It’s time for a break from the history stuff with some mini-reviews of science fiction and fantasy

This site usually focuses on history, historical fiction, or writing historical fiction. I’ve been writing the sequel to my first novel, so I’ve had to immerse myself in World War II history. Writing fantasy stories and reading fantasy and science fiction offer a welcome break. Here are some mini-reviews of SFF books I’ve recently finished.

Baptism of Fire (The Witcher Saga #3) by Andrzej Sapkowski

ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI, THE WITCHER, BAPTISM OF FIRE, FANTASY NOVEL, BOOK COVERMutant monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia continues his quest to find and protect Ciri, the Child of Destiny sought by pretty much every power in the world for their own devious ends.

The gritty, morally murky fantasy setting of The Witcher series fits right in with the recent trend for grimdark works. But Sapkowski has been at it since the early 90s. The series has only recently been translated into English (from Polish.) It’s also been top of mind thanks to exceptional video game adaptations. I blame these games for my slow writing progress.

What I particular like about the series is that its dark world is also full of hope and good people. The Witcher himself always tries to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Violence is not used gratuitously and humour is liberally sprinkled throughout.

However, what works so well in the short stories (among my all-time favourites) and video games doesn’t seem to transfer to the novels. The narrative of this novel in particular feels disjointed, with clunkily changing points of view. It’s also plagued by long exposition dumps and thematic debates played out in conversation. While characters as archetypes serve to make points in short stories, the longer form exposes their lack of developed motivations. At least the novels don’t have the exploitative attitude towards women that detract from the games.

I’ll keep reading the series because I find the events of the story interesting, even as I struggle with the actual writing.

My rating: ★★★ (of out 5)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5) by Peter V. Brett

THE CORE, DEMON CYCLE, PETER V BRETT, FANTASY NOVEL, BOOK COVERIn the final installment of this fantasy series, the survivors of a world long plagued by demons finally start putting aside their differences to save the world, even as the demons prepare an all-out attack.

It’s always tough for writers to end a series satisfactorily. This is especially true when following an absolute classic, as The Skull Throne was. So it was inevitable that I felt a bit disappointed in this novel. But those were very high standards to maintain. The Core is still a very good book.

What hindered this novel for me were some odd narrative choices and fan-servicey plots. I didn’t feel that they connected well with the main story. There was excessive coverage given to side plots that I just wanted to be done with so I could get back to the main story.

Still, the reason for my impatience was that the main story and the more important subplots were just so compelling. In the end, the conclusion felt earned. The right amount of sacrifice was given by the heroes after so much work and suffering over four books. There was no cheap deus ex machina. The ending was satisfying in almost every way.

My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)

Bubblegum by Sari Taurez

BUBBLEGUM, SARI TAUREZ, YA, SCIENCE FICTION, THRILLER, LGBT, NOVEL, BOOK COVERIn a cyberpunk-ish dystopia, unlikely partners form a killer-for-hire business and tangle with a crime lord. 

Wow, what a great debut novel. It hits all the beats of a hero origin story, yet felt so fresh in its details.

Full disclosure: Bubblegum is written by friend of the blog Sari Taurez. But I take my integrity as a reviewer seriously. If I wanted to support an author but didn’t think their book deserved praise, I’d just not share my opinion in public. Bubblegum most definitely deserves praise.

The story centres on the pair of Julia and Tiana as the latter starts a business as a killer for hire. Julia is the moral centre but Tiana is the star. She follows a warped moral code. I loved following her adventures. She makes mistakes, she’s not super-skilled, but she makes up for that with a nasty edge and being clever on her feet. At the same time, I’m glad she wasn’t over the top unpleasant like so many grimdark protagonists.

The world of Bubblegum was tantalizing, but I felt frustrated at times that it wasn’t explicitly fleshed out. Ultimately, I could forget those concerns, because the pace of the novel is cracking, with some unexpected twists and obstacles through things for fun loops.

My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)