Review – Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale

Typically, when I review a series, I review each of the books separately.  For Kingdom of the Wicked, however, I’m going to review both of these books together.  This is largely because, even though the first one did come to a conclusion, they really are two parts of a larger work.

To address the technical issues first, although I didn’t have any trouble with perspective in these books, the tenses were not always consistent, which I found more annoying than confusing.

The other thing has to do with how alternate histories, or at least the ones I read, are usually written.  Typically, there is one event (a shard from an artwork carving out a six mile sphere of 2000 West Virginia and dumping it in 1631 Germany) and everything after follows logically (at least in the author’s mind) from that point.  These books, however, were specifically written to examine what how ancient Rome, with today’s technology but their legal system, would respond to a certain Yeshua Ben Yusuf (Jesus son of Joseph, or Jesus Christ).  It’s an interesting idea, and one that will work on my mind.

Although Roman sexual mores were much stricter than Dale portrays, I believe she is doing two things here.  First, she is positing what technology may have done to the sexual morals.  Second, I think she is comparing Rome and the Jews, with American and Muslim (or maybe just Middle Eastern) cultures today.

Certainly, her Rome is very concerned with law, and very concerned that the law be kept no matter what.  At the same time, they don’t believe that helping the poor or disabled helps anyone.  “Just giving to the poor encourages them to continue asking for help instead of making their way out of poverty,” seems to be the basic attitude.  Anyone who has been involved in a political debate about Medicaid and/or welfare in the U.S. will recognize the argument.  At the same time, the Jewish people are very concerned with taking care of the poor, even if that means some unworthy people get helped along the way.

The core of the story, though, is Jesus and his story.  Kingdom of the Wicked only focuses on the events of the “Holy Week”, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the end of the trial.  It is in this examination that I most enjoyed these two books.  The main characters we know are here, although you do need to know a little about Hebrew and Aramaic to recognize the names, (Yehuda is Judas, Petros is Peter, the Virgin Mary is Miriam Bat Amram), although others are clear, such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  The familiar villains are here; some, like High Priest Caiaphas are much as expected although others, like Pontius Pilate, aren’t quite as villainous as might be expected.  (Much of that depends on what you know and what else you’ve read, as well.)

In this telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t come off quite as well as he does in the Gospels.  He’s more human, even as it’s obvious he’s trying to tell a story about God as Love, he’s more likely to make mistakes, lose his temper, and not treat people maybe as well as he should.  There are other stories from other traditions that Dale tells as well:  Yeshua Ben Yusuf’s father is a Roman soldier named Pantera, a story that was told in first and second century Jewish tradition.  Saul the tentmaker has an important role to play as well.

In the end, although there are many things I would quibble with, and although I would love to see an editor correct some of the technical shortcomings of these two books, this story of first century Jerusalem and Yeshua Ben Yusuf will stick with me.  I give it four stars.


Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book One: Rules.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book Two: Order.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Good Guys by Steven Brust

Good Guys is a detective story: the main characters have to find out who’s killing people with magic.  Seems simple, but along the way they have to figure out if they’re actually the good guys and if they’re working for the right people.

I have a complaint about Good Guys that I’ve run into a couple of times lately.  I’m not sure why this isn’t being caught/addressed, or if this is a factor of growing older and more aware of the technical aspects of writing, but Brust is not good, especially early on, about signalling that the story is being told from a different character’s point of view.  I went several chapters before realizing that the sections being told from the bad guy’s perspective weren’t being told from Donovan’s.  It’s not that I didn’t know who the person was who had the perspective, but that I could so easily mix them up.

Other than that one complaint, I enjoyed Good Guys.  The “whodoneit” aspect of the story is answered early on, the “whydoneit” follows within a reasonable amount of time.  When the characters do something stupid, the results of their stupidity (impatience) are what you would expect.  The guy who falls into the “magic is real” actually acts like someone would in his position, and the confrontation with the higher-ups actually feels real.  There are no loose ends dangling, although this could easily be turned into a series.

I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure it will go onto my “reread” list.  A solid 3.5 stars.

Brust, Steven.  Good Guys.  New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

The description of Space Opera looked entertaining: the fate of humanity hanging on how we do in a Eurovision-type performance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book living up to the promise of its description.  Then again, I’m middle-age, have never seen a Eurovision competition, and don’t enjoy absurdity or surrealism.  Finally, the writing style sounds too much like Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and even Adams can grate on my nerves after a while.

The novel consists of two stories that weave together into the third main story.  First, it is an exploration of the history of and behind the Metagalactic Grand Prix,  and all of the different races that have participated in it.  Valente shows that she is comfortable in the science fiction genre, there are multiple races, all of them wildly different, all of them extraordinarily strange, and none of them predisposed to like, or hate, Earth and humanity.  It’s a strange, strange universe that Valente gives us.

The second story is that of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, three musicians who had one hit many years ago.  The band has broken up: Dess tries to continue as a solo artist, Mira dies, and Oort goes “straight”.  The stories of their lives could come straight out of the gossip magazines.  But when, through the standard absurdity, the band is called to represent Earth, they rise, or try to rise, to the challenge.

The main question of the book is, as Valente asks, “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony?  …  Do you have soul?”

Without giving away how Dess and Oort, and the aliens who try to help and hinder them do, and while admitting that I didn’t much care for the book, won’t be rereading it, and only finished it to write this review, I will tell you this.  Valente does have soul, a lot of it.


Valente, Catherynne M.  Space Opera.  New York, MY:  Saga Press, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – D.A. by Connie Willis

When the recruiter from the International Space Academy comes to Winfrey High to solicit applications from the students there, Theodora Baumgarten is one of the few students who has no interest in applying.  As she tells the recruiter, “There’s no air, you’re squashed into a ship the size of a juice can, and it takes years to get anywhere interesting. If you get there and aren’t killed first by a meteor or a solar flare or a systems malfunction.”  So, it’s something of a surprise when she finds out that her (nonexistent) application has been accepted.  And, since everyone would be thrilled and honored to be accepted, no one but her best friend, Kimkim, believes her.

This is the setup for Connie Willis’s novella D.A.  The meaning of those initials, and why Theodora was “accepted” as a cadet, are too good to spoil, and getting there is much of the fun.  Especially good is the name of the Academy space station, the Robert A. Heinlein.

For those of us who loved traditional science fiction since childhood, but are now far too aware of what can go wrong, D.A. is a delightful treat.

Willis, Connie.  D.A.  Burton, MI:  Subterranean Press, 2007.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

American Hippo is not one novel; it is a collection of two novellas and two short stories, all set in the same alternate universe.  The two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, are two complete stories that tell a larger story when combined.  The two short stories, “Nine and a Half” and “Worth Her Weight in Gold”, are vignettes that add color and additional detail to the novellas.  Finally, I gave a brief review of River of Teeth earlier, when I reviewed the finalists for the Nebula and Hugo awards.  It did not win the Nebula; the Hugo has not yet been announced.

I was pleased that I didn’t read River of Teeth before Taste of Marrow was published even if I didn’t read it right away.  Although River of Teeth tells a complete story, there are still stories left to tell about some of the characters.  Those stories, the most pressing at least, are told in Taste of Marrow.  The ending of that story wraps everything up, although there are still more stories that could be told in this universe.

The alternate universe in which American Hippo is set is one in which a plan debated in the U. S. Congress in the early twentieth century was actually carried out in 1857.  Hippos were imported and raised in the Louisiana bayous for meat.  Since horses aren’t well-designed for working in rivers and marshes, other hippos were raised and trained to herd the meat hippos.  Basically, instead of the Wild West, you have the Wild Mississippi or the Wild Bayous or the Wild Delta.

The stories are essentially Westerns set in that universe.  River of Teeth is a caper (“It’s not a caper; it’s an operation!  All legal and above-board!”) in which the feral hippos fenced in at the mouth of the Mississippi are to be released into the Gulf of Mexico.  This goes as well as you would expect, with deaths, and life-threatening injuries, to the main characters.  Taste of Marrow follows the survivors of the original crew through the aftermath, consequences, and the one mystery barely hinted at in the first story.

Finally, apparently one of the things that went right in this universe (hippos are just different) is that women and LGBTQ+ people are much more acceptable than they are in ours.  In a group of five highly talented and dangerous (admittedly criminal) people, two are women, one is nonbinary, and four are bi or gay.  Not something I expect would have been accepted in our Wild West.

All in all, these were delightful stories and I enjoyed them.  Highly recommended.

Gailey, Sarah.  American Hippo.  New York: Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove

The novella Shtetl Days, by alternate history writer Harry Turtledove is set about a hundred years after the War of Retribution in which Nazi Germany won.  Veit Harlan and his wife Kristina are actors, portraying Jakub and Bertha Shlayfer in the village of Wawolnice, a Jewish reenactment village in Poland.

As actors who take pride in their work, they do their best to be as true to their roles as they can.  This involves studying the no-longer-practiced rites, rituals, customs and beliefs of a way of life that the Nazis worked hard to get rid of.  To the tourists, Wawolnice is an example of the dirty people that the Germans had to get rid of.  To the actors portraying the hated, hateful Jews, it’s … something else.

I enjoy Turtledove’s works, and this is one of my favorites.  A poignant reminder of “what might happen if …”

Turtledove, Harry.  Shtetl Days., 2011.  Amazon.

Review – I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie Willis

Although this isn’t one of my favorite of Connie Willis’s stories, it is a worthy addition to her oeuvre.  Told in the first person, the narrator is doing publicity for his blog, Gone for Good, about things that are just that.  He is also trying to get a deal to turn his blog into a book.  After a particularly bad interview, he takes a walk in midtown Manhattan, is caught by a rainstorm, and finds shelter in Ozymandias Books.

The rest of the story is his experience within Ozymandias Books, what he finds there, and how it changes him.  As he is led through the shop by Cassie, an employee, he notes many of the book titles, including an old favorite of his from childhood.  As he realizes what the shop truly is, his agent calls him that an interview has been moved up and he has to leave.  I’ll leave what happens next for the reader to enjoy.

Unlike my favorite Willis stories, there is little humor.  It does have the character’s obsessive noting of details, the strangeness of the setting, and action that moves the plot forward.  The story is a quick read, and one that will stick with me.  I recommend it.

Review – Tough Mothers by Jason Porath

I hadn’t intended on reading Tough Mothers on Mother’s Day, but that’s what happened.  I’m glad I did.

Jason Porath is the creator of the website Rejected Princesses, a blog that celebrates “women of history and myth who were too awesome, awful, or offbeat for the animated princess treatment”.  His posts, and illustrations, of all types of women from all over the world and all over time are delightful.  He works hard at accuracy, diversity, and cultural sensitivity.  When he makes mistakes, he posts an award, the Noble Order of Glaukopis, to the person who points it out, stating that they are, in perpetuity, smarter than he is.  He also post about “Modern Worthies”, notable women from living memory.

Tough Mothers is Porath’s second book and it is much like his first one, titled unsurprisingly Rejected Princesses.  It is much like the first book, a series of entries about a collection of women.  All of the entries in this book are mothers, if not always biological ones, and that role is important to their story.  Some of the entries are cleaned-up versions of entries from the blog, but more are original.

Although Porath does research all of the entries, Tough Mothers isn’t the place to end research; it is a good place to start, because he does give a full bibliography of his research.  His writing style is light, humorous, and a little sarcastic towards the prejudice and misogyny his subjects experienced.  He also notes when the sources are confusing, contradictory, or likely exaggerated.

All in all, an enjoyable way to spend part of my Mother’s Day.


Porath, Jason.  Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2018.  Amazon.

Review – The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb

This book is one of many that examines the physical causes of depression and methods for treating it.  I found it more useful than others of the same type I have read.

In the first section of the book, Korb describes how the brain works, focusing on the structures and processes that are involved in depression, anxiety, and focus.  These chapters are highly technical, to the point that I won’t be able to remember a large amount of the information.  However, for my purposes, I need to know only that there are biological reasons for why the actions I take to help myself feel better, not necessarily what they are.  In addition, if I need to find that information, I can find it here.

The second section is where the practical actions can be found.  It is this section where the book shines.  In most books about depression, the author will examine the biology and will then take one of two courses.  Either they will focus on the medical end and give only general methods for treating it, or they will describe the biology briefly and give a specific set of instructions to treat depression, with the implication, stated or otherwise, that this is the only way to successfully treat it.

In The Upward Spiral, Korb does neither.  In each of the eight chapters of the second section of the book, he describes effective methods for preventing or reversing depression.  Korb makes it clear that something needs to change, and that some actions have a stronger effect than others.  However, he also makes it plain that depression can make these changes more difficult.  In addition, he describes ways of starting the behavior, of first steps that are possible, instead of implying that only the more complete actions will be effective.

Not only is Korb sympathetic to a reader suffering from depression, since he does as well, he makes it clear that different people will be most helped by different solutions.  He includes antidepressants as one effective and useful treatment rather than implying that taking them are a moral failure.

All in all, this is a book I would recommend for anyone who suffers from depression.


Korb, Alex, Ph.D.  The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication, Inc, 2015.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

And the winners are …

The Nebula Winners for the following awards are:

Best Novel:  The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit).  My Review

Best Novella:  All Systems Red by Martha Wells ( Publishing).

Best Novelette:  A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (, January 4, 2017).

Best Short Story:  Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience TM by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex August 2017).