Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!


It’s been nearly a year since the last update to this blog. In that time, things have been… crazy. I needed time away to try simply to survive. Well, since I’m writing this, I obviously survived.

What happened: I work at a public university in an, um, ‘upper middle management’ position. With the recession, we’ve been experiencing budget cut after budget cut after budget cut. I’ve worked my hardest to keep my staff from feeling the brunt of the cuts. For the most part I succeeded until August 2011 when it became my office’s time to take a cut and I had to lay off the supervisor of a critical (and very stressful) office. At the same time, we also had to lay off others in the overall unit and I ended up having to pick up a lot of the slack. Considering we had already had staff reductions (made by not filling positions when people retired or left), that translated into ‘a lot of slack.’

Those of you who know me personally, know that my position is already an amalgamation of multiple other positions that have been vacated. The joke around the office is how many different hats I wear. Well, this time, it reached the tipping point, and I had to go ‘underground,’ so to speak, at least as far as Ray Gun Reviews was concerned. I fell off the radar, big time.

It’s now a year later and things are as bad as ever, but I’m thinking I can make a go of this again. I make no guarantees, but I’m hoping soon (in the next week or so) to get some reviews written up and queued. For now, my goal is to review whatever I happen to be reading in the genre, whether it be new or old. As usual, I’ll space the reviews out to one per week, unless I get quite a backlog (hah!). However, if I get to a doorstop of a book, there might not be a review that week if I don’t get through a book. If things get too busy and I don’t get time to write… no review. You get the picture.

But, I’m looking forward to getting back into the reviews. If I can keep it consistent, I might even beg and plead with the Ray Gun Revival Overlords to spare my puny blog and reinstate the column in the mothership.


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Sympathy for the Devil, ed. by Tim Pratt
Night Shade Books, 2010, 431pp.

A train ride into hell. A boy on a fishing trip who encounters something hungry for more than fish. An invisible friend who doesn’t appreciate a father’s attempt to disprove his existence. An eating contest with an unlikely contestant. A trippy road trip with Christ and the Devil. A detective trying to solve the unusual murder of a clown. A dark force of chaos that lives in the interstices of everyday life. A mix of Goethe and the Marx Brothers. An attempt to hire a contract killer that doesn’t go as planned.

Sympathy for the Devil is a recent addition to an excellent series of trade paperback anthologies put out by Night Shade Books. Edited by Tim Pratt, the connecting theme of the volume is the Devil, whether the Satan of Judeo-Christian tradition or some variation thereof. The collection contains thirty-five stories and part of a poem, from authors like Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, through modern masters of speculation like Robert Block, Stephen King, and Charles de Lint, up to current writers like Neil Gaiman, China MiƩville, Holly Black, Elizabeth Bear and Jay Lake.

The anthology gives a wide range of interpretations on the Devil. There are plenty of Mephistophelean devils, suave men of the world willing to grant your heart’s desire at the cost of your soul. There are devils who are God’s ape or stooge or even errand boy. And there are devils who marshal all the dark forces of chaos against what is true and good.

Some of the stores are out and out misses for me. A couple read as puerile attempts at blasphemy that bore rather than enrage. There are a couple stories, like Jeffery Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt,” that are exercises in the bizarre, revealing, I think, more about the author than about the state of the world.

But by and large the stories are very enjoyable, and some are quite excellent. There are humorous stoies, where the Devil is the butt of the joke. Natalie Babbitt’s “The Power of Speech” and Carrie Richerson’s “…With By Good Intentions” are some of my favorite examples of this class of stories. There are stories that play on traditional folklore, such as Charles de Lint’s “Ten for the Devil” and Kris Dikeman’s “Nine Sundays in a Row.” There are a number of deal with the Devil sorts of stories, including Neil Gaiman’s “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” and Elizabeth Bear’s post-apocalyptic “And the Deep Blue Sea.”

Then I think are the stories that best depict the dark power of the Devil at work: Neil Gaiman’s “The Price” recounts the nightly battles between the Devil and an unlikely champion of humanity. Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter” is an evocative Lovecraftian exercise in menace, originally published in The New Yorker, of all places. Jay Lake’s “The Goat Cutter” began a little too red-neck horror for my tastes but finished in a very interesting place. Then there are Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” and John Collier’s “Thus I Refute Beezly,” bizarre exercises in fear that have to be read to be believed.

Sympathy for the Devil is an enjoyable collection of diabolical fiction — if I’ll be forgiven for saying so, on the whole, the anthology is damned good fun.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)


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In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
Spectra, 2006, 496pp.

In the palace garden lives a girl. She bears an unusual birthmark — dark bands around her eyes and over her eyelids. All of the palace thinks her cursed and do not want her curse to touch them. But a young prince proves brave enough to speak to her. He finds out that these black marks are actually the words of stories, imprinted on her eyes. The prince asks to hear one of the tales, and the girl agrees. Much as in life, one story leads to another, and another, and another…

In the Night Garden is the first volume in Catherynne M. Valente’s story sequence called The Orphan’s Tales. The stories the girl tells are full of magical fantasy, with transformations and talking animals and good witches and evil kings. Valente tells her story in the form of nested tales, reminiscent of the narrative structure of the Arabian Nights.

However, this is no pastiche, no fictional arabesque. Valente has drawn from myth and folklore around the world to weave together a fantasy cosmos of her own. There is a rich, subtle sensuality to Valente’s world, never as explicit as in the unbowdlerized Arabian Nights. The stories strike me as often slyly subversive of the fairy tale values of some cultures. A chimerical being may be less monstrous than a human, and a princess may rescue herself with no prince in sight. However, keeping with all folktale traditions, people and things in In the Night Garden are rarely what they seem.

Valente’s prose is beautiful, appropriate to her theme but with a stunning…clarity, for lack of a better word. Every word she writes is at the service of the story; the writing is transparent to the tales. She handles the nested narration deftly. While I am not sure how many people are used to that story structure these days, I would think that most of our familiarity with hypertext makes it possible for The Orphan’s Tales to find a wider appreciative audience than it might have fifteen or even ten years ago.

I heartily recommend In the Night Garden for all lovers of story.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)


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Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Pyr, 2009, 267pp.

I’ve been on a bit of a Kristine Kathryn Rusch kick recently. (Notice how I avoided the ‘rush’ pun? Pretty good, huh?) I started reading her Retrieval Artist series last winter and have been enthralled by her ability to create full-fleshed, three-dimensional, believable characters. And not just one or two, but an entire cast worth in each book.

So, it was with some pleasure that I received a review copy of a new series from her prolific pen: Diving into the Wreck, the first in a new series (the third book is due out soon). The premise is that in the future there are derelict spaceships ripe for the plunder. Like deep-sea wreck divers of today, there are wreck divers of these derelicts, people who explore for money and pleasure the ships of yesteryear. One such diver is Boss, a loner who is as much into diving for the pleasure as for the money, being an historian at heart.

One day Boss comes across a derelict of an ancient ship that shouldn’t exist: nothing that old should be as far out in space as it is. She is, of course, fascinated. Fearful that the government will quarantine the area, Boss puts quietly puts together a dive team without registering the wreck. Of course, things don’t go the way they should. (Why would they? The wreck shouldn’t be where it is, so something is awry.)

Diving into the Wreck is a fun but frustrating novel. The book is really three novellas strung together. The first novella is about the impossible wreck mentioned above. Then the second novella takes us into Boss’s past, explaining why she is a loner and has such a tortured soul. The third novella attempts to bring the first two together. Each novella, though, could have (and probably should have) been fleshed out into a novel. But because they’re all crushed into a single novel (that in itself isn’t that long — less than 300 pages), the pace feels rushed and lots of details are glossed over instead of fully explored.

If you haven’t read Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I would not recommend starting here. Go read a few of the Retrieval Artist novels or one of her fantasy novels, then come back. When you do, you’ll enjoy the ride (dive?). This is by far not Rusch’s best, but still a good read.


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Petrodor by Joel Shepherd
Pyr, 2010, 441pp.

Sasha has just led a successful campaign in her homeland of Lenayin. The king, her father, has pardoned her for her role in the uprising, but has banished her from her homeland. She finds herself in the port city of Petrodor, home of her mentor, Kessligh Cronenverdt. The city is built on trade and alliances between powerful families. But the threat of war between the Verenthanes and the non-human serrin of the Saalshen Bacosh threatens to throw off the delicate balance of politics in Petrodor.

Petrodor is the second book by Joel Shepherd in his fantasy tetralogy, A Trial of Blood and Steel. Readers of Sasha, the first volume, or of his science fiction trilogy starring Cassandra Kresnov will find much to like in Petrodor. There is the kick-butt female hero and the same sense of adventure with strong action scenes. Many of my favorite characters from Sasha make a strong return to the second volume, and there are many new characters to meet as well.

In broadening the scope of his story, I think Shepherd perhaps loses some of the intimacy of Sasha. The politics of Petrodor resemble a city controlled by two mob families, with dozens of smaller families making and breaking alliances with them. Add to that a dissatisfied working class, a religion driving for a crusade to regain lost holy lands and the meddling of a serrin leader who doesn’t fully understand human psychology, and you have a mixture that is a powder keg. A single spark will set it off.

We see this complexity through Sasha’s eyes, which definitely helps us get into the world of Petrodor. Sasha deepens some friendships, notably with the serrin Errollyn and with her sister Alythia. She finds herself on the opposite side of other friends. By the end of the story, the battle lines become more definite, making war in the Saalshen Bacosh all but inevitable.

Spicing the story are scenes from events taking place back home in Lenayin. Former lordling Jaryd Nyvar plots revenge against those who killed his father and younger brother, with the tacit approval of the king. Princess Sofy contemplates her upcoming wedding, which will solidify Lenayin’s alliances with the southern lands and pledge Lenayin soldiers to the crusade on the Saalshen Bacosh.

The Trial of Blood and Steel series definitely has to be read in order, and Petrodor has the definite feel of a middle book. But the writing is still strong and compelling. Shepherd has a definite knack for writing about compelling characters in stressful situations. It is not always clear who the villains of the piece are, which I think is an enjoyable realistic touch for a fantasy work.

Petrodor is a strong continuation by a rising star of speculative fiction.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)


SF Signal has taken the 100 best SF/F novels as defined by an NPR poll, and created a nice flowchart for you to determine what to read next. It’s a riot.

And tomorrow we post our first post-break review. See you soon!


The summer has come and gone, and our promised return in September hasn’t happened yet. I came down with a horrible chest virus in August, and have only just recovered enough to feel like a human being again. I might get a review posted before the end of the month, but we will definitely be back in October.

Thanks to everyone who has been checking us out during the break. I’ve been encouraged to see a regular flow of traffic, even when we haven’t been posting.

Take care, and see you again soon!


Yes, the downtime I’ve mentioned in the past has finally happened: Donald and I are both worn out and needing some ‘refresh’ time, so RGReviews is going on hold for the summer. We’ll be back in September. Until then, have fun, and continue reading!


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Broken Honour by Robert Earl
Black Library, 2011, 409pp.

It’s so easy to judge a book by its cover, and I’m not talking about determining whether it is good or bad, but rather what the book is about. Take the book under review as an example. When I was looking at the Black Library’s forthcoming books page, the cover image for this one just screamed to me ‘Western!’ OK, I thought, Games Workshop is trying to branch out a bit. I’m game for it (no pun intended). But when I got the book and took a closer look, I realized how mistaken I was. But that’s not a bad thing.

This Warhammer story focuses (as many do) on the armies of Hochland and their never-ending fight against the bestial hordes of Chaos that are forever infringing upon the Empire of Man’s territory. Also, as usual, the armies of Hochland are strained to the breaking point. As the back-cover blurb puts it, “These are desperate times.” So Baron Ludenhof resorts to hiring the mercenary Erikson to gather up a company of soldiers to help protect Hochland. Erikson goes to the nearest gaol and secures the release of its inmates to man his Gentlemen’s Free Company.

In one adventure after another, Erikson and his Company show their mettle as they slowly turn the tide in Hochland. But all is not as easy and straightforward as it seems. Behind the scenes is one Viksberg, a deserter who has left a trail of bodies behind himself to cover up his deeds. However, Erikson’s drummer, Dolf, is the only one who knows that Viksberg is responsible for the crimes that he (Dolf) has served the time for. So Viksberg keeps on maneuvering to put Erikson’s men in one fatal battle after another. But they keep on surviving, to make it to the final battle between Hochland and the feral beastmen.

Overall, this was a fun Warhammer story. It feels a lot like Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghost stories, with an ensemble of less-than-reputable soldiers just trying to survive on their wits and questionable ethics, but ultimately with hearts of gold. While not the best Warhammer novel, Broken Honour was definitely an enjoyable read and if it is the beginning of a series, it’s going to be one I look forward to reading.


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Fate of the Jedi: Outcast by Aaron Allston
Ballantine Del Rey, 2009, 370pp

As might be obvious by now, I’m a bit of a media tie-in junkie. The idea of an expanded universe fascinates me: an original story is great, but building out the universe a story takes place in really piques my interest. Maybe it’s my inner RPG geek that never got (and never gets) to express itself coming out, but I love reading books set in a shared universe.

One of my favorite shared universes that I don’t get much opportunity to get back to on a regular basis is the Star Wars universe. There are a lot of sentimental reasons (it was the first movie I remember my dad taking me and my brother to as a ‘guys night out’ when I was seven), but I also love what’s been done in the Star Wars universe, especially in the comics which are able to capture not just the story but also the visual feel of Star Wars.

But I don’t get to read Star Wars novels often enough, so I’ve been a little out of touch. I’ve only read parts of the New Jedi Order sequence and not a single novel in the Legacy of the Force series. I contemplated reading those first, but at the rate I get to read them, it would take me forever to catch up, so I decided simply to jump in to the most recent series, Fate of the Jedi, which takes place about 40 years after the Battle of Yavin (or ABY for the uber geeks). The Galactic Alliance is still reeling from the rise and fall of Darth Caedus (as told in Legacy of the Force). All the different factions are trying to take power while the Jedi are doing what Jedi do: trying to keep the peace.

However, the novel opens with the Jedi Grand Master himself, Luke Skywalker, being arrested for his part in the rise of Darth Caedus. Luke, the accusation goes, was complicit in Darth Caedus’s rise because he did not see it coming. As the Jedi Grand Master, he should have known that one of his Jedi was becoming corrupt and prevented it.

Yes, those are obvious trumped-up charges, but the Chief of State, Natasi Daala, is both milking and causing public resentment against the Jedi to further her precarious political position. Luke quickly senses this and comes to a plea agreement to prevent the Jedi from being permanently removed as a peace-keeping force: he will go into exile for 10 years, forbidden from returning to Coruscant or coming anywhere near a Jedi temple or outpost. Luke takes this, in no small part because he wants to find out what truly caused Darth Caedus to go to the Dark Side and thus clear the name of the Jedi.

Luke sets out on his mission/exile with his son Ben and quickly gets into adventures on his quest. Meanwhile, back on Coruscant, young Jedi are succumbing to some strange malady that causes them to believe everyone is an impostor and thus go on rampages. The Jedi have to work hard to keep their public reputation intact in the face of members going bezerk.

And if that weren’t enough, Han and Leia get a plea from Lando Calrissian whose operation on Kessel faces destruction as the tectonically stable planet experiences mysterious quakes.

If you’ve been out of touch for a while (as I have), then there’s a little bit of catching up to do, but it’s not so insurmountable as to make the book unreadable. Indeed, it’s incredibly well written.

All in all, a good beginning to a new series. But only a beginning: there is a lot that is unresolved to be investigated in later novels. But even so, author Aaron Allston does an excellent job making this installment compelling. A recurring problem with Star Wars novels is that the characters can be quite two-dimensional since the authors are often limited in what they can do, but by being so far in the future, most of Allston’s cast are not the familiar faces from the movies, and so he has the freedom to build personalities as needed. Indeed, the weak points of the novel are where the familiar characters come on stage. But when they’re off stage, Allston’s writing shines.

Although I get busy with lots of review books to work through, I’m going to try to make room for the further installments in this series, first to get caught up, and then to follow it as it moves on.