My Zombie Hamster, by Havelock McCreely

My Zombie Hamster [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Havelock McCreely, is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…

Naturally, there’s more to it. Let’s start with the official synopsis:

Matt Hunter and his buddies are looking forward to Christmas — actually, they’re looking forward to receiving the latest sword-and-fantasy video game. But Matt’s parents have other thoughts — they give him a fluffy little mammal, a hamster called Snuffles, for the holiday. And his grandmother makes it worse by giving him a hamster cage and wheel. But the hamster isn’t all that cute — at least not after part of its cheek and belly fall right off — without bothering it a bit! And why is it staring at Matt with black beady eyes and a lean and hungry look?

Say hello to Anti-Snuffles, the zombie hamster! Or better yet, run!

This is a middle grade book set in the very near present. The zombie apocalypse has led to a society of walled cities and towns, but aside from the zombie-hunting cops wandering around to make sure you’re still alive, and the presence of life chips that go off when you expire (alerting said zombie-hunting cops to come and dispose of your potentially brain-hungry corpse). On the other hand, Matt still has to go to school, still references present-day pop culture, and still lives a life that’s in many ways pretty similar to most kids these days.

Similar except for the never-named-but-clearly-hinted-at ex-movie star who’s come to town to take charge of zombie security, of course. And the mayor’s big pet contest. And of course, Anti-Snuffles, who may or may not be building an army of undead critters…

It’s a quick read, one the author describes as “a cross between Shaun of the Dead, The Goonies, and The Diary of Adrian Mole.” The short, daily chapters are interspersed with Matt’s lists of things to do, whether it’s his plan for breaking into [SPOILER] or the things he plans to do once he becomes a megamillionaire.

Despite the undead hamster, the book isn’t particularly gross or scary, so it shouldn’t give young kids nightmares about the family pets. On the other hand, reading it as a not-quite-40-year-old, that also meant the stakes didn’t feel quite as urgent to me.

One of my favorite parts was a subplot with one of Matt’s friends, something I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. But it was an unexpected development, and I really enjoyed the way the characters handled it.

It’s a light-hearted story about a boy vs. his undead hamster. What else is there to say?

The book comes out on July 8, 2014.

ETA: And the author has confirmed a sequel is in the works, set about six months after the events of book one.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book because I had met Wesley a while back, and he seemed like a pretty cool person. I finished reading it because it’s such a fun read.

Tao is basically a symbiotic life form, one who requires a human or animal host to survive on Earth. His people crash landed on our planet ages ago, and are now at war. Tao and the Prophus want to peacefully encourage humanity’s evolution until our technology is advanced enough to help them get home. The Genjix are believed to have similar goals … minus the “peacefully” part.

After a mission gone wrong results in the death of Tao’s human host, he’s forced into the body of an unambitious, insecure IT technician named Roen. This is the time, when he’s stuck in an untrained host, that Tao is most vulnerable. He has to keep Roen alive long enough to get him trained, and eventually to try to figure out what the Genjix are really up to this time.

Like I said, the book is a lot of fun. Tao is a great character, one who has existed in some of the greatest hosts in human history. (Genghis Khan, for example.) Tao tells Roen dream-stories about some of his past lives at the start of each chapter, which gives him (and us) the background of both Tao and his people.

Tao has tons of experience and knowledge, but upgrading Roen to superspy status isn’t as easy as simply plugging him in. There’s plenty of banter, entertaining training scenes, lots of action, and characters you want to keep reading about.

The only real complaint I have isn’t about the writing so much as it is one of the tropes Chu uses in the book. He’s created a world in which many of the wars and tragedies of human history were actually engineered by the Genjix. While it makes sense in the context of the book, I’ve never liked that particular trope, since it would seem to excuse us for our own atrocities. I know it’s fiction, but it still bugs me. Humans are capable of amazing things. We’re also capable of horrible, evil things. Pretending otherwise feels like lying about human nature.

Like I said, it’s a personal peeve.

There’s a twist in the ending that I saw coming pretty early on, but overall, it’s a good ending, one that wraps up the events of this book while making it clear there’s more to come in the series.

You can read an excerpt of the book at I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao.

Reading Roundup

I’ve fallen a bit behind in book reviews, so I’m going to do a quick threesome to get caught up.


Let’s start with Chuck Wendig‘s Under the Empyrean Sky [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], a dystopian YA novel with genetically engineered super-corn. The stuff will grow pretty much anywhere and on anything … including people.

Cael is a young scavenger, sailing over the endless sea of corn, searching for anything they can sell to bring in a few extra bucks. Life in the Heartland pretty much bites the wax tadpole, but the Empyrean government in their floating cities are the blaster-wielding Goliath to the Heartland’s slingshot-carrying David, making it difficult for folks like Cael to do anything beyond grumble and survive the best they can.

This is book one of a trilogy, and there’s a lot of worldbuilding and groundwork being laid out. It’s fast-paced, gritty, and dark. (I did mention it was a dystopian story, right?) There are some very cool ideas here, from the corn that can infest and grow into people’s bodies to the different ways people attempt to rebel against their rulers.

A little grim for my personal taste, but a lot of creativity and plenty of action, and it ends with the promise of even more to come in book two.


Next up is the award-winning God’s War [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Kameron Hurley. This one’s even grittier than Wendig. Here’s a quick summary from the Publishers Weekly review:

On a planet settled by Muslims and ravaged by constant war and pollution, Nyx, a former government-sponsored assassin or “bel dame,” gets by as a bounty hunter. Her assistant is the foreign magician Rhys, who can control the ubiquitous insects that drive the planet’s technology.

There’s a lot I really liked about this one, starting with the bugs. Hurley creates an entire world that runs on insect-based technology, from glowing bugs in lamps to carefully-bred beetles that can be used to deliver injections or draw blood to organic vehicles that run on bug-powered engines. The whole biological and genetic technologies are fascinating and engaging.

I also appreciate the central role of religion in the story, and the different perspectives we get from devout characters like Rhys and characters who appear to have turned their backs on God, like Nyx. That said, it bothers me that we have a planet colonized by Muslims that’s spent the past 3000 years fighting a religious war. I don’t know if this is something that will be addressed in the next books, if we get a broader view of the universe, but for now, this struck me as problematic.

The society Hurley creates has become dominated by women, in part as an effect of the neverending war. It was fascinating to see the reversals and changes.

Overall, not an easy book to read: it’s dark, different, at times troubling, and often thoughtful. Despite my reservations, I’m curious about the larger universe, and will probably be picking up the next one to see what happens.


Finally, there’s Stuart Moore’s Civil War [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], the novelization of the Marvel Comics storyline of the same name. From the overview:

When a tragic battle blows a hole in the city of Stamford, killing hundreds of people, the U.S. government demands that all super heroes unmask and register their powers. To Tony Stark – Iron Man – it’s a regrettable but necessary step. To Captain America, it’s an unbearable assault on civil liberties…

I like the premise of the story a lot, the struggle between security and liberty, the danger of superpowered individuals and collateral damage. Unfortunately, the story didn’t really work for me. I certainly enjoyed watching Iron Man and Thor go toe-to-toe in The Avengers, but during that battle, you never really had the sense they would go so far as to kill one another.

That’s not the case in this book, which turns superheroes into deadly enemies … and that’s where I kept getting kicked out of the story. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept that these characters would let themselves get so out of control. I get the urge to make them more human and flawed, I thought it went too far. While there are exceptions, I generally want my superhero stories to feature heroes I can actually like.

There were some good bits, and it was certainly a fast read, but it’s not one I’m likely to reread.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

I brought Rae Carson‘s The Girl of Fire and Thorns [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] along to read on the flight to and from MarsCon. I enjoyed it enough that I ended up finishing the book before I reached Chicago on the flight home. It has engaging characters, plenty of action, interesting magic and worldbuilding, everything a good book needs.

The official description:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa has always felt powerless, useless. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could save his people. And he looks at her in a way no man has ever looked at her before. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

The book is popular enough that there are a ton of reviews if you want more details there. I want to jump right into an aspect of the book that jumped out at me. Namely, the fact that Princess Elisa is unapologetically fat.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean that the character herself is unapologetic. When we meet Elisa, she knows she’s seen as unappealing, ugly, even grotesque, and she’s internalized those beliefs for most of her life. But Carson doesn’t dance around the fact. She doesn’t try to minimize it, or to soften the descriptions or effects, both physical and societal. At the same time, the narration never struck me as fat-shaming. It’s an impressive and powerful balancing act.

I really appreciate meeting this strong, intelligent, likeable character who happens to also be fat, and I’m very glad Carson chose to write her. I’ve read a lot of epic fantasy, and I believe this is the first time I’ve come across a protagonist like this. (I’m sure there are other examples; my point is that it’s very, very rare.)

As impressed as I am with the writing, there were things I found troubling. Elisa is someone who eats to cope with stress and anxiety and depression. Over the course of the book, as she’s drawn into the middle of a war, she finds herself living a much harsher lifestyle. Less food and more exercise, and within a few chapters, she’s dropped a great deal of weight. She’s never skinny, which I appreciate, but there is a pretty drastic physical change that coincides with her growth into a leader.

This particular narrative thread troubled me as I read it. To her credit, Carson notes in the afterword that she struggled with it as well, and that she even considered not having Elisa lose weight. But she felt that given everything Elisa endures, it would be unrealistic to not show the physical effects. It’s a valid argument, and I’m not sure how she could have done it any differently.

But at the same time, it makes this a story about a character who’s fat because she’s slothful and gluttonous, who loses lots of weight when she has to hike across the desert with very little food, and who suddenly has more confidence, male attention, etc. once she’s lost weight.

It’s not that this narrative is necessarily unrealistic. Sometimes people are fat because they eat too much and never exercise. Sometimes diet and exercise is all it takes. But this is pretty much the only narrative we ever hear. Fat = slothful and lazy and gluttonous, and all those fat people need is a bit of exercise and discipline, and their lives would be so much better.

To be clear, I don’t believe that’s what Carson is trying to say here. In fact, there are places where I believe she’s working against that narrative. For example, one character’s attraction to Elisa begins before the weight loss. But I’m not sure it’s enough.

It’s something that bugs me in the cover art, too. The U.S. paperback shows only Elisa’s face within a blue jewel. Other editions consistently show slender women on the covers. We all know why they do it, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

While I may have reservations about this part of the story, I still appreciate Carson writing and struggling with it. My guess is that a lot of people, particularly those who are or have been overweight in our society, will relate to much of what Elisa experiences.

And it really is a well-written, engaging book. I love the way Carson incorporates religion, how she interrogates it and shows it as a tool for both good and evil. The culture, a loosely Spanish setting, was interesting and new to me. The magic system works well, and the various revelations were wonderful.

It’s a good book, and I think it’s definitely worth reading. You can read a sample at the Harper Collins website.

I would absolutely love to hear other people’s thoughts on this one.

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

William Alexander‘s Goblin Secrets [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Watch out, world! Goblins are winning awards now!

Alexander’s goblins are a bit more civilized than mine, with more fairy-style magic and fewer nose-picking injuries. From the Goblin Secrets website:

Rownie, the youngest in Graba the witchworker’s household of stray children, escapes and goes looking for his missing brother. Along the way he falls in with a troupe of theatrical goblins and learns the secret origins of masks. Now Graba’s birds are hunting him in the Southside of Zombay, the Lord Mayor’s guards are searching for him in Northside, and the River between them is getting angry. The city needs saving — and only the goblins know how.

One of the things I liked about this book was that the author didn’t spend a lot of time on backstory or hand-holding to explain the worldbuilding. You jump right into Rownie’s story, picking up details as you go, from the clockwork guards to the mythology of the River to the layout and struggles of the split town. I’ve seen a few reviews that complained this was confusing, but I didn’t have a problem with it. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding, and the thought Alexander had put into the magic and history. You can skim the book and still appreciate the story, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read more closely.

The different types of magic felt original and interesting, from the masks to Graba’s curses to the coal used to power various automatons. I also appreciated the role and personalities of the goblins, all of whom felt distinctive and real and interesting.

At its heart, the plot is pretty straightforward and self-contained. What’s interesting to me is that I think one of the reasons it works so well is everything Alexander doesn’t say, in addition to the things he does. He drops hints and suggestions, and the reader fills in the rest. It’s an impressive balancing act.

There are a few scenes that are genuinely dark and disturbing in that old-school fairy tale way, but they feel right for the book. And the ending is both satisfying and true to the story.

Not bad for a debut novel.

You can listen to an eight-minute audio sample on the Simon and Schuster website or read an excerpt through Google Books.

Ink Black Magic, by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Ink Black Magic [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the third book in Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ Mocklore chronicles. I haven’t read the first two, but that wasn’t much of a problem. While there are a few references to earlier events, the book pretty much stands on its own.

How to describe this one … well, let’s start with this snippet from the official description:

True love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Happy endings don’t come cheap.
All that magic is probably going to kill you.
You really can have too much black velvet.

That sums things up surprisingly well.

Basically, you’ve got Kassa Daggersharp, legendary ex-pirate and professor of magic; and Egg Friefriedsson, a university student whose comics come to life in the form of the foreboding and fashion-challenged city of Drak. And also a guy who’s currently a winged sheep. And Aragon Silversword, who’s in the midst of an identity crisis of his own. They have to save their home from Drak, which is expanding and transforming everyone it touches into dark, foreboding, sinister versions of themselves, all of whom dress like Neil Gaiman.

Other reviewers have compared this book to Pratchett’s work, and I had the same reaction at several points while I was reading. There’s a healthy appreciation for the absurd, and a lively cast of ridiculous and entertaining secondary characters. It doesn’t have the same laugh-out-loud moments of funny, but it didn’t feel to me like Roberts was aiming for that. So I didn’t see this as a flaw, merely a different flavor of comic fantasy.

The plot was surprisingly layered, with mystery after mystery to be peeled back like an onion in which every layer of the onion is magical and might kill you or rewrite your mind or un-kill you or make it rain seafood. Or all of the above. While this made for a more complex and ambitious story, the pacing toward the end felt a little off to me, as if there was just too much to wrap up. But that could be a quirk of my personal taste.

Overall, a fun read and a nice change of pace.

In Which I Fanboy Over Avatar: The Last Airbender

We’ve finally finished watching all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’m going to go ahead and say this is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Here’s the official show description from the website, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with it:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Only the Avatar was the master of all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless Fire Nation from conquering the world. But when the world needed him most, he disappeared. Until now…

On the South Pole, a lone Water Tribe village struggles to survive. It’s here that a young Waterbender named Katara and her warrior brother Sokka rescue a strange boy named Aang from a cavernous iceberg. Not only is Aang an Airbender–a race of people no one has seen in a century–but they soon discover that Aang is also the long lost Avatar. Now it’s up to Katara and Sokka to make sure Aang faces his destiny to save the tribe–and himself. Did we mention he’s only 12?

I don’t know how best to talk about a three-season, 61-episode show, so I’m just going to randomly celebrate some of the things that made it work so well for me.

The Characters: Almost without exception, every character has his/her own personality and story arc. The Big Bad Fire Lord was pretty much the only one who struck me as one-dimensional, and that’s partly because he barely even shows up until the very end. Everyone else felt fully human. They struggle. They make mistakes. You can connect and sympathize with almost everyone, even the villains. These are interesting people, and I wanted to spend more time with them.

The Animation: This is a beautifully animated show, from the background artwork to the various spirit creatures to the different cultural styles of dress and architecture to my particular favorite, the gracefulness of the four styles of bending. It’s gorgeous to look at.

The Joy: Aang’s backstory is incredibly painful. He’s the last of his people, a hundred years out of his time, and is tasked with saving the world. At the age of twelve. Yet he never loses his joy in the world. He jokes, he laughs, he plays, he dances. He believes in people … but not to the point of foolishness. The show hits notes of both very real pain and ridiculous silliness (poor cabbage guy), and the full range in between. That’s a hard thing to do well, and incredibly powerful when done right.

I’m putting the rest behind a cut tag, because of spoilers…




Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, by Myke Cole

I reviewed Myke Cole‘s first book, Shadow Ops: Control Point, back in January of 2012. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the sequel, and if you liked the first book, I suspect you’ll like this one even more.

Book two picks up where the first one left off, but switches to the perspective of Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a military man more comfortable behind a desk than in actual combat. He’s a quiet, nervous, even timid man, but when he comes up latent (displaying magical abilities), all that changes. He’s drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps, and ends up on the FOB Frontier, another world filled with magic and goblins and more.

While “write what you know” is generally a silly rule, Cole shows how it can work, using his own military background to create a solid, believable military fantasy. One of my favorite parts of the book was watching Bookbinder learn to move through his fears and develop his own leadership abilities.

Oscar Britton, the p0rtamancer protagonist from book one, also gets some point of view time in the book. It can be odd switching perspectives after spending so much time with one character, but I think it worked here. It was important to see what he’s been doing since book one, and how those events have changed him.

I enjoyed meeting the naga, learning more about the creatures of the Source, and seeing how other nations are dealing with magic and this fantastic frontier. And I appreciate that Cole went back to address the potentially deadly mess Oscar Britton left behind in book one.

In some respects, this is very much a middle book. (The third book, Breach Zone, comes out in January of 2014.) While relatively self-contained, the larger story arc about how people with magical powers are treated and mistreated, as well as the secrets of the magical frontier — “the Source” — are left unresolved. Indeed, this book ups the stakes in a number of ways. Assuming book three is the last one, I expect quite the crescendo.

You can read an excerpt of the first book at, here. If you like the excerpt, you’ll probably like the first book. If you liked the first book, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the second.

Velveteen vs. the Multiverse, by Seanan McGuire

When I was at Windycon a few weeks back, the convention was kind enough to give me a copy of Seanan McGuire‘s collection Velveteen vs. the Multiverse [ISFiC Press].

I wrote the introduction to the first Velveteen collection, Velveteen vs. the Junior Super Patriots, so I was very thankful (do you see what I did there?) to get my hands on book two. In this book, bunny-eared superheroine Velveteen, with the power to animate toys, continues her battle against the the forces of the Super Patriots, Inc.

I emailed Seanan after I finished reading the collection, telling her she was awesome, and that I was honored to be her friend. She wrote back to say thank you, but that she wasn’t sure what about her silly superhero stories had inspired such a response.

That’s a fair question, and it’s taken me a few days to try to put it into words. Because sure, there’s a fair amount of silliness going on in these stories. There’s a superhero who’s basically a Disney princess come to life. There are Velveteen’s green plastic army men shooting tiny plastic bullets at bad guys. There’s a whole story about getting trapped in a typical horror flick.

But despite the silliness, the characters are always treated with respect. They feel like real people, even when they’re flung into rather odd or absurd situations. Their struggles and their love and their pain are real, and you very quickly start to care about them all. I think that’s one of Seanan’s superpowers.

There’s more going on here, though. These stories, this book, felt … unfiltered in a way most books don’t. It felt like Seanan McGuire had written these stories purely for the fun and joy and love of it. Knowing her as a friend, I could see her shamelessly indulging her love of parallel universes and toys and twisted holidays and fairy tales and horror films and so much more, and it works. This collection is an invitation to join Seanan in celebrating everything she loves.

Now sure, if you don’t like the same things she does, then the stories may not work for you. No book works for everyone, after all. And not everyone has the same tolerance for the fun/silly factor in stories.

But I like it. I like the random-but-carefully-thought-out superpowers combined with the all-too-real corporate overlords of the Super Patriots, Inc. I like that she never forgets that all victories come with a cost. I like that the individual, mostly-standalone stories don’t feel repetitive. I like the character revelations we get in this book.

I liked the first collection, but by the end of this one, I felt like Seanan had accomplished something magical.

The Velveteen stories are also available online if you want to check them out before you buy. The first nine are listed on her website. All of them are tagged on her LiveJournal.

Go forth and read and buy. For justice!

Jim C. Hines