Balance of Trade, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (Ace, 2006)

(This review is of the Meisha Merlin edition)

The latest offering from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, though set quite firmly in the Liaden setting, is actually a standalone, the first Liaden novel to date not to feature the influential and far-roving members of Clan Korval. Instead, we’re introduced to Terran would-be trader Jethri Gobelyn, whose family owns a number of trading ships, including the Gobelyn’s Market. His relationship with his family isn’t as secure as it could be; ever since the death of his father, his mother and Captain of the Gobelyn’s Market has become increasingly distant. When Jethri discovers he’s been apprenticed to another ship, he resists the initial idea of leaving the only home he’s ever known. However, an investment gone sour opens up new doors of opportunity, and before he fully understands the consequences, he’s joined the crew of the Liaden ship Elthoria under the supervision of Master Trader Norn van’Deelin, who sees in Jethri a way to bridge the differences between Liadens and Terrans. Now Jethri is continually tested, circumstances dictating he learn a whole host of new customs as he interacts with a people who place an inordinate amount of importance upon honor, reputations, dignity, and propriety. Where one wrong move, or even an improper bow can affect the directions of entire clans, he can’t afford a single misstep. But if he watches his step, he could make a fortune. If only he can overcome the prejudice many Liadens feel towards Terrans, and unravel the mystery left in the wake of his father’s death years ago.

I love the Liaden books. While Balance of Trade isn’t my favorite (that honor still goes to Scout’s Progress), there’s no denying that Jethri Gobelyn is a most likeable character, the sort you can’t help but want to succeed. It could almost be argued that he’s too perfect, given his natural ability to interact on a socially acceptable level with even the most narrow-minded of Liadens, but luckily, his flaws come out when he’s forced to embrace radical change in his life. I also love the Liadens themselves; their concept of melant’i, a code of honor and conduct which dictates their standing in social, professional, and emotional interactions, remains one of my favorite aspects of the Liaden Universe.

Frankly, the only thing I find missing in Balance of Trade is the underlying (or more overt) romance which has characterized the other Liaden stories, something I consider to be one of Lee and Miller’s strengths. I hope we’ll get to see more of Jethri Gobelyn, as his story is far from over. Balance of Trade is a low-key space opera that relies heavily on characterization, multi-layered plotting, and social conflicts, rather than on violence and blasters. It’s actually a perfect introduction to the Liaden Universe, and I recommend it to longtime fans and newcomers alike.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

Howling Moon, by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp (Tor, 2007)

Once a top agent of Wolven, the organization dedicated to internally policing the hidden society of shapeshifters known as the Sazi, Raphael Rameriz has lived in quiet obscurity ever since a deadly political scandal forced him into retirement. He thought he was out for good. He was wrong.

Called back into action by the most powerful being in the Sazi, Raphael is tasked with the protection of Cat Turner, a recently-orphaned heiress who was the sole survivor of a brutal assault. The problem? Cat’s become a werejaguar of unknown potential, and if she can’t get ahold of herself, she’ll be put down. The Sazi take absolutely no risks in protecting their secrecy in a world that would likely destroy them if it knew the truth. So now Raphael and Cat — werewolf and werecat — are the unlikeliest of allies as Raphael teaches Cat what it means to be Sazi. And though their allies are many, their enemies are even more so, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell one from the other. For the werewolves of Boulder don’t want a werejaguar around, especially one that’s becoming so very close to their temporary Alpha. Pack politics may be the death of Raphael and Cat long before the Sazi’s most infamous serial killer comes back to finish the job he started years ago.

And, of course, even as Raphael and Cat explore the inexplicable attraction that bonds them, opponents from all sides make themselves known. Rivals for the leadership of the pack. Rivals for Raphael’s affections. Rivals for Cat’s affection. Traitors who will do anything to get rid of the two. Snakes in the grass — political, metaphorical, and literal — abound as things come to a head, forcing a resolution that could affect the Sazi forever.

Howling Moon is the fourth in The Sazi Series by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, but like the rest of the series, it’s intended to stand on its own merits. Indeed, it was originally intended to serve as the introduction to the series, before being placed further back in the rotation, while readers were more gradually introduced into the world of the Sazi in Hunter’s Moon, Moon’s Web, and Captive Moon. Given how dense this book feels, how thickly-plotted, and how immersed in Sazi and pack politics it seems, this may be a good thing. The first book of the series only brought in the true nature of the Sazi world near the end, and we’ve been gradually given more to work with in each book since. Although Howling Moon is indeed a stand-alone, it links quite nicely to the others in the form of shared characters, a few overlapping plot threads, and some answered questions.

But is it good? Oh yeah. The Sazi Series is one of the shining lights of the Tor line of paranormal romances, and a new Adams and Clamp always gets my attention. The characters are richly-realized, and there’s some definite chemistry between Cat and Raphael. And as for the inevitable moment when their mutual passion finally takes hold? In a word, sizzling. But beyond that, these are likeable characters, and the interplay between wolf and jaguar is just plain fun, especially when their differences are played up in terms of hunting style, or natural opposition. It’s not just about those two characters, though. There are quite a few secondary characters running through this book, and sometimes you need a scorecard to keep track of their complex motivations and loyalties. (In all honesty, I occasionally had to flip back to refresh my memory as to who was whom, as a lot of names get thrown at the reader, and it’s easy to miss something if you don’t pat attention.) There are a few characters I’d definitely like to see again, including Raphael’s adult son Raven (a werewolf) and Raven’s partner Emma (a wereowl, how cool is that?)

On the surface, the Sazi might seem to be just another hidden society of supernatural beings, dwelling in secret alongside humanity, a concept which has become somewhat overdone in recent years. But there’s just something about them, in the context of the story, that makes them more interesting, better executed than most of their ilk. They’re organized, but not living in perfect harmony. They’re secretive, but not up to any grand mischief or manipulation. They live a long time, but they’re not the immortal masters of the world. They’re not all cookie-cutter, either, as they act both like normal people, and like the animals they can become. Take it from me, the Sazi are interesting.

I greatly enjoyed Howling Moon. Adams and Clamp just keep getting better and better with each subsequent book in the series, and they’ve made it easy for a new reader to jump in at any point. Whether you like urban fantasy, or paranormal romance, this is a series worth picking up.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Dates From Hell, by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Kelley Armstrong and Lori Handeland (Avon, 2006)

It seems like everyone’s got a war story inspired by their days serving in the front lines of the hell called dating. Now, four authors well-known for their explorations of the crossroads of supernatural and romance turn their attentions to those war stories. In four very distinct stories, they explore just how bad, or weird, it can be when your date isn’t even human….

Dates From Hell is a collection of four novellas. While I’m not always the most eager to dive into the paranormal romance genre (for every really good offering, such as Cathy Adams and C.T. Clamp’s Hunter’s Moon, or Laura Anne Gilman’s Staying Dead, there seem to be half a dozen of the more generic girl-meets-vampire-or-werewolf books), I was immediately attracted to this one by the presence of Kim Harrison, whose Rachel Morgan books (such as Dead Witch Walking) have fast become some of my favorite urban fantasies. I came for the Kim Harrison, and I stayed to read the rest, none of whom I was more than passingly familiar with.

The first story is Kim Harrison’s own “Undead in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Serving as a prequel to Dead Witch Walking, it stars living vampire Ivy Tamwood when she was still working the homicide division of Inderland Security, before she got a transfer and met Rachel Morgan. (For those not up on the series: Inderland Security equals FBI, only for supernaturals, which are mostly out in the public.) As Ivy investigates a string of nasty murders, she finds herself torn between the dangerous attractions of two very different vampires. One, Kisten, is just a friend of sorts. The other, Art, is her superior at work. If Ivy remains true to herself and her morals, she risks defying Art, who holds the power of life, death, and promotion above her. If she gives in… well, Ivy Tamwood doesn’t like to surrender to anyone. But will these distractions ruin her chance at finding a killer? One thing’s for certain: her career will never be the same again.

It was interesting to see things from Ivy’s point of view for the first time in the series. Until now, we’ve only gotten input from Rachel’s perspective, and where vampires are concerned, Rachel tends to be somewhat biased, and not unfairly so. Finally getting Ivy’s side of things helps us to understand the character, and where she was coming from when she first entered Rachel’s life later on. It’s also great getting to see more of Kisten, whose bad boy attitude has kept things interesting in his appearances throughout the series. And given how the story ends, one can certainly predict long-reaching consequences, sure to resurface sooner or later in the books. This story is unusual in this particular quartet, given that it quite obviously fits into a larger setting, and serves to flesh out the characters of a particular series. It’s also a bit darker, more intense, and less of a “date” than its companions. But for all that, it’s still my favorite of the four.

“The Claire Switch Project” is Lynsay Sands’ offering. After a beautiful-yet-brilliant scientist, Claire Beckett, is exposed to an experimental molecular destabilizer, she discovers a new ability to shapeshift. Now, she can become anyone or anything she can imagine, so long as she has a proper frame of reference. This proves convenient, since it’s time for her high school reunion, and her best friend Jill is without a date. That’s how Claire gets conned into attending the reunion. Twice. The first time as herself, with Jill’s brother Kyle (who doesn’t know about her new power.) The second, as famous movie star Brad Cruise, escorting Jill. And thus begins a classic sitcom style comedy of chaotic proportions. I mean it. This is old-school Shakespearean transgender multiple-identity slapstick, right down to the bathroom quick changes, the flimsy excuses, the getting stuck in the wrong place with the wrong person, and so on. In the end, will Claire find true love? Or will she be stuck as a half-man, half-woman mess? You be the judge.

Amusing, yet somewhat shallow, “The Claire Switch Project” certainly suffices as a romantic comedy, but the sad truth is that the plot is overly familiar and fairly predictable, much like its thematic predecessors. It’s a solid work by Sands, but her full-length novels are much better.

Kelley Armstrong gives us “Chaotic,” featuring a half-demon reporter who works for a tabloid newspaper as a cover for her true work as a secret agent for an interracial council, doing her part to keep the supernatural creatures of the world out of the public eye. One night, while at a disastrous dinner party, she stumbles across a werewolf jewel thief, and her world is turned upside-down. Now she’s on the run, with a man she can’t trust, while the one she used to work for has turned against her unexpectedly. Conflicting loyalties and deadly agendas will make this a night she’ll never forget.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read Armstrong’s Women of the Underworld series, to which this story seems related. However, based on the strength of this offering, and the talent I see here, I’ll likely try those books soon. This is a good, fast-paced adventure that definitely lives up to its potential. It provides an ending, but leaves things open enough to revisit these characters later on, thus avoiding the “happily ever after” trap which the previous story fell into. I thoroughly enjoyed “Chaotic.”

Finally, Lori Handeland serves up “Dead Man Dating.” Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to start dating again. Take Kit Morelli, for instance. Her first date in months, and just as she finds herself inexplicably getting hot and heavy with her companion in an alleyway, along comes a random guy who shoots him in the head. When Kit opens her eyes, her date has vanished. Then she ends up kidnapped back to her own apartment by the scary random guy, a man called Chavez. It seems he’s a demon hunter, and Kit’s date was some sort of demon… and it all goes downhill from there. Now Kit’s caught between the dangerously sexy, yet unpredictable demon hunter on one side, and a demon absolutely determined to possess her on the other. And all because she’s the rarest of Manhattan commodities: a virgin. How can she get out of this mess? Well, a few things do come to mind…

“Dead Man Dating” is a lot of fun, though it skews much more into the romance side of the paranormal romance equation, with the heroes quite obviously heading towards a certain ending point. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the main characters have chemistry together, and the plot is fairly solid under the circumstances. I’m strongly tempted to check out more of Handeland’s work to see if she’s stronger in a novel format. I certainly wouldn’t be adverse to seeing these characters again.

All in all, Dates From Hell is a good collection with plenty to offer. The strong points clearly outweigh the weak ones, and it’ll appeal to urban fantasy fans as well as paranormal romance fans. I consider the Harrison story worth the price of admission alone, but for those who demand more for their money, this collection does deliver.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

Ascendancy of Blood, by Eugie Foster (Scrybe Press, 2004)

As a howling mob closes in upon a cursed castle, its vampiric queen unleashes an unholy power to protect her people and herself from utter destruction. In seconds, the castle is overtaken by living vines and giant black roses, as the queen herself sinks into an enchanted sleep, a spindle through her heart. There she will lay, until rescued from the consequences of her dark pact.

Hundreds of years later, a prince desperate to prove himself to his people journeys to Castle Thorn. There, he will conquer the enchanted keep, or die trying like those who have come before him. He will fight through the living vines and giant flowers, and partake of their essence, and he will find the sleeping beauty who once ruled long ago. He will undo her curse, and they’ll live happily ever after. Or will they? Or will the differences wrought over centuries stand in the way of their newfound love?

Combining elements of Sleeping Beauty and vampire tales, Ascendancy of Blood is a quick, sharply-told, gorgeously-described chapbook by up-and-coming author, Eugie Foster. Her strength here lies in the lush prose and seductive imagery that permeates the pages. It’s a very short story, too quickly over to really go into any real detail, though she does do a very nice job of twisting both vampire legends and the familiar fairy tale to create something new and different. I think, however, the time has come to see something much longer from Foster, so she can really put her skills to the test. She’s done nicely with the short stories I’ve seen to date in various publications, but I think she has it in her to turn out a full-length novel. She certainly shows plenty of promise. This chapbook might make a great stocking stuffer for literature-loving friends and family. You can reach the publishers here, and the author here.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2005

Mythic 2, edited by Mike Allen (Prime Books, 2007)

Back by popular demand, it’s the second installment in the fabulously speculative, occasionally baffling anthology series, brought to you by the same people who produce the SF/Fantasy poetry magazine, Mythic Delirium. Once again, Mike Allen has assembled a crack team of creative talents to put together a collection of short fiction and poetry. I can’t say it’s entirely unlike anything else you’ll find on the shelves, but his half-fiction/half-poetry format is somewhat unusual: too much fiction for the poetry lovers, and too much poetry for the fiction lovers, or so it might seem. But to dismiss Mythic 2 for either of those reasons might be hasty. Let’s look at what it has to offer.

Charles Saplak’s “Visanna” is the intriguing story of a land in which everyone has multiple faces, appearing behind them in a time-lapse manner, one for every year they’ve lived. Then, one day, the protagonist meets people from another land, where their faces appear before them, one for every year they have left to live. It’s a fascinating concept, and a beautifully-told story that contains layers upon layers. Is it better to see exactly how one has evolved and changed or time, or to know what the future holds? Or are both options equally valid? This story certainly offers plenty to think about.

Catherynne M. Valente’s “Temnaya and the House of Books” takes its inspiration from Snow White and all those other fairy tales featuring wicked stepmothers, jealous mothers, dutiful and abused daughters, faithless fathers, and witches in the woods. A beautiful young woman discovers that somehow, she connects her birth mother and stepmother, and neither of them particularly care for her. Caught in the middle, what will Temnaya do to survive, and can she ever find acceptance? The sharp cruelty of many old fairy tales comes out in stark relief in this tale, which really does feel like something straight out of Grimm’s finest.

In “Moonstone,” by Erzebet YellowBoy, we see another fairy tale, with an equally dark twist. In this, a pair of curses exchanged between a wicked king and a lovely queen result in tragedy, when the king is banished and the queen’s infant daughter is stolen away. Here we see the dedication of a faithful mother, the lengths to which she must go to restore her family, and an unexpected twist straight out of Greek myth. It’s a provocative story with an ending both tragic and hopeful.

Though I’m not as much for the poetry as I am for the fiction, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my absolute favorite piece in this collection. Jo Walton’s “Post-Colonial Literature of the Elves” is a wickedly sly examination of how literature has brought the once-mighty elves of legend down in the world, from near-gods to flower fairies. Is it any wonder they’re a little bitter about their demotion and degradation?

Helena Bell’s “Bluebeard’s Second Wife” may be inspired by the fairy tale referenced in the title, but the sentiments expressed are those of any second spouse, and all too easy to sympathize with.

In “A Pinch of Salt” by Richard Parks, a father and son both come to terms, in their separate ways, over the recent disappearance of their wife/mother, a mermaid. It’s a smooth tale, but refreshingly honest and somewhat poignant, that looks at what love means to us. For some, it means sorrow, for some it means hope, and we’re almost all suckers for it in one way or another. It’s nice to see a protagonist that bluntly honest with himself and others, and it’s a shame the story ended when it did. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of these characters and their world.

Ekaterina Sedia’s “Simargl and the Rowan Tree” is a curiously multi-cultural myth for the modern day, featuring the adventures of an absinthe addict who dies a fiery death and becomes Simargl, the guardian of heaven, charged with protecting the sun chariot each day. When his attempts to show mercy to a drowned girl in another part of the afterlife result in trouble, he has to fix things as best he can. Sedia draws from a number of influences to weave this story, and the end-result is something new and different, yet feeling familiar in its own way.

“The Wind-Catching Wizard” by Danny Adams, is the tale of a wizard’s bodyguard. Sworn to a loyalty that has become friendship over the years, this man must face the indisputable fact that his master is growing old and senile, and as a result, may pose a threat to the world. Now he must find a way to prevent disaster or tragedy, all the while adhering to his oath and his honor. The solution is clever, and unexpected, making for quite a fun, well-told story. I hope we’ll see more of this setting sometime.

These are only some of the varied offerings available in Mythic 2, and I’d have to say that for sheer entertainment value, this volume is worth picking up. The fiction it contains is just as good as what you’d find in any of the Year’s Best collections, and even for someone like me, who doesn’t get poetry most of the time, there’s still something there to be appreciated. All in all, I found more than enough in here to put Mythic 2 on my recommendation list.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Three SF Anthologies, edited by Mike Resnick (DAW, 2004)

Two of these anthologies explore two sides to the same coin. Science fiction has always been about exploring the realm of possibilities, and that includes exploring gender and perception. Editor Mike Resnick approached a number of writers, and asked them to imagine a world from the viewpoint of the opposite gender. The only rules: that the story had to be told from the viewpoint of a specific gender (male if the author was female, female if the author was male), and if changing the narrator from Victor to Victoria or vice versa didn’t invalidate the story, they didn’t want it. That said, the authors were all ready for the challenge.

In the first volume, Women Writing Science Fiction As Men, authors such as Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Janis Ian, Laura Resnick, Severna Park, Terry McGarry, Jennifer Roberson, and Mercedes Lackey all turn in some truly thought-provoking stories. However, it’s Leah A. Zelde’s “Big” which gets my vote for the strangest, seeing as how it starts with e-mail spam for penis enlargement and take the idea to a ludicrously imaginative conclusion. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Homecoming” looks at the idea of paternity suits and spaceflight relativity in a poignant, yet interesting manner. Severna Park’s story, “Call For Submissions,” actually draws upon the early history of the SF field itself for inspiration, telling the story of some of its earliest magazine editors. Unfortunately, this story seems to violate the one major guideline, in that the narrator is a female. I guess it’s okay to break the rules after all. In “What Goes Around,” Robyn Herrington looks at body-hopping and crimes and misdemeanors. Adrienne Gormley’s “Maxwell’s Law” is a clever tale of a theoretical idea in human form. “Diving After Reflected Woman,” by Terry McGarry, tells the story of a police video-recorder who takes a very unusual confession, and has a difficult choice to make in response. Mercedes Lackey contemplates alien television and the human condition in “Sweeps Week.” Jennifer Roberson’s “Jesus Freaks” looks at a future desperately in need of some divine reassurance. And Leslie What’s story, “All My Children,” examines the fate of a sperm donor with some real family issues.

In Men Writing Science Fiction As Women, the theme is turned around. Now it’s male authors trying to write from a female viewpoint. Tobias Buckell, Robert Sawyer, Michael Burstein, Barry Malzberg, Jack Dann, David Gerrold and others all take their turn at bat. Tom Gerencer’s “Not Quite Immaculate” details a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tale of a lesbian spaceship pilot entrusted with a very unusual cargo. In “Relativity,” Robert Sawyer examines what happens to a family dynamic when one member spends several years at light-speed, leaving the rest behind on Earth. John Teehan’s “A Small Goddess” is an unusual look at an AI with a female identity. Nick DiChario turns in “Zolo and the Jelly Ship,” a strange tale of a ship that chooses its own captain, and reshapes them as needed. In “Love Story,” Frank M. Robinson recounts a political marriage constructed to fail, then delivers a surprising twist at the very end.

Both of these anthologies are great fun, ranging from the serious to the humorous. For the most part, they hit their targets, with only a few wayward misses to mar the overall effect. Overall, I’m happy to recommend both collections, individually or as a set.

On the heels of his other two anthologies, Mike Resnick also gives us New Voices in Science Fiction, which showcases twenty of the genre’s up and coming writers, some of whom have seen multiple novels published in recent years, some of whom are still working on their next short story publication. Some of them have been nominated for, or even won the Campbell Award for best new SF writer, while others have seen Hugo, Aurora, or Philip K. Dick award nominations. What they all have in common is that they’ve come to prominence in the past decade or so, and they all represent the next generation of great SF writers.

I picked up this anthology, and started with one story, and before I knew it I’d read half of the offerings in a row, unable to stop. There’s some really great, imaginative stories in here. For instance, Tom Gerencer’s “Intergalactic Refrigerator Repairmen Seldom Carry Cash,” which, apart from having a memorable title, looks at repairmen who make house calls in a whole different light. Lisa Mantchev’s “1-800-WICKED1″ explains just where the evil stepmother or wicked queen in all those fairy tales might have gotten their evil paraphernalia… and how hard it is to get refunds. Shades of the Acme Corporation in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons! Kay Kenyon’s “The Book of Faces” starts off, “For a fifteen-year-old without a face, I’m figure I’m pretty lucky,” and goes on from there. There’s Robyn Herrington’s “Dressmaker to the Princess,” which divulges the fashion secrets behind one of the 20th Century’s most prominent superheroines. In Barb Galler-Smith’s “Aphrodite on a Bar Stool,” mythical events replay themselves out in a bar catering to gods and demigods.

These are just a sampling of the numerous worthwhile stories to be found in New Voices in Science Fiction. Resnick’s done a great job of providing a wide range of authors and styles here, and it’s the ideal springboard for exploring those authors already present on the bookshelves. I recommend it highly.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2004

If I Were An Evil Overlord, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis (DAW 2007)

As the title suggests, this anthology is quite clear inspired by the infamous Internet list of the same name (a rather nice version can be found at but the stories do branch out on their own, at times. Fourteen authors take varying looks at the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the much-maligned “Evil Overlord” (also known as Dark Lord, Evil Ruler, Bad Guy, Plot Device, Antagonist, and Hero’s Chewtoy…). It’s a celebration and exploration of what it means to be the guy everyone loves to hate. So let’s take a look at some of the stories, and see if the villains in question have read the List, and therefore know what to do, and what not to do…

“If Looks Could Kill” is one of Esther Friesner’s famously comedic stories, featuring the annoyingly-beautiful elven prince, his much-abused sidekick, and an extended stay in the evil ruler’s dungeon. Now, this prince is well aware of the rules of the game, specifically “The evil overlord’s beautiful daughter will always fall for the hero, help him escape, and help him save the day,” and he plans to use said knowledge to, well…, you get the point. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. As always, Friesner’s ear for comedy, and her ability to conjure up entertaining imagery makes this a great lead story, full of self-aware humor, and ending on a wry note.

David Bischoff’s “The Man Who Would Be Overlord” is the tale of a rogue who partners with a con man in a successful attempt to gain ultimate power. Of course, there’s always a catch to these things, and our unlikely antihero discovers just how catchy his new position really is. Both serious and comic, this story doesn’t miss a beat as it follows the protagonist through his rise and fall in fortune.

Jody Lynn Nye’s “Ensuring the Succession” takes more than a hint from James Bond, as one evil mastermind does his very best to make sure that his son will have every talent, skill, and experience needed to follow in his footsteps. Of course, even the greatest plans have their flaws, or do they? Nye presents a rather sympathetic view of someone who regularly maims, murders, tortures, and kidnaps others for his own ends; it’s almost a shame to see this one end.

Dean Wesley Smith turns in “The Life & Death of Fortune Cookie Tyrant,” the singularly odd tale of an ordinary man whose life is ruled by fortune cookies, all of which come true for him in unexpected ways. But which rule from the Evil Overlord List will prove to be his downfall? It’s an odd story, to be sure, but nonetheless entertaining.

In Jim C. Hines’ “Daddy’s Little Girl,” we get a much more serious tale involving familial love and obligation, and the raising of the dead, when one evil overlord’s daughter engages the services of her father’s deceased architect to invade a forbidden citadel and finish her father’s work. This one’s a creepy, but effective tale.

J. Steven York gives us something straight out of a comic book, or the pulps, with “Gordie Culligan vs Dr. Longbeach & The HVAC of Doom.” Invading booby-trapped air ducts of certain death is all in a day’s work when you’re the guy hired to fix them. But is saving the world part of the job? In this entertaining story, it might fall under ‘hazard pay.’

One of my favorite rules has always been the one where the overlord runs his plan past a 5-year old to eliminate oversights and loopholes. No wonder I got a kick out of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Advisers At Naptime,” in which one overlord does just that.

Tanya Huff’s “A Woman’s Work” features a rather likeable queen who just happens to be ruthless, intelligent, and clever in all the right ways. Though it always feels weird rooting for the bad guys, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Huff’s protagonist at work.

Over in John Helfers’s “Stronger Than Fate,” an evil overlord faces the end of his glorious rise to power when that pesky pigtender’s son comes to exact revenge in the time-honored tradition. But this overlord’s been quite smart in his progress over the years, can he defeat this enemy, or is tradition (and fate) about to ensure the triumph of good over evil? Helfers lays out an intelligent tale with a rather satisfying ending.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s evil overlord, on the other hand, seems to have lost his knack for ruling, and his subsequent stay in a villain rehab program is chronicled in “Art Therapy.” Can this guy find his groove and get back in the game, or has he finally gone soft? Only time will tell.

Other authors featured include Fiona Patton, David Niall Wilson, Donald J. Bingle, and Steven Roman. All things considered, If I Were An Evil Overlord does great justice to the concept, with more than a healthy does of entertaining, well-told stories to make it well-worth picking up. I was thoroughly pleased with how well the authors and editor followed through on the promise, ranging from comic to serious, insightful to self-aware.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Under Cover of Darkness, edited by Julie E. Czernada and Jana Paniccia (DAW, 2007)

Who doesn’t love secret societies, conspiracies, and mysterious organizations? Their goals unclear, their methods inscrutable, and their influence uncertain, they’re the perfect explanations and scapegoats for everything that has ever seemed off-kilter throughout the course of human civilization. From the Illuminati to the Boy Scouts, there’s always someone to blame for just about everything. And now in this collection, fourteen authors risk life and limb to pull back the curtain to reveal just who might or might not be pulling our strings.

Larry Niven turns his attention towards the United States government, in “The Gatherer’s Guild.” Or rather, to the numerous secretive departments of the IRS, who possess technology and privileges beyond imagining. But who’s behind a rash of mysterious deaths, and how does it all relate to the intricacies of the American tax system? Niven’s story is tongue-in-cheek, highly entertaining, and cleverly told. Hey… it makes sense to me.

Nick Pollatta unravels the true secrets of the Freemasons, and the enigmatic, all-important Key they safeguard, in “Falling Like The Gentle Rain.” It’s an action-packed summer blockbuster full of twists, turns, and hidden revelations as one P.I. fights for his life to fulfill his destiny. This one may be over the top, but then again, so are many conspiracy theories.

In “Borrowed Time,” Stephen Kotowych confirms what we already suspected, that there’s a secret group stealing away the idle moments of our lives, stockpiling it in service to a greater agenda. But are they doing us a favor, or do we deserve every moment of our lives, even the ones we waste? There’s a rogue faction dedicated to exploring this very question in this nifty little tale.

Esther Friesner breaks all the rules in “Seeking the Master,” when she unravels the secrets of a most insidious organization. I don’t dare give away the surprise ending, but I will say I know the secret handshake… do you? As always, Friesner’s ear for dialogue and wry tone make this an enjoyable read.

“When I Look To The Sky,” by Russell Davis, chronicles the convoluted tale of a man chosen to become a time-traveling assassin. In order to ensure history remains straight, he has to make a very personal decision, but does he have the strength to carry through? This one may require several readings, as it really does fold in on itself in a complex, yet imaginative manner.

Tanya Huff’s master thief, Terizan, is recruited for another job, in “The Things Everyone Knows.” Her search for proof of existence of a conspiracy dedicated to overthrowing the city’s ruling Council leads her to the shadowy world of the recently dead, in one of her most harrowing adventures to date. But when faced with a genuine secret society, will Terizan help, or hinder them? As always, the thief’s morality will lead her to find a unique solution, with Huff’s trademark ingenuity.

Paul Crilley’s “The Invisible Order” shines a spotlight upon a strange war raging among the Fae on the dirty streets of old London, and the effect it has upon those mortals who stumble across the hidden conflict. I daresay this one has potential for further exploration.

Also dealing with the hidden nature of the Fae in human society is Amanda Bliss Maloney’s tale of secret identities and mysterious heritages in a future where technology has taken a step back, in “The Good Samaritan.” No one is who, or what, they seem to be, in this story which really does deserve a follow-up or two.

Rounding out this collection are stories by Doranna Durgin, Darin A. Garrison, Janet Deaver-Pack, Janny Wurts, and Jihane Noskateb, and Douglas Smith. As with all anthologies, there’s a little something for everyone, but more often than not, these stories genuinely entertained and interested me. It’s certainly easy to see some of these concepts working in today’s society, while others, a bit more far-fetched, certainly take the theme of the collection to heart. I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Magazine of F&SF – May 2007

K.D. Wentworth’s “Kaleidoscope” is the story of Ally Coelho, who, after retiring to take up a quiet life of gardening at home, begins to experience divergent timelines. One day she rescues a dog, yet her memories also tell her, quite firmly, how the dog died. She goes out to dinner with friends, yet misses the dinner altogether. She goes out on a date with one man named Barry, yet remembers an entirely different one. As the weeks pass, the prismatic effect grows worse, with people — including a whole host of variant Barrys — parading in and out of her life with alarming and confusing frequency. Is Ally going insane, or is the universe just indecisive where she’s concerned? This is a charming, somewhat bittersweet story about how life isn’t just what we make of it, it’s what it makes of us. How Ally and Barry navigate through the minefield of reality’s shifting decisions speaks of a lot about how we handle the many aspects of our own lives. An excellent, thought-provoking story.

Don Webb’s “The Great White Bed” is a creepy, spine-tingling tale of the fateful summer one young man spends at his grandfather’s house. The old man seems to be losing his mind due to age, but the discovery of a mysterious book may be reversing the process. But at what cost to the narrator? Something’s going on, and it’s taking a terrible toll in the process. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the questions raised in this spooky story. Webb certainly has a knack for invoking uncomfortable reactions, as evidenced by this story.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

Magazine of F&SF – April 2007

“Titanium Mike Saves the Day,” by David D. Levine explores how myths are created, and how they evolve over the years. Starting in the far future, we’re granted a story of Titanium Mike, a space-age Paul Bunyan, born from the union of Gravity and Vacuum, whose adventures and exploits are as impossible as they are legendary. Three more installments, each one reaching further back in time than the last, likewise tell tall tales of the mythical man, and although he may be slightly diminished in each earlier incarnation, he still proves to be both inspirational and influential in man’s journey to the stars. The last story, well… that tells the truth of the Titanium Mike story, putting the perfect cap to things. This is as perfect an examination of how reality becomes legend and legend becomes myth as any I’ve seen, and it’s a sure bet that when we really do go out into space, we’ll need someone like Titanium Mike to keep us company.

In Donald Mead’s “A Thing Forbidden,” we’re introduced to a young woman suffering from some profoundly disturbing conflicts following her traumatic experiences as a member of the ill-fated Donner Party. A somewhat struggling Methodist, she has sworn to convert to Catholicism, despite the reservations of others and her own internal struggles. But can she reconcile the Eucharist — the symbolic eating of Christ’s blood and flesh — with her vow to never again taste human flesh? And what secret is her mother hiding from her? It’ll all come to a head when an enemy tries to make Virginia choose a bloody path. This is a thought-provoking, strange look at the nature of faith and symbolism, intent and principles, and what it means sometimes to survive against all odds. Definitely one of those stories that sticks with you afterwards.

Originally Posted on SF Site, 2007