Science Fiction & Fantasy

Seasonal Fears



Book Reviews: May 2015

Andrea Phillips

Fireside Fiction Company, May 2015 | 240 pages

Revision by Andrea PhillipsThe charm of Revision can be encompassed in one of my favorite lines: “Honey, I was just wondering if your website changes reality.” How do you ask the boyfriend who just dumped you if editing his Wikipedia-like website to say he asked you to marry him actually made him propose? Mira never had to ponder questions like this before; all she wanted was to make it on her own without the help of her wealthy family. But she got involved with the creator of Verity, and he doesn’t know what she’s done. If she really did what she thinks she did. Now Mira has very confusing relationship issues, but she’s also curious about the powers of Verity. With Revision, Andrea Phillips cleverly balances the story of a woman trying to carve out her place in the world with the story of a woman trying to save that very world.

At first, the book seems like a light, fun read. Mira is a likable heroine, and I love her initially bewildered take on Verity. It does seem a bit ludicrous, but we, the readers, know it’s for real, so it’s okay that it hangs in the background for a while as we meet the people in Mira’s life: her coffee shop bosses, a gay interracial couple both named Joe; her longtime best friend, Eli; her mother and father, eternally disappointed that she isn’t living up to her potential; the mysterious, possibly homeless Indian woman named Chandra who tells her that Verity is not all it’s cracked up to be.


Once Mira gets wind of the sinister side of Verity, the book becomes very hard to put down. Can she trust this woman? Can she trust her fiancé? If this major corporation has the power to literally change the world, what are its plans? Thankfully/disappointingly, Revision never goes full-on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya with its take on altering reality. While I would have loved to see what would happen if Mira simply wrote, “And then a dragon attacked Manhattan!,” Phillips establishes rules early on to limit Verity’s power to prevent Mira from rewriting reality over and over to escape any consequences. Oh, believe me, there are consequences. Fatal consequences.

As Mira learns more and more about Verity, the science fictional elements become more pronounced, and the story begins to read like a conspiracy thriller, as if the book itself has undergone a revision at the genre level. Yet it never loses its emotional core, which is Mira’s development and growth: By the end of the book, she is not the woman we meet in the first chapter, and we understand how and why she got there. I liked this book, but I can’t be sure that Andrea Phillips hasn’t edited reality to make me say that. Edit your reality and give Revision a look yourself.

Sabaa Tahir

Hardcover / Ebook | ISBN 978-1595148032
Razorbill Books, April 2015 | 464 pages

An Ember in Ashes, by Sabaa TahirWhen the Martial Empire’s Masks slaughter Laia’s grandparents and take her brother prisoner, Laia seeks out the aid of the Resistance, who force her to go undercover as the slave of the Commandant — a woman who makes Cersei Lannister look like a kind, loving mother. When Elias, a Mask himself, makes plans to desert the military, he’s forced into a contest to select the next Emperor that makes the Triwizard Tournament look like a trip to Disneyland. If one or both of these characters make it out of An Ember in the Ashes alive, it’s going to be a miracle.

I am in love with the narrative structure of this book. Sabaa Tahir deftly interweaves the stories of Laia and Elias in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading two books in one. Laia has a single goal: spy on the Commandant and gather information so that she can gain her brother’s freedom. Elias has a single goal: survive the Trials so that he can become Emperor and make his own freedom. Tahir alternates chapters such that my thought process as I read was like this: “Aargh! I need the next Laia chapter n — OH YES THE NEXT ELIAS CHAPTER YES!!” And despite the capslock, what’s most impressive is that both stories are equally compelling; at no point was I ever bored by either story. Yes, the characters do meet, and their fates are indeed intertwined, but Tahir does a great job making each narrative stand on its own.

Just as Tahir blends the two narratives, she mixes two cultures. Most of the worldbuilding takes its cues from ancient Rome, a brutal empire with Legionnaires and Centurions. But the supernatural elements come from Arabian mythology, ghuls and jinns and efrits. The dark-skinned Elias came from the desert, raised by Tribesmen, and he has heard the stories, but Laia, a Scholar, believes them to be just that. I wish the supernatural aspects of the book had been explored more; they are absolutely key and essential to the story but don’t get much focus, except for the mysterious Augurs, immortal soothsayers who hold power even over the Commandant, who is ruthless, merciless, heartless, soulless . . . and other kinds of -less.

Like City of Stairs, my favorite book of last year, An Ember in the Ashes pulls together several elements into one. It’s an epic fantasy with the fate of the entire Empire on the line. It’s a spy novel where the consequences for failure range from losing an eye to being raped. It’s a military thriller where soldiers wield scimitars. It’s a coming-of-age story where friendship and loyalty will be tested. It’s also a romance, though that’s one of the weaker aspects of the book; various characters are attracted to each other and I liked how that complicated their dynamics, but only one pairing felt like it had real weight to it. Most of all, An Ember in the Ashes is entirely gripping from start to finish. Though it’s meant to be a standalone, Tahir leaves the door open for a sequel, ending on the perfect note.

Genevieve Valentine

Hardcover / Ebook | ISBN 978-1481425124
Saga Press, March 2015 | 320 pages

Persona, by Genevieve ValentineIn the near future, diplomacy will be handled by Faces, men and women chosen less for their political acumen and more for their public appearances and willingness to vote how they are told to vote. They will be hounded by snaps, paparazzi looking for the most salacious images to sell to the highest bidder. Genevieve Valentine’s vision of the future is not too far off from the present.

Suyana Sapaki, a Peruvian of Quechua descent, represents the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation in the International Assembly. She’s no rising star; in fact, she’s on thin ice with her bosses. Daniel Park, a Korean, steals a camera to capture what he hopes will be a career-making shot of her beginning a politically approved relationship.

And then someone tries to assassinate her.

“Run,” says Suyana, and they do. They’re uneasy allies, and they don’t trust each other. As Suyana and Daniel engage in Parisian spyjinks, Valentine loads her narrative rifle with worldbuilding clues, though they don’t all quite click. Then she pulls a trigger: Like a sniper, she’s been biding her time, and suddenly you, the reader, are hit with a lethal bullet of awesome. You don’t get a moment to catch your breath because neither do the characters.

The paradox of Persona is that I wanted to read quickly because it was so thrilling, but I wanted to read slowly to absorb all the information. The prose is not dense; rather, it’s lean and taut, with much implied in few words. I wanted to savor every word. Some of my favorite sections were flash fiction-like lists that succinctly and powerfully conveyed character or plot.

That a political thriller succeeds in both being thrilling and having complex political maneuvering is good, but what elevates Persona is the depth of its characters. Both Suyana and Daniel have conflicted loyalties. Suyana wants to do what’s best for her homeland yet must follow the IA line for fear of losing her position of power. Daniel wants to exploit Suyana as an asset yet cares about her as a person. Valentine gives us both their POVs, and I love how they read each other’s body language, interpreting meaning so that we learn about them from what they learn from each other. They’re both informed by their pasts, and Valentine often puts a flashback right after a moment of high tension because she knows we want to know more, more, more about who these people are.

I also wanted to know more, more, more about the general political system, but I felt like what Valentine had done was craft this world and then send us through a thriller plot that allows you to put together everything yourself, if you’re not too busy fearing for the characters’ lives. Genevieve Valentine owes me a manicure for crafting such a nail-biter. In the world of Persona, you shouldn’t trust anyone, but this is the world of Lightspeed, and you should trust me: You want to read this book.

Delilah S. Dawson

Hardcover / Ebook | ISBN 978-1481423397
Simon Pulse, April 2015 | 336 pages

Hit, by Delilah DawsonHit takes an absurd yet frighteningly plausible premise — Valor National Bank pays off the national debt, essentially buying the USA, and now sends teenage assassins to debtor’s doors with three options: collect, recruit, or kill — and spins a tense, disturbing yarn. Patsy Klein has ten people to kill in five days or her mother dies. In the first chapter she shoots a man dead point-blank, and things don’t get any better for her from there, especially since the last name on her list is that man’s son. And he is cute.

Delilah S. Dawson keeps the tension high throughout as Patsy makes her way down her list, hoping every single time that her target will take the offer and she won’t be forced to kill them. Each encounter is unique, with its own set of challenges and setbacks, and the whole ordeal is complicated by the boy whose father she killed. A romance develops, but it’s understandably messy. Most of the book is a claustrophobic two-hander, an isolated narrative that acknowledges the outside world but doesn’t engage with it completely, except to kill more people.

The casualness with which Patsy dispatches her targets is unsettling, and while she does struggle with the fact that she’s killing people, she hardens quickly, believing deep down that these rich people with their unchecked spending deserve what they got. Like Katniss Everdeen, another teenage girl forced to kill against her will, Patsy comes from the poor part of town, and there’s an undercurrent of class war revenge fantasy, plus a revolt against the idea that the sins of the past generation must be paid by the children. Yet Patsy is not a cold-blooded professional killer; she’s an ordinary girl whose hobby is yarn bombing, a rebellious act of beauty and creation, not destruction. Given all that, I expected to feel more of a loss of innocence each time Patsy took another life, but while I winced internally for her, she didn’t seem as affected as I was. It was hard to know what to make of her character, but in the end I believe she’s defined by the wish she presents at the beginning of the book: “I want to survive the next five days.” Patsy will do what she needs to do to survive, period.

Hit is a grim book, but structuring it around the hit list makes it difficult to stop reading. As Patsy checks off names, she discovers there’s more to Valor and her mission than she thought, but, unfortunately, most of those loose ends are left hanging for the second book in this duology. This book, however, offers plenty of assassination, action, romance, and intrigue to whet my appetite for the conclusion.

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Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”