The Wall Of Storms – A Book So Large, You Could Use It In Liu Of A Weapon

wallofstormsJune of 2017 has been a crazy month of great book releases, and I have a ton of interesting reviews coming up for the many books that have come out. However, before I get to any of these hot potatoes, I need to take a moment to talk about a big release from the end of last year: The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu made a huge splash in the fantasy world with his incredible short stories, in particular his story Paper Menagerie that I guarantee will make you cry. He then followed that up by translating a world famous science fiction novel, The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, from Chinese to English, before finally moving on to start publishing his own fantasy series. His series began with The Grace of Kings, a book that made a big splash for its original setting but has seemed to fade a bit from existence. I was a fan of the first book, and I was surprised more people didn’t seem pumped for the sequel because it is definitely worth checking out.

The Wall of Storms, much like its predecessor, is a very difficult book to review. I couldn’t really put my finger on it when I was reviewing Grace, but upon finishing Storms I have realized its because they are so damn large (almost 900 pages) that they are each really two books. Each half of the book tells a continuous story, but in two distinct arcs. The problem is I had very different feelings about the arcs making the book as a whole difficult to talk about as a collective piece. So, instead I am going to review them separately.

Arc I: When we left off with book one, the Dara empire had just be reunified and we had reentered a time of peace. The first part of the book is about infrastructure, and I never thought I would say this: I loved it. It felt like a really good look into Asian philosophies, allowed for some great character development of older characters, and introduced a fantastic new cast from the next generation in the story. It reminded me a lot of Game of Thrones, in the sense that we are now getting a look at what it takes to maintain a “happily ever after”. Seeing the small changes to the countries structure and government was thrilling, and watching people play political games in the peace that follows war was awesome. I have almost no negatives from the first half of the book and I feel like I would have given it a 9.5/10.

Arc II: Here is where we start running into some problems. In the second half of the story we go back to war, this time against an external threat. New villains have arisen from behind the impassable wall of storms that isolated the island of Dara from the rest of the world and it puts the new country to the test. While there was a lot of good in this second act, it did have some points I was not fond of. I thought that while some of the military engagements were awesome, a few felt lack luster. The Gods of Dara, which are part of the appeal of this series for me, are largely absent in the second arc. Finally, one of the things that Ken Liu does really well is impart a sense of impartiality in his books. The characters all feel like real people, and there is no plot armor to protect them from the ravishes of time and history. By doing this he makes his books feel like a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, which I really like. The problem with this is sometimes he WILL give a few characters plot armor, and it makes the events stand out negatively with how he treats the rest of the cast. It makes it hard to swallow when some favorite characters die “as that’s just the way the world is sometimes” compared to when some characters seem to walk-off having mountains dropped on them. However,I still found the second arc a great read, even with its flaws: 8.0/10.

This series continues to be one of the most original and interesting ones I have picked up. While I am sure some people are going to hate its style, I think it is worthwhile for all fantasy fans to try it out and see what they think for themselves. The story has some really great morals and philosophies that I love, and I really don’t know where Liu is taking the plot – which excites me. So considering all of that, it should be no surprise that The Quill to Live definitely recommends (a second time) you pick up The Grace of Kings or continue with The Wall of Storms.

Rating: The Wall of Storms – 8.5/10

The Prey Of Gods – Gods And Robots And Popstars (Oh My)

y648Two of my favorite things come together in today’s review: interesting settings and science fiction/fantasy mashups. The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden (her debut novel), takes place in South Africa and has a whole lot going on including reborn gods, super drugs, mind control, and AI gaining sentience to name a few. The excellent cover caught my eye, and when I read the first chapter and it ended with gay sex between a dolphin and a crab I was intrigued to know what the next chapter had in store (you know you are a little curious).

The Prey of Gods most reminds me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, in all the best ways. The story tells of several fantastical players’ machinations coming to a head in the modern age. There is an age-old sadistic goddess stuck doing manicures for a living as she tries to regain her power. There is a young boy who is discovering that he has the power to mind control others while he is high. There are AI servants who are slowly gaining consciousness. All of these people are thrown into a pot where they work against and with one another to create this weird tapestry that feels hectic, but is a blast to follow along with.

This book might have the most diverse cast I have ever read, and I guarantee it has something for you. My personal favorite character is a politician who turns into a drag pop diva as the story progresses, as he is hilarious. While his story didn’t appeal to me initially – his personality is magnetic and I just loved the way his voice on the page pulled me in. Drayden has a real talent for multiple POVs, as she managed to give her characters very different voices while also maintaining a nice cohesion across the story. Another favorite of mine is the robots. As opposed to most robot uprisings that I have read, this is more an uprising of robot moms? One of the AI’s is observing a second POV and is essentially concerned for his health and is constantly worried about him – which was adorable. Despite the fact that there were definitely POVs I liked more than others, there weren’t any I disliked.

Despite a messy start, the story quickly solidifies into a clear plot. I mentioned the sadistic goddess? She is quickly established as the antagonist of the book, and it is up to the rest of the ensemble cast to band together and pool their skills to stop her. Drayden does an excellent job mixing her crazy ideas with small poignant emotional moments between her characters that get you invested quickly. My favorite scenes varied between huge flashy displays of magic, and small quiet conversations between family members. It is a book that knows how to balance the serious and the fun to make you appreciate both.

If I had any critique for the book it might be that despite being set in South Africa, I didn’t feel like I got a strong enough sense of the culture and environment I was immersed it. Drayden does show us some of the old goddesses, tribes, and cultures of the land but I never quite found myself fully transported into Africa in quite the way I was hoping, but this could be just as much a failing on my part.

Overall, The Prey of Gods is an incredible debut from an author with a vivid imagination, and a talent for bringing tons of different POVs to life. This book felt like a stand alone, but there is definitely room for a sequel if Drayden wanted to, and I would be happy with any additional books she cared to write. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you check out this wacky and poignant adventure sometime soon.

Rating: The Prey of Gods – 9.0/10

Raven Stratagem – Worth Rav(en)ing About

30691976Well we are back to this crazy series this week. For those of you unfamiliar with The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee, it is a ridiculous military science fiction in a confusing and exciting universe. For those who have not read the first book (The NineFox Gambit), I highly recommend you just go read my review instead of lingering around here – nothing is going to make sense otherwise. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the brand new second book in the series, Raven Stratagem.

If I had to distill my experience with The Ninefox Gambit down to one sentence, it would be: I have no idea what is going on – but it is so fast and exciting that I am fine with it. In Raven Stratagem, things are still confusing as all hell – but Yoon Ha Lee spends time making events noticeably more clear than book one. This does, however, come at the cost of some speed and excitement. I think it is a good trade off, especially for a middle book in a series, and in the long run is of service to the story. As a result, Raven Stratagem didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat quite like book one, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of the players in the story and the direction the plot is going. One of the major changes to the story is a narration change from a central POV to multiple POVs. When we had last left our intrepid heroes (Cheris/Jedao) their health was a bit unclear and they fell off the grid. Raven opens with their reemergence onto the scene and the theft of a new fleet of ships in order to wage war. To add mystery and intrigue to their plan, the POV shifts away from them to the displaced general of the stolen fleet, Kel Khiruev, and the hexarch of the Shous, Mikodez. These two POVs allow for a much bigger 360 degree look into Cheris/Jedao’s plans and allowed for a lot more world building that was present in the first novel.

The result is a lot less brilliant strategic executions, though they still litter the book, and a lot more small stories adding depth and emotion to the characters. Both of the new POVs are good, but I really got behind the hexarch. He gives tons of insights into how the hexarchate works, and was just a blast to read about as a character. His hilarious dialogue and strange personality go a long way to adding some levity to this mostly sad story, and he is just a fun person to read about – even if he is trying to inconvinence our protagonists. The other POV, Khiruev, is fine but just didn’t resonate on the same level for me as the hexarch. While I think the trade off of excitement for structure was good, I will say that Raven does occasionally slow down a bit too much for my taste. Cheris and Mikodez both have small quirks that I found to be nice breaks from the action, but Khiruev’s sections could occasionally feel like they were dragging on a little bit. Finally, one thing I loved about Raven was how it fleshed out and spent more time with all of the orders of the hexarchate, and I am hoping that the next POVs might be from one of the four other factions we have not got a detailed look into yet.

Raven Stratagem might not have the speed and excitement of The Ninefox Gambit, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great time. The second book in this series grounded me in the world, introduced new and exciting characters, and still had a good helping of the excitement and twists that made the first novel so powerful. This is shaping up to be one of the best science fiction series in recent memory, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Rating: Raven Stratagem – 8.0/10

Location, Location, Location – Ideal Fantasy Homes and Vacations

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So I decided that the useless group of layabouts who help make this site great, weren’t doing enough to help me create content. So I have forced them all at quill point to sit down and talk about where each of us would prefer to live if we were to reside in one of the many books we read, and which locations we would enjoy a short vacation to. Everyone gave some pretty good answers, take a read and see who you think had the best reasoning.

Andrew:

Live – Natural History of Dragons: Look I was going through a list of all the amazing places I have read about and things I could do, and I eventually realized it didn’t matter so long as I was around dragons. In which case, what better place to live than a world with endless different environments, filled with different kinds of dragons, with most of the accoutrements of modern day society (like not having to poop in the woods). Marie Brennen’s Memoirs of Lady Trent are where I would live, so I could embrace my inner child and become a dragon anthropologist.

Vacation – Discworld: I mean I feel like this one is self explanatory. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a place that I think would be hazardous to live in, but I think visiting could bring some real insight. Much like my short occasional foray into his books, events that happen in his world tend to bring wisdom and insight into the human condition, something I love to have every so often. In addition, the world has tons of sights to see – who doesn’t want to lay eyes on a solar system sized turtle?

Sean:

Live – Lord of the Rings: Since our book club has been re-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and also because I am becoming an old man, I have come to really appreciate the idea of The Shire. I can easily imagine spending my days reading under oak trees, hosting and attending feasts, surrounded by friendly folks singing all the time, all while living in a nice home under a hill. I’d probably prefer to stay human sized if possible, even if that means a few bumps on my head now and then. I’ll make some mead and smoke some pipe weed with a bunch of cool folks, and if I ever decide I need a little bit more in my life, well I hear adventures are just down the road.

Vacation – The Gentleman Bastards: I’d love to spend some time in the world of Locke Lamora. More specifically, I’d love to have a week of insane antics with Locke and his crew of misfits. I can’t imagine a vacation that would lead to more stories I could tell for the rest of my life. I’d learn all sorts of new insults, come back with more smile lines than I left with, and they’d probably teach me a life lesson or two. In the meantime I’d get to see ancient glass architecture the likes of which would never be found on Earth, probably have more fun than anyone can have in Vegas, and probably learn a thing or two about brawling. Sounds like a hell of a vacation to me!

Will:

Live – Lord of the Rings (Lothlorien): As Sean mentioned above, the staff here at The Quill to Live has been doing a re-read of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While pretty much anywhere in Middle Earth that is described in detail by Tolkien (barring Mordor for obvious reasons) would be a pleasant place to spend a life, Lothlorien takes the cake. The beauty of elf architecture, magical trees that never lose their leaves, a pretty bitchin river, and the combination of Galadriel’s ring and the Elf Stone which both act to slow the passage of time? Count me in for a life amidst beauty with elves frollicking and singing weird shit for the rest of my greatly expanded lifespan.

Vacation – The LightBringer: As long as I can specify at what point in the series I take my vacation, I would absolutely visit Big and Little Jasper, the islands on which the Chromeria from the Lightbringer series was built. Preferably a few years before the series begins, actually, in a time of little import to the world. Simply being able to see the Chromeria, a multi-building university campus sprawled next to steep cliffs with beautiful views of the surrounding ocean would be amazing. Oh, did I mention that it’s entirely built from luxin, the glass-like physical embodiment of color which is the product of magic in the world? In addition, due to the Chromeria being the seat of power in the world at that point, the communities on Big and Little Jasper thrived as a lively and bustling medieval city-state, which would be a very pleasant place to spend a week, in my opinion.

Alex:

Live – Jackelian World: Who wouldn’t want to live in a world filled with spirit infested automatons, underwater kingdoms, and a city built inside a volcano populated by wait for it… humanoid Bears. There is something magical about the variety of life that fills Stephen Hunt’s novels, that in a time of peace (which is never) would be a fantastic place to live and travel in. Growing up in Middlesteel, becoming a Jack Cloudie and traveling the world on an airship would be an opportunity hard to pass up. From the ancient city of Camlantis (yes, it’s basically Atlantis, but real), to the city states of Catosia, populated by magic fueled Amazons, the Jackelian world offers a little bit for everyone, and a whole bunch more for me.

Vacation – The Divine Cities (The City of Bulikov): Most of my vacations involve history, and what better place to experience it alive. In the shadow of it’s former glory, it would be littered with miraculous relics, some dangerous, some beautiful, but all driving an insatiable curiosity. Walking through the streets with window walls, or stairs that disappear into the heavens would fill anyone with wonder. Imagine Rome except the Gods, instead of people, had created everything as a testament to their glory. Modern areas built by humans, brimming with activity and the odd automobile contrasted with the abandoned areas that were once cherished by the gods. Nowhere else could really capture the feeling of a human future colliding with the ever present supernatural past.

Julia:

Live – Harry Potter: What is wrong with all of you? How do you mess up the easiest fantasy related question ever posed? Was there even ever a chance of the best place to live not being a world with Hogwarts in it? You get everything you have in the modern day for comfort, and you also get to be a witch and go to a magic school. Easiest question ever, enjoy dying in your various orc and dragon infested wastelands.

Vacation – Mistborn (Elend): The high societal flair and awesome metal based powers of Sanderson’s Mistborn is definitely a place I could spend a vacation. Touring beautiful cities, flying through the air at the cost of a coin, and going to galas sounds like my idea of a great time. I would prefer to not visit during any of the world ending events, but manage to avoid those and Elend sounds like a great place to spend a week or a month.

Well there you have it. What are your top picks for a vacation or living space? We would love to know what any of you pick, and you reasoning, in the comments. What are the best locations in fantasy?

Aurora: The Beauty Of Home And The Importance Of Hard Science Fiction

Post by Alex Tas.

41ji898by9lI have been eagerly awaiting a chance to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but since I am already bogged down in so many series, I opted for his 2015 novel, Aurora. It starts at the end of a generational starship’s 170 year journey to the planet Aurora. Told from the perspective of a learning quantum AI, Aurora follows the chief engineer and her daughter as they address the day to day problems of maintaining the ship. Aurora is an important book that investigates the worth of long-term space travel, and questions our understanding of our environment, whether natural or constructed.

The story itself is easily digestible. As the aforementioned AI learns how to tell a story, the prose develops. The AI’s grasp on language starts simple and grows more complex as the story continues. This allows the reader to adapt quickly when Robinson shifts between the main story, the science driving the starship’s maladies, and several introspective monologues. Robinson also relies on basic geographic understanding of Earth, naming each of the ship’s twelve biomes as they relate to a similar region on Earth.  He efficiently describes the landscape in a way that does not burden readers, while managing to place the reader in the scene. Typical of hard science fiction, the characters are not the main focus, but serve as a vehicle to the narrative and the ideas it introduces. Using the limited third person perspective embodied by the AI, Robinson gives himself space to explore these ideas outside of the typical narrative progression. The story focuses on the constant conflict of living in space, instead of building up to an ultimate conflict.

With all the talk in our own lives of interstellar travel, manned missions to Mars, and the looming possibility of extra-terrestrial colonization, Aurora stands out. Instead of the usual gung-ho planet grab, the book is a solemn meditation on how humans tend to view their environment and how they try to adapt. Most of the problems that pop up are bizarre chemical reactions between the ship and the biomes, issues as the ship decelerates, or the effects of small populations on genetics across generations. While the crew has a fairly sizeable array of useful materials, the problems are not easily solved and sometimes cascade into each other. As media in our world tends to trumpet the advances and breakthroughs, Aurora highlights the labor behind the triumphs and explores their after effects. By not placing us into the mind of a central human character, Robinson gives the reader space to ponder the bigger picture he is painting. Instead of being tapped into the emotions of a single character, the audience understands this as a cautionary tale of reflection, not a triumphal scream into the void.

Robinson also uses science to consistently hammer this point home. Aurora is heavy on biology, physics, and chemistry. The scientific explanations are digestible, but there are a few areas where numbers are unavoidable and concepts have to be detailed. While the majority of these sections are written into the story, several do feel like annotations to better explain the text. This may distance or even lose some readers, even though Robinson is not using them to show his scientific expertise. These areas of the book serve as more color with which to paint the big picture. Personally, I enjoyed these sections as they show the collision between the human spirit and the inevitability of facts and natural law.

All of this is not to say that this is a cold book with no feelings towards the ship’s inhabitants. While the omnipresent AI cannot delve into the inner workings of the character’s minds, it highlights conversations that shed some light on the relationships that we, as humans, build. By revealing people’s interactions, the stress they endure, and the impact of constant environmental pressure on the human psyche, Robinson pushes the story to a larger scope. This is not a character-based narrative, where the protagonists learn something to further their goals. Instead, Robinson frames the ship as a microcosm of Earth. By increasing the distance from the central characters, Robinson broadens the historical scope of the ship as the story progresses. It slowly shifts from a tale about a few humans in space, to a parable about humanity.

Robinson handles most of his ideas deftly, with skill, efficiency, and well-tempered force. There are rare moments when the illusion is broken, but they are not frequent enough to drag the book down.  I would never call this a subtle book, but it is not overtly judgmental. While Robinson focuses on humanity’s relationship with science and technology, he chooses to highlight the limits of technology and human understanding. Through many of the conflicts in the book, Robinson critiques humanity’s intent through its application of science. To Robinson, technology is not damnation or salvation in and of itself, but is instead used by humans to bring about these ends.

By making humanity his centerpiece, Robinson leaves the reader with questions, doubts, and revelations about humanity’s place among the stars. Much like the northern lights the book is named after, Aurora is a wonder to perceive. It is a chance for readers to gaze up at the stars, admiring their elegance and ask “how”? Afterwards, they can look at the beauty of the world around them and ask “why”?

Rating: Aurora – 8.5/10

The Reluctant Queen – A Little Too Reluctant

51dudes9r4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Last year there was a new novel called The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst, that took me by surprise. The cover caught my eye at the Brooklyn Book Festival , and I was lucky to hear the author, Sarah Durst, speak about it later that day. I decided to give it a whirl, and ended up rating it in my top 15 books from 2016. It was a YA book with an original protagonist, an emphasis on hard work over natural talent, a fascinating world, and a style that was inclusive to both boys and girls. A year later, Sarah Durst is releasing the anticipated sequel, The Reluctant Queen, but does it hold to its predecessor’s greatness?

The Reluctant Queen picks up right where book one left off, our protagonist Daleina having just been crowned queen after a great tragedy. However, not long after the book begins we find out that Daleina is in bad health after her ordeal and the race is on to find her an heir in case she should pass. For in the world of Renthia, everything is made by magical spirits who lust for the blood of humans. Only the strength of will of the queen and her pact with the spirits is what keeps them from tearing people apart. The tragedy at the end of book one has eaten up all the available heirs, so a group of champions set out in search of anyone they might have overlooked in the hopes of finding someone suitable in case Daleina should die.

The quickly transitions into our new protagonist for book two, Naelin. Naelin is a mother of two with a terrible no good husband. She is enormously powerful when it comes to controlling spirits, but has managed to evade detection her entire life – resulting in her having no training at all when it comes to handling them. She is soon discovered by Ven, Daleina’s champion, who attempts to recruit her to be the next heir. As you can probably guess from the book’s title, Naelin is not feeling the idea of being queen. She is worried that focusing on her duties to the crown will result in her children’s death, and that she does not have enough control to be queen.

My biggest problem with The Reluctant Queen is that Sarah Durst spends way too much time restating that Naelin doesn’t want to be queen, and that she just wants to take care of her kids. A large part of the book feels like it could just be cut out if one person told Naelin that if she doesn’t try to be heir, and Daleina dies, everyone (including her kids) will die. There is no other option. Due to this, it is hard to like Naelin for a large portion of the book because it feels like she is being unbelievably selfish. Her personality is otherwise fun and interesting though, and despite her children being the focus of my ire for gumming up the plot progression – they are at least entertaining side characters. When we ended book one there were a lot of interesting plot threads that had been discovered, and The Reluctant Queen picks up woefully few of them. This book almost feels like a side step in the story as opposed to a sequel.

That being said, the ending was very good and made me forgive several of my earlier frustrations. I am still excited for the finale, and I will definitely read it the second I get my hands on it. However, this does not make up for the fact that The Reluctant Queen was definitely a drop in quality compared to The Queen of Blood. I hope that the third book will rise back up to the heights that book one achieved.

Rating: The Reluctant Queen – 6.5/10

Within the Sanctuary of Wings – A Fitting End

As always when I review the end of a series, the review can either go one of two ways: a detailed breakdown of how the author messed up the landing or a confirmation that the last book is still great and an overarching review of the series. I am happy to say that Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennen, falls into the latter category. I have touched on this series a lot here and there in past reviews and other posts, but as it winds to a close I wanted to take a moment to talk about it as a whole and to give it the credit it deserves.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the books follow an anthropologist’s memoirs as she tells the tale of her work with dragons as one of the first female scientists of her time. It must be said that they are beautifully illustrated. The series is five books long, each book taking place in a different setting with different research goals in mind. Each book builds upon the discoveries of the last, ending in a society changing discovery (which I of course won’t spoil). With the arrival of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, we finally get to find out what we have been building towards. My reaction to the big reveal was a good summary of my general feelings towards the series: I was genuinely surprised, intrigued by the really cool concept, but not blown away.

One of the key take aways I keep mentioning when I talk about this series is that while I really enjoy it for a number of reasons, it isn’t the most exciting of stories. I have decided that this isn’t a fair criticism of my experience with the book, because it results directly from one of the book’s biggest positives: these books feel like an actual history/science journal. These five novels are the closest I have ever felt to feeling like dragons were real and alive, and reality is not always super exciting. Science is not a field where everything is splitting the atom every month, there is tons of slow painful research leading up to that – and this series reflects that without its storytelling suffering in the name of accuracy. The series finds the perfect balance of accuracy and liberty with scientific process so that it feels correct, but not boring.

Additionally, Brennan did a fantastic job developing the world and cultures of her series. Looking back over the five books, the vast array of locations and people I explored is impressive. Her world is deeply fleshed out and feels like a real ecosystem. The character growth from both the protagonist (Lady Trent) and the support cast was very well handled and it was great to see character’s prejudices, opinions, and scientific understanding grow and evolve as the series progressed. The story takes place at a time of war, and the elevation of the conflict adds a lot to the tension and excitement of the books. Everything in this paragraph essentially sums up to the fact that The Memoirs of Lady Trent succeed not only as books, but as a collective series. The pacing and exploration of the world are masterfully handled, and the characters and story are a joy to progress with.

If I had to change anything about the series, it would likely to spend a little less time at the beginning of each book prepping for the eventual adventure. I understand the importance of setting a stage, but the first third of each book eventually boiled down to “someone shows Lady Trent something awesome, so she goes on an adventure”. However, even this couldn’t dampen my joy with this story. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of dragons, and I can’t say enough that this is the closest I have gotten to feeling they were alive. The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Memoirs of Lady Trent, and suggests you grab a copy of the books and learn about the natural history of dragons.

Rating:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings – 8.0/10
The Memoirs of Lady Trent – 8.5/10