyptic novel that offers hope for the current situation we are in with the Covid-19 global pandemic. In short come for the post-apocalyptic landscape, stay for the feels.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton; The Salt Line by Sally Goddard-Jones; In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen; The Fireman by Joe Hill; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin; Severance by Ling Ma; Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel; The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

Don’t Go Without Me: A Graphic Novel Review

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'ConnellDon’t Go Without Me (2020) by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a triptych collection of three comic stories.

In “Don’t Go Without Me” there is a rumor that when you stand in a certain place at a certain time, you can be transported to a different realm–one that exists next to ours in secret. When two lovers cross over, they find themselves separated and forced to barter stories in exchange for clues that might bring them back to each other. But when every trade costs something, how much do either of them have to lose?

“What Is Left” starts when a ship crashes. The ship runs on memories, but when the engine malfunctions the lone surviving engineer finds herself awash in memories of someone else’s life.

For years in “Con Temor, Con Ternura” (With Fear, With Tenderness), a small ocean-side town has watched the sleeping giant at the edge of their town. While they wait for the predicted date when the giant is supposed to wake, the town decides to greet their future head on with a party. But they soon learn that preparing for an expected outcome is not the same as meeting it.

Don’t Go Without Me is an excellent collection of speculative fiction graphic novels exploring human relationships stretched outside of typical norms. Unique restricted color palettes differentiate between each story here and allow Valero-O’Connell’s distinct style to shine in each panel.

Intricate backgrounds and lush artwork offset characters dealing, in each story, with themes of isolation and connection as best they can. Although Don’t Go Without Me can be grim, it is also beautiful and meditative. Valero-O’Connell continues to demonstrate that she is an artist and author to watch.

Vengeful: A Review

“We all have to live with our choices.”

Vengeful by V. E. SchwabFive years ago Victor Vale completed the master stroke of his plan to take down his former best friend turned rival, Eli Ever. But the thing about an enemy who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal is that they’re hard to kill. Sometimes they’re even hard to keep contained–especially when they have nothing but time.

Victor has bigger concerns now as he tries to control a power he no longer understands  thanks to his resurrection. What was once black and white has become dangerously grey as Victor is forced to decide how far he is willing to go to save himself and protect the unlikely people who refuse to let him go.

Sydney thought she had found a new family with Victor and Mitch–or at least better friends and certainly better protectors. But five years is a long time to be protected; to be treated like a child. Especially now that Sydney is old enough to see cracks forming as the life she made for herself starts to fall apart.

Power is always a dangerous thing. But ExtraOrdinary powers are an entirely different kind of dangerous–something that Victor, Eli, and the entire city of Merit finds out when Marcella Riggins arrives. Revenge was never going to be enough for Marcella but as she tries to take power from the men who have only seen her as a pretty face, Marcella’s quest for power might bring the entire city to ruin around her in Vengeful (2018) by V. E. Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop.

Vengeful is set five years after Schwab’s earlier novel Vicious. Although both can function as standalone novels, it’s best to start the series at the beginning.

Vengeful uses the same braided narrative structure moving characters toward an inevitable final confrontation while also using flashbacks to explore what brought each character to this point. While readers will be happy to see familiar characters including Victor, Mitch, and Sydney, Schwab also introduces a new group of EOs here who are equally compelling.

Where Vicious provided a sharp contrast between what can make a hero and a villain, Vengeful walks the line between the two and blurs it as both Victor and Eli are pushed into making choices–and alliances–they never would have previously considered. Themes of second chances and found family are also explored especially well as Victor and Sydney’s relationship changes and evolves with Sydney working to exert herself as an equal as well as a friend.

Vengeful is the sequel fans expect but also the continuation readers deserve filled with both familiar characters and unexpected turns hinting at what might come next.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Proxy by Alex London, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Malice: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Malice by Pintip DunnAlice Sherman is more interested in taking delicious looking pictures of her not-always-edible cooking for her foodie Instagram account and dreaming of a future as a photographer for National Geographic than she is in math and science.

She knows the only reason that she is at her super competitive, STEM-focused school is because her older brother Archie is a certified genius and science prodigy. She doesn’t mind. Someone has to keep an eye on Archie to make sure he remembers things like eating instead of equations sometimes–especially in the years since their mom left and their dad has become more and more distant.

Her mundane life is upended when a sudden, sharp pain hits during lunch. A voice in her head tell Alice that she can make the pain stop. All Alice has to do is tell Bandit Sakda that she loves him. Embarrassing, but easy enough.

Except the Voice isn’t done with Alice. There’s something else she has to do. Something that might prevent the creation of a virus that will kill two thirds of the population. Something that might make Alice a killer. Something that is going to be that much harder for Alice to do if she ever lets herself fall for Bandit in Malice (2020) by Pintip Dunn.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dunn’s latest standalone adventure follows Alice as she tries to figure out who the Voice is and how far she is willing to go to prevent the dire future the Voice warns her about.

While some of the twists and turns will be predictable for readers familiar with time travel shenanigans, Alice’s journey remains unique and puts a strong focus on the ways in which free will and compassion can change everything. Alice’s best friend Lalana Bunyasarn and Alice’s reluctant love interest Bandit add some needed levity (and chemistry) to a potentially bleak story.

Malice is a delectable blend of time travel and suspense. Recommended for readers who like their romance with a little sci-fi or vice versa.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

War Girls: A Review

cover art for War Girls by Tochi OnyebuchiSisters Onyii and Ify find themselves on opposing sides in a brutal civil war in this Afrofuturist adventure set in 2172 Nigeria that draws on the history of the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) of the 1960s which began when the Eastern Region of Nigeria declared itself the Republic of Biafra.

Onyebuchi sets this story against the backdrop of a futuristic world filled with sleek technology and brutal war machinery including bionic modifications for child soldiers and mechanized battle suits as both Onyii and Ify are pushed far beyond their limits as their loyalties are tested and they are forced to determine the value of their personal integrity in War Girls (2019) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Find it on Bookshop.

The shifting narration follows Onyii and Ify as well as other characters they both meet as they try to find their way back to each other, and themselves, during the war and in the tenuous peace that follows. The sense of happenstance or destiny that continues to bring Onyii and Ify together underscores the arbitrary nature of war and the costs that are paid by everyone in the line of fire.

Intense action scenes contrast sharply against an incisive criticism of the costs of senseless battle and the story’s commentary on the powerful bonds that tie family together for better or worse. Onyebuchi’s stark, close third person narrative further emphasizes this story’s brutal setting.

War Girls is bleak but compulsively readable story with high action and high drama in equal measure. Onyebuchi’s world building and characterization are top notch in this completely immersive but deeply unsettling story. I’ve been describing War Girls as exemplary Afrofuturism for readers who also want to ugly cry and be sad forever—with high speed chases. Make of that what you will.

Possible Pairings: The Weight of Stars by K. Ancrum, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Invictus by Ryan Graudin, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Metaltown by Kristen Simmons, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, Pacific Rim

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an issue of School Library Journal*

Space Opera: A Review

“Life is beautiful and life is stupid. As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy, the history of the planet, the history of a person is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of glittering, occasionally peaceful light to help you follow along.”

When the end of the world arrives, no one expects it to be announced by a giant blue half-flamingo, half-anglerfish creature with the voice of an angel, or the person you love most in the world, or a non-threatening American waitress in Cleveland depending on who you ask.

Humanity is even less prepared to learn that Earth’s very last hope is the washed out, broken up, and decidedly no-longer-good former glam rock sensation Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.

But that’s jumping ahead. Really, it all started a hundred years ago when the Sentience Wars almost destroyed the galaxy.

While everyone is always pretty clear on if they, themselves, are sentient it turns out that’s a harder decision to make about your neighbors–especially neighbors who may or may not be parasitic zombie maggots, clouds of intelligence known collectively as Lola, or a race of beings who spend all of their time participating in a planetary Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game while building up their corner of the universe.

In the peace following the Sentience Wars, everyone involved felt like it was time to celebrate while also expressing their sentience. And, you know, also imposing a non-negotiable hierarchy on civilization while distributing galactic resources. Also there’s the matter of seeing if the continued existence of newcomers is a sure thing. Or . . . not.

Thus began the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a combination talent show, beauty pageant. fight for supremacy where all participating species can demonstrate their sentience along with as many special effects and as much stagecraft as they can manage.

Now all we have to do is put all of our faith in two thirds of what used to be the greatest glam rock band ever and hope that they can sing their hearts out to prove our entire species’ sentience, our ability to rock, and how very much we should not be summarily vaporized in Space Opera (2018) by Catherynne M. Valente.

Have you ever asked yourself what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have been like with ninety-nine percent more singing? If the answer is yes, then Space Opera is the Douglas Adams inspired homage to Eurovision that you’ve been waiting for.

Space Opera is so much better and funnier and crazier than I ever could have imagined. This is a story about friendship, hope, and what makes us human. But with singing, glitter, and time paradoxes aplenty.

Highly recommended for readers in need of funny, escapist sci-fi, fans of training montages, and anyone who is always ready to root for the underdog.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Sci-Fu by Yuhi Mercado, Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World by Amy Reed, Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Empress of a Thousand Skies: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda BellezaRhiannon Ta’an is the last surviving heir to the Kalusian dynasty. On the eve of her coronation as a puppet monarch, Rhee is ready to get revenge against the man who killed her family and reclaim everything he has tried to steal from her.

But then everything goes wrong.

Aloysha is a Wraetan refugee. He is also one of the stars of a popular reality DroneVision show about his ship’s exploits as soldiers of the fleet. But that deosn’t make people any less suspicious of Aly thanks to anti-Wraetan prejudices. Still, if he can stay on the straight and narrow and keep the show popular, it might be enough.

Except everything goes wrong.

Rhee and Aly are pushed onto the same unavoidable path when Aly is framed for an attack that supposedly leaves Rhee dead. Now Rhee is on the run, with even less hope of reclaiming her throne than she had before while Aly is forced to flee while he tries to clear his name in Empress of a Thousand Skies (2017) by Rhoda Belleza.

Empress of a Thousand Skies is Belleza’s debut novel and the first book in a duology which concludes in Blood of a Thousand Stars. The story alternates between Rhee and Aly’s perspectives.

Belleza’s story is populated with unique characters in a carefully detailed world. Epigraphs accompany each section of the story to help further expand the world and situate Rhee’s bid for the throne within this larger context. Aly’s position as a glorified reality TV star is also a fun twist on the idea of space pirates.

Unfortunately the structure of the novel detracts from what should be a plot filled with action and urgency by splitting the story in half between Rhee and Aly who, although their paths are connected, do not actually meet for most of the novel.

Empress of a Thousand Skies is an exciting read filled with action and intrigue. Recommended for readers in search of another space opera to devour.

Possible Pairings: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Warcross by Marie Lu, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston

The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young