Provenance – A Little Of Everything

unnamedI am trying to spend December cleaning up a couple big releases I missed this year, and the first on my to do list was Provenance, by Ann Leckie. Ann is famous for her Imperial Radch trilogy, a slightly controversial series that I recommend everyone at least check out. Now, coming off that serious and complicated story, Leckie seems to have wanted to do something more fun – so she wrote a fun and complicated story instead. Leckie has returned to the same universe for a spin off book about a group of people involved in a heist/political intrigue/murder mystery/rescue mission/art forgery/winning a family squabble/… so there may be a lot going on with Provenance.

The Imperial Radch trilogy was an innovative science fiction thriller about an AI on a quest for revenge. While I loved the series at the start, I eventually felt that love tarnish slightly because I felt the series had a hard time balancing the personal stories of the characters and the larger story of Leckie’s world, especially in the later books. However, Leckie’s new spin off Provenance brings in everything I liked about her worldbuilding and storytelling, with a greater focus on the personal stories that I gravitated towards in her original trilogy. I was originally going to say that Provenance is much more focused, but that’s not really true. I am not really sure how to explain what the book is about other than “people’s lives”. The book starts with our lead, Ingray, buying the freedom of a man in prison. Her mother is a high ranking aristocrat of society and is soon going to name her heir. Ingray has habitually trailed behind her older brother in the family standings and has decided to make a last ditch effort to embarrass her brother and win her mother’s esteem. This plan unravels in the first few pages and the book instead takes you on a wild chaotic trip through Lekie’s world.

The main “thing” Provenance is actually about is question the idea of one’s “home” and origin, as you might guess from the title. All of the characters are questioning what is their home and who made them who they are, and it is a story about connecting or disconnecting with your roots. It is also about how its ten seemingly unrelated subplots are actually connected. It has this element of mystery and randomness that I found refreshing and charming. All of the subplots are interesting, and do an impressive amount of subtle worldbuilding for the Imperial Radch universe. There are a number of new cultures and people to meet in Provenance, and I found each of them captivating. I was also a much bigger fan of Leckie’s cast in this new book than her original trilogy. Ingray can be a little bit of a wet towel occasionally, but in general I enjoyed my time with her and the support cast is memorable and charming.

As for Provenance’s flaws, though the randomness of the plot was fun and charming, it can make the storytelling feel a little disjointed occasionally. As I also mentioned before, Ingray was sometimes a little underwhelming. There were a ton of things happening around her constantly, and I sometimes felt like she was just being swept along to events with little personal agency while feeling sad. Other than that though, I thought Provenance was a much more well rounded book than Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and likely will be much more widely appealing.

If you liked Leckie’s previous books I am almost sure you will like this one too. If you didn’t like her first trilogy, but found her ideas and world exciting, then you will also probably like this book. If you have no idea who Ann Leckie is, but want a fun sci-fi romp/mystery that defies classification – then you also should check it out. The Quill to Live recommends Provenance – it is a fun book that manages to have a little of everything.

Rating: Provenance – 7.5/10

-Andrew

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Oathbringer – Oatherwordly Excellence

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I debated a lot as to whether or not I should do a review of Oathbringer, the third Stormlight Archive book by Brandon Sanderson, because I don’t think critic reviews are going to have an effect on whether or not people are going to read it. I like to spend my time providing people with recommendations they don’t already have, and the third book in one of the most popular fantasy series around isn’t going to have its momentum cut or boosted by what I say. That being said, as I finished up this 1200 page behemoth I found I had a lot (of hopefully interesting things) to say about the book that I did not expect so screw it, let’s talk about this year’s most popular release. This is going to be a bit different from my usual reviews, as I am not going to talk about the plot to try and get you to read it, think of this as a post discussion for a book that you should definitely check out.

Oathbringer is an impressive book on multiple levels. On the surface it is a huge novel that is extremely well paced, which takes a lot of skill. Though there are one or two slower areas, I never got bored as I was tearing through chapter after chapter. The book is filled with all the great things its two predecessors are known for: awesome characters, a cool world, interesting magic, and a captivating plot. However, taking a step deeper what is most impressive about Oathbringer to me is how it expanded the scale of The Stormlight Archive so fluently and naturally. See I had a problem going into Words of Radiance. Each book in the SA is centered around a different member of the cast, making them the focal point of the storytelling while still giving some time to all the other members. When I read Way of Kings, book one, I got really used to the book’s focal protagonist, Kaladin, being the center of attention. This became a problem when I moved to book two, Words of Radiance, where Shallan takes over as the focus as I came out of Way of Kings much more interested in Kaladin than anyone else. By the end of Words of Radiance I was completely on the Shallan train, but I spent a good portion of the start of the book resenting it a little for not giving me more content on my beloved Kaladin.

Going into Oathbringer I found myself thinking about two things: first, now that I was team Shallan was I going to have the same issue I had before as book three moved its focal character to Dalinar. Second, The Stormlight Archive has been built from the start as a series that was going to be about teams of people saving the world, but the first two books had felt like much more personal stories that focused on individuals. Was Stormlight going to be able to make the transition to a team series eventually or are we just doomed to have ten books where our protagonists are swapped out? Well funny thing …

The major theme of Oathbringer is unity, which is appropriate on many levels. Surpassing all my expectations, Oathbringer has this weirdly perfect balance where it elevates Dalinar to the center of attention for his book, but never puts down its expanding cast of other protagonists, essentially managing to have its cake and eat it too. At some point in reading Oathbringer, through brilliant characterization and pacing, I found I had changed how I thought of the protagonists of Stormlight from a group of individuals I loved to the Knights Radiant, all of whom were brilliant for their own reasons. The book makes everything feel like it’s coming together and, to me, it has elevated the story to a place of balance where every voice is heard constantly without anyone talking over one another. On top of all of this, not only does Sanderson find this beautiful balance between his Knights, he also breathes a huge amount of life into all of his side characters bringing the world to life. Oathbringer makes Roshar feel bigger and filled with peoples and places that I want to explore.

Oathbringer manages to expand the scope of the series massively, while also making the storytelling tighter and more fluid at the same time. It does this through brilliant pacing, an edge-of-your-seat plot, lovable deep characters, and a whole lot of emotional moments. Oathbringer surpassed all of my expectations and continues to show why Sanderson has earned his wild popularity. Go check it out if you haven’t already.

Rating: Oathbringer – 10/10

-Andrew

P.S. My editor actually just pointed out to me while writing this, that it is the “Knights Radiant”, not the “Knight Radiants”. Which is ridiculous. One implies a divine manifestation of morally good ideals with a code of honor, and one implies dudes in cans that glow. I am going to stick with Radiants.

The City of Brass – An Interview With S. A. Chakraborty

With this impressive year of fantasy coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the great books I read this year and reaching out to authors to talk with them more about their impressive creations. One such author in particular is the lovely Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass, which I reviewed here. A wonderful book about Arabic lore, family, and a magical city in the desert – I got to ask Shannon a number of questions about her debut book, and a few about her upcoming sequel The Kingdom of Copper. The questions are posted below, enjoy:

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I got to hear you and others speak at a New York Comic Con panel about female authors, writing historical fantasy, and writing from diverse backgrounds. It was one of the best panels I have attended at a comic con, so thank you. On it you talked briefly about borrowing from history/the real world and inventing things on your own when you write. How do you balance the two?

You’re welcome, and I’m happy you enjoyed the panel. For me, it’s not really a balancing act; it’s more building from a scaffolding that already exists. I set my books in the “real” world: there might be magic, but there’s also the historical fact of Napoleon’s occupation and the idea that a dish conceived in ancient Persia wouldn’t have New World vegetables in it. But I don’t really mind this or find it limiting; it’s fun to peel back the facts and imagine the emotions and people behind them.

The City of Brass starts in our world in the city of Cairo, but quickly departs it for fantastical lands. Will we make our way back to our world in the future or will be primarily exploring more cities from your imagination?

Both! The books are very much meant to take place in our world—it’s just that djinn exist largely unseen beside humans. We’ll definitely see more of the magical world, but we’ll also see some of our djinn characters visiting that of the humans…perhaps even a city we’ve already seen!

I assume you have to do a lot of research to write historical fantasy. What is the weirdest historical fact or quirk you have come across while researching for you book?

There are a lot but a particular favorite at the moment is medieval treasure-hunting guilds in Egypt. It’s something I need to dig into a bit more for the (hopefully!) next book series, but I’ve always loved learning about how people in the past interacted with their past. I came across a mention of these guilds after an excerpt from a contemporary scholar basically railing against ancient magic and hustlers and was just thoroughly amused by the entire depiction.

Your portrayal of Ali and his family is one of the most organic relationships I have read. Where did you get this inspiration for their dynamic? Did you draw it from your own life? Do you have siblings and which one of them are you?

Thank you! I come from a pretty big family and always enjoy seeing well-done portrayals of complicated, messy, exasperating and yet also still loving relatives; I think it’s a thing many of us can relate to. And I’ve always had a particular fascination with rival princes. They’re fairly common in history, and yet I can’t imagine the emotions that go behind making a decision to war against your own brother.

There was certainly some inspiration from my own family. My twin brother and I are very close, and I was very protective of him, especially when we were younger, even when we were fighting. This was definitely an emotion and dynamic that I was trying to capture with Muntadhir and Ali. Though my brother isn’t a wealthy, libertine playboy destined to rule a shaky kingdom so the similarities end there!

As someone who also has been accused of having a stick up his ass, I particularly identified with Ali. Will Ali learn to relax a little in the future, and can you pass on the secret to taking life a little less seriously to me?

So this is where I confess that I probably have more in common with Ali than I like to contemplate! Not sure I can offer advice, but maybe like Ali, we need to broaden our experiences a bit and learn to let loose on occasion.

One of my favorite things in The City of the Brass is that the most powerful Djinn/Daevas are the healers. I constantly feel that healing magic is undervalued in fantasy, and often relegated to only kind motherly figures. Seeing those powers in the hands of tyrants and others was very refreshing. What inspired you to take this path with your story?

Ha, the fact that I’ve worked in healthcare! I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that.

What is up next for Nahri and Ali? Can you give us any hints of what book two will be about at a higher level?

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the city itself. Nahri and Ali were left in difficult straights at the end of the first book and they’ll need to improve their game—both political and magical—if they want to protect what they love.

What did you learn or improve on over the experience of writing The City of Brass? Have you any lessons you experienced first hand that you would impart to others?

Follow where the narrative is going, not the plot points you wrote down two years ago. I dreamed and played in this world for so long, it was hard to give up on some aspects that I loved. I tried to keep in mind that I was telling a story not writing a history essay.

What do you like to read? What are you reading right now? Was there any book that inspired The City of Brass or inspired you as a writer in general? What are your favorite books?

I like to read pretty widely though in the past year, I’ve been trying to catch up on my SFF. I read a lot of history for research and for enjoyment, and right now I’m split between a history of medicine in the Indo-Islamic tradition and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My favorite books are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and The Moor’s Accountant by Laila Lalami, though the latter broke my heart!

If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out The City of Brass, I highly recommend it and thank you to Shannon Chakraborty again for taking the time to talk with me.

-Andrew

The Best Of 2017

2017 is drawing to a close which means it is time to talk about the best books of the year. This year has been the strongest for fantasy and science fiction I can remember in at least a decade. The average quality of the releases this year was astoundingly high, and even though this will be my longest list of top books ever there are still several books that came out this year on my to-do list that I couldn’t get to (such as The Core by Peter Brett and Providence by Ann Leckie). In addition, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 20 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. All that being said let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2017.

20) Spellslinger and Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castell – The first of two authors to grab two spots on one of my lists in a year, de Castell has had an impressive 2017. Right as he ended his Greatcoats series (the other book of his later on this list) he also kicked off a new YA series that has something for everyone. This story about a mage becoming a stage magician was weird, funny, and had surprising depth for something so short. Kellen has a lot of growth in his future, and watching him forge his own path as an Argosi as he passes tests and investigates plagues is something I greatly look forward to. With the first two novels of this six book series already out, it is worth your time.

19) Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee – A sequel to The Ninefox Gambit, this weird and original science fiction series about a ghost master tactician stapled to another soldier is still incredible strong. The Ninefox Gambit was a book where I was really confused as to what was going on the entire time I was reading it, but still having a blast anyway. With Raven Stratagem I feel that the series is starting to shed some of its mystery and go deeper into its plot but the second book did not quite live up to the power of the first in my eyes.The series has an incredible world, deep and interesting characters, and I hope to one day be able to understand how I feel about the plot.

18) Soul of the World by David MealingSoul of the World is a monument to the idea that the most important thing in reading is to have a good time while doing it. A book about three types of magic squaring off, I have never seen more powers and abilities thrown around in a single book except possibly in Malazan. David defied a lot of traditional epic fantasy worldbuilding and wrote a romp about mages who find new spells every 20 pages and in doing so made a fast, thrilling, and captivating story about new and refreshing types of mages trying to save the world. Soul of the World was one of the best things to debut this year, do not let this less-talked-about gem go under your radar.

17) An Echo of Things to Come by James Islington – Beating out the reigning champion Anthony Ryan, James Islington takes the crown for ‘books that I couldn’t have read without an appendix to check every 10 pages’. The sequel to the incredible A Shadow of What Was Lost, Echo is a massive addition to a series about fantasy time travel and time manipulation. Echo has continued to show that The Licanius Trilogy is one of the best epic fantasies to come out in years (which is saying a lot given its company). These books are a maze of intrigue, characters, and self discovery that can be a bit of work to read – but the payoff is worth it. I hope I will find myself able to read the third book without checking who everyone is in the appendix, but either way I am pumped to see how this series pans out.

16) Communication Failure by Joe Zieja – Who says you can’t have humor, heart, and story all in one book? Zieja’s Mechanical Failure was a surprise dark horse last year that impressed me with its incredible humor despite its shallow story. Building on this, Zieja has returned with a sequel with everything that made the first book funny – but more fleshed out with a story I got caught up in. No longer am I just reading these books for their funny scenes and characters, I am now also invested in the plot. This is another book series that I find has snuck beneath everyone’s radar and unless you hate laughing you are doing yourselves a great disservice not checking it out.

15) The Dragon Lord: False Idols by Jon Hollins – Much like Communication Failure, False Idols is the second book in a humor based series where I found the first book (Fool’s Gold) funny but not very deep. Jon pulled out all the stops and addressed every major problem I had with his first book and made False Idols into a book that has both humor and story. When I finished Fool’s Gold I figured I would check out the sequel eventually, when I finished False Idols I moaned at how long I would have to wait for book three. Humorous books are hard, and to make one that is this funny also have a story that kept me coming back to learn more wins this book high marks. The worldbuilding has only gotten better and I want to see every area on Jon’s map before the book is done.

14) Vallista by Steven Brust – So I made the mistake of reading Jhereg earlier this year which resulted in my reading fifteen Brust novels – destroying my review schedule. The one upside of this was that I was ready when the newest Vlad Taltos book, Vallista, came out. A story about a mystery in a magical house, Brust is still somehow keeping the series fresh and new with every book he puts out and I dread the day when there won’t be more of them to look forward to. Vallista continues the Vlad Taltos tradition of tackling lesser explored subjects in fantasy (the subject reveal would be a spoiler so you will have to read it) and the series continues to steadily crawl its way up my top recommended list. These books will constantly surprise and impress you with Brust’s ability to address hard hitting (but important) subjects like divorce and suicidal thoughts but balancing it with humor and moments of levity to not leave you depressed.

13) With Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Why aren’t more of you reading The Song of the Shattered Sands. I keep recommending this series to everyone I know and yet I still feel that it is criminally underread. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a book that that focused on the story and growth of its protagonist, Ceda, and gave you a glimpse of the world in which it is set. If Twelve Kings was a glimpse behind the curtain to the plot and world, With Blood Upon the Sand is the dramatic reveal of a powerful epic fantasy based on Middle Eastern lore. With Ceda firmly established as a character, Blood is free to show us a whole new world that is both shimmering and splendid. The stakes are higher, the antagonists more interesting, and the story more complicated and Blood has only made me want to recommend this series even more.

12) Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson – The king returns. What is there to say about Sanderson that all of you don’t already know? His books are all widely regarded as some of the best in fantasy and I am no exception to their charm. Arcanum was one of the best collections of short stories I have ever read, with all but a single short in the collection receiving top marks from me. However, Arcanum is so much more than a collection of great stories. One of the few books I think should always be bought in hardback, the book is gorgeous with tons of beautiful detail, maps, and illustrations surrounding the stories. In addition, Arcanum felt like the start of something new for Sanderson. We have been seeing hints and indications of his plans for the greater Cosmere story for awhile, but Arcanum felt like we finally found the entrance to the maze that will be Sanderson’s stories for years to come. The book showed just how deep Sanderson’s plans for his universe are and continued his habit of surpassing all my expectations.

11) Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey – Technically out in December of 2016, but I roll December over into the next year. With the next Expanse book coming out in mere days I find myself thinking back to just how consistently excellent this series has been for all the years I have been reading it. Babylon’s Ashes marked the end of the second arc in the Expanse story line, and though this arc was a lot darker than its predecessor, it has always been a series I look to for inspiration. Babylon’s Ashes show that its cast and world are still growing, evolving, and adapting to everything that the universe throws at it. Each book manages to raise the stakes past expectation without ever jumping a space shark. I go into each book genuinely unable to imagine where the series will go next and never come back disappointed, Babylon’s Ashes being no exception. I am currently trying to finish everything on my plate for Persepolis Rising next week, which I am sure will continue the Expanse’s legacy of excellence.

10) The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin – As we enter the top 10 please know that placing these ones were like choosing favorite children. The Stone Sky marks the end of one of the most original and revolutionary series I have ever read. Jemisin’s use of perspective and second person narration have cemented this series as one of the best I have ever read. That being said, I was noticeably less impressed with The Stone Sky compared to its two predecessors. The book felt like it ended a bit abruptly and I was not in love with the climax. That being said, this is still one of the best series, and books, I have ever read and it should be read by everyone – even if I docked it a point for not sticking the landing. It is a unique experience that everyone should have,

9) Sins of Empire by Brian McClellen – One of the most enjoyable things to see is authors grow and address issues you had with them in the past. Brian McClellen wrote The Powder Mage series, a trilogy I enjoyed greatly but always felt like it was evolving as it was written – making the story slightly incoherent. Despite this it still made its way up my recommendations list with its gun based fantasy and interesting characters. Sins of Empire, the first book in Brian’s follow up series, has everything that made me fall in love with his first books with none of the issues that seemed to plague it. Brian seems to have sat down, worked on his organization and planning, and delivered a fact paced and action filled story that is shaping up to be one of my most anticipated reads.

8) The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone – I had an extremely hard time placing this one as I felt that the first half of Ruin suffered a little from pacing issues, but the second half shattered the outer boundaries of my imagination and left me sitting outside staring at the sky and contemplating life. I have always been impressed with The Craft Series and its take on a modern society in a fantasy setting. It is a series that is hard to classify that has reinvented what it means to be a fantasy book multiple times, but Ruin is a cut above the rest. I live and work in New York, and it is rare for a book to be so mind blowing to shock me out of the continuous grind that is my life. This book was a treasured experience and had it been a little less slow at the start likely would have topped the list.

7) Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell – It is hard to follow perfection, and that is just what Tyrant’s Throne had to do in the wake of its predecessor, Saint’s Blood, my number one book of 2016. Although the finale of the Greatcoats did not surpass the third book in the series, it was still one of my favorite books of the year – packed full of all the things that make the series one of my favorite of all time. This final chapter sent off our trio of protagonists in a manner that befitted them: with humor, heart, and life lessons that I feel have made me a better person. It is uncommon for me to be as invested in a character as Falcio and I am glad that his last story held up to the exemplary record established by the first three books in this series. With the close of Tyrant’s Throne, The Greatcoats has cemented its place in my tier one recommendations forever and will always be a series I ask new people if they have read.

6) The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan – I pity those out there who are refusing on principle to check out the Draconis Memoria because they didn’t like how Bloodsong turned out. The Legion of Flame was surprisingly good, and this is from a guy who was expecting excellence. The Waking Fire was a book filled with mysteries that were solved, a world that was explored, and a goal that was reached – leaving me wondering where the series would go next. The second book, The Legion of Flame quickly shows that the map we made in book one was only a fraction of what is in this story and that there is much more to come. With more characters, higher stakes, weirder mysteries, and a story that doesn’t slow down for a second, The Legion of Flame is likely Ryan’s best book yet.

5) Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This is the smartest book I have read this year, and I am including several excellent non-fiction books I read in that ranking. Ada Palmer is the first person I have read to rival Ursula le Guin in knowledge, intelligence, insight, and revolutionary thought. Seven Surrenders was work to read, but every second of that effort felt like it was repaid tenfold. The story in this series feels like a Russian nesting doll, each outer layer revealing more and more underneath. I don’t really understand how Seven Surrenders can tell such a different story than its previous novel, Too Like the Lightning, and feel like it goes toe-to-toe with it on every possible metric. It is extremely apparent that Ada has planned every single sentence of these books to the letter and watching her plots unfold has given me my favorite new science fiction series since The Expanse.

4) Kings of the Wyld by Nicolas Eames – This is the first time a debut novel has gotten this high on one my best-of lists, but this spot is well earned. Kings of the Wyld has everything I love in a fantasy novel and invents new things that I didn’t know I wanted. It evokes all the old tropes I grew up loving and breathes fresh life into them. It has a memorable, unique, and lovable cast that I was heavily invested in. It has an original theme based on 80’s rock which has changed my music tastes. It has an engrossing plot and captivating world that keep you coming back for more. Finally, it has humor and heart that lead to moments of levity, heartbreak, and warmth that had my crying on like page 17 (which is ridiculous). Everyone I know has it as their best debut of the year, go read it.

3) Red Sister by Mark LawrenceRed Sister is everything I have wanted from Mark Lawrence since I read Prince of Thorns years ago. The book is dripping with excitement, each page digging its claws into you and refusing to let go until I finished it in almost a single sitting. Mark has found his stride with me, toning down his usual brutality slightly and giving me a character to root for. Red Sister is an adrenaline rush from start to finish and on more than one occasion had me so immersed that I thought for a moment I was in danger and found myself screaming aloud. The cast, world, powers, story, action are all best in class and I am counting the days until I can get my hands on Grey Sister. I could read 100 more of these books assuming my heart didn’t explode from the strain.

2) Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson – I am a bit late in getting this list out this year and it’s solely because I wanted to finish Oathbringer to know exactly how high to place it. Oathbringer. God I am so happy you are here. I feel like I just had a child that I want to introduce to the world. Stormlight has been the big gun in my arsenal since I started doing recommendations. It is single handedly responsible for convincing at least five people I know the value of books in general. Sanderson is nothing if not consistently excellent, but I am so happy that Oathbringer did not break that trend. If you know what Oathbringer is you are probably going to read it but know that it continues the family tradition of absolute brilliance. What’s really impressive is that something managed to top it.

1) City of Miracles by Robert Bennett – I had a solemn moment back in February when I closed the last page of City of Miracles and realized, ‘nothing is going to beat this’. City of Miracles is a masterpiece of writing that I will reread for years. Its execution in both telling Sigrud’s story and closing The Divine Cities series is flawless and is the only series as a whole I have given perfect scores. The book is simply beautiful. It tells a story that is tragic that left me emotionally wrecked for almost a month after finishing it. There are a few passages in the book that make me emotional thinking about. Normally this wouldn’t be enough to surpass the competition but there is something about City of Miracles that is uncomfortably real. The struggles are awful and they feel like they are happening to you or someone you love. Bennett achieves all of this without feeling like he is trying to make a point or break your heart, but instead just feels like he is giving you a window into the realities of what the world is like good and bad. And dealing with the truth that bad things can happen to good people, or that you can make mistakes that can’t be forgiven, is awful. Miracles doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t let you escape to fantasy, and it made me evaluate my own life in ways that were scary. However, while Miracles evokes that harshness of life, it also paints the future with some hope. It is a cracked, tarnished, and flawed hope – but a hope that feels beautiful for its honesty. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read.

-Andrew

The Riyria Revelations – Classic Fantasy At Its Best

I am wildly behind on books to review due to two hulking 1000 page behemoths (To Green Angel Tower and Oathbringer), so I have decided to talk a little bit about a series I love: The Riyria Revelations by Michael J Sullivan. This self-published marvel came out in 2008 with the first of six books, The Crown Conspiracy. The books were so well received that Orbit picked Sullivan up as an author and created three compilation books, each containing two of the previously self-published novels. Since then, Sullivan has gone on to make four spin off books and two novels of a prequel series.

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What makes Sullivan’s work stand out so much is a dedication to older fantasy tropes with incredible execution. Riyria follows the story of Hadrian and Royce, a human swordsman and half-elf rogue who are trying to steal a sword when they are framed for the murder of a king. It’s a classic fantasy plot and the story is built around a world where elves and humans don’t like each other, in particular because the elves are a superior race in most ways. After the framed murder is resolved, the duo need to go on a quest to find a powerful wizard, journey to ancient cities to locate powerful artifacts, and find a chosen one to lead the humans in a coming conflict against the elves. All of these themes you have likely heard before, they have been around in fantasy since Tolkien.

However, Riyria doesn’t feel at all like books that are just trying to rip off older classics to sell a copy. The book is incredibly original, but uses popular classic tropes in its story, which results in a book that evokes all sorts of warm and positive feelings about it that remind me of how I felt reading fantasy when I was younger. Riyria came out during a period where fantasy was trying to find the next best thing. Grimdark and parodies were both getting really big and no one wanted to tell a classic quest tale in order to stand out from the pack. As a result, Riyria really does stand out to me as one of the most wholesome things published in the last decade that everyone will enjoy.

On top of being fun, the series is really funny. The first book opens with Hadrian and Royce being ambushed by bandits while they argue like an old married couple. In the middle of their domestic spat, they also make time to critique the robbers technique and give some helpful pointers for future robberies so that the bandits might have a little more success. You can read the first pages on the amazon link on the book picture, I guarantee you will not be able to do it without smiling. The entire series is that funny, constantly having fun contextual humor and witty one liners. It is a very easy read, especially in our current landscape of dark and depressing books.

Despite all the great things I have said so far about the books, their true strengths are their characters: in particular Hadrian and Royce. While the side cast is also excellent (in particular Esrahaddon who might be the best wizard since Gandalf), the two leads steal the show and have anchored themselves in my top character list forever. They are deep, interesting, grow as the series progresses, and I never get tired of their witty banter and clashing ideals.

If you are looking for a classic fantasy with good deal of humor and a lot of heart, I recommend you check out Riyria. The delinquent duo of Hadrian and Royce still continue to sit in my top character lists to this day and I can’t imagine anyone not laughing at some of the scenes in the story. You will have a good time.

-Andrew

Vallista – Ever Upwards

vallista-finalcover-740x1106So back in July I did a series check in for Vlad Taltos, by Steven Brust, for the first 10 books of the series. If you missed it, you can read it here, but long story short: this series is great and you should read it. Now since I had read 10 out of the 15 books currently available this year, I thought I would take a break from the series and read some other stuff – until the lovely people at Tor sent me a review copy of Vallista, the most recent book to come out. So screw it, we are back to snarky assassins and jhereg. I read through the four books I needed to for Vallista, and am now ready to talk about it. This review will have some minor spoilers for the series, so turn back if you want to remain pure.

One of my favorite things in stories is theme, and as I mentioned in my check in Brust is a master of finding new themes for his books. Vallista is no exception to this trend and follows t Vlad as he is trapped in a magical haunted house that breaks the rules of reality. Devera, our favorite time traveling niece, has found herself trapped in this weird house with doors that lead to weird places, times, and people. Vlad must figure out what is going on to free himself and Devera from this twisted location.

Vallista is an interesting mix of murder mystery and surreal philosophy that stands out as one of the most unique of the Vlad Taltos series. It takes place just before the events of Hawk, the previous book, and explains a few of the loose ends from that story. I was initially a little disappointed we were back tracking chronologically again, as we are running out of books in the series surprisingly fast and I feel like there is still so much I want to see. However, Vallista quickly broke through my grumpy mood and delivered one of the strongest Vlad Taltos stories ever. The mystery of what is happening is very well written, keeping me interested and on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Whenever a book involves Devera, the passage of time gets wonky, and things can get a little confusing – but I was able to grasp what was going on all the way through Vallista which made me happy.

Additionally, Vallista is one of the rarer Taltos books (Orca and Iorich being the other two that stand out) where we get to meet a lot of smaller Dragaerans and learn about their lives. This does a lot to add a sense of depth to the Dragaeran empire as we spend most of our time with the elite in the series. Learning about the daily struggle of a dancer or a butler is both wonderful in its own right and adds perspective that makes me appreciate the empresses and gods more. On top of this, Vallista continues Brust’s trend of what I think of as “hindsight explanation”. At the start of the series, Brust simply didn’t explain a lot of the quirky things about his world, such as the long life span of Dragaerans and how death works – and the writing was so fun that I just accepted them as is and suspended disbelief. However, as we get to the later books like Vallista, Brust is revealing hidden secrets about how his world works that make sense and it gives the series this pervasive feeling that it has all been planned out meticulously.

My only complaint about Vallista is that its completion means we are one book closer to the end of this fantastic series – and I am not quite ready for it to be over. Brust continues to show with each new book that he is only getting better and the quality of the Vlad Taltos series is ever climbing upwards. If you like the series and haven’t picked up Vallista yet I encourage you to do so. If you haven’t read the series yet, why are you reading this I told you there were spoilers – but while you are here, go do yourself a favor and go pick up Jhereg.

Rating: Vallista – 9.0/10

-Andrew

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – The Paragon Of Growth Part 1

51dbdh9vm0l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a classic fantasy trilogy by Tad Williams that I have only heard amazing things about. The first novel, The Dragonbone Chair, was published in 1988 and since then it has been the inspiration for any number of authors. I personally missed this classic series, but found it rising to the top of my to do list as Tad has released the first book in a follow up trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, this year and it is the only thing a few reviewers I know are talking about. This piece will cover the first two books, The Dragonbone Chair and The Stone of Farewell, but the final book will have its own piece soon as it is quite literally the longest fantasy book ever written and I don’t have enough space here to cover it.

Building off that last sentence, these books are huge. They have an extremely high page count, are very dense, and go into an enormous amount of detail. If you are looking for some light reading, you are going to have a hard time with Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. However, for those who are willing to take the time with it, you soon begin to see why this series is so highly regarded. The plot of The Dragonbone Chair is not incredibly complicated, in fact one of my first annoyances with the series is that the blurb on the back pretty much perfectly sums up the events of the entire book:

“A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard.

Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die.”

This is pretty much it, a young boy sets out on a classic hero’s journey and is shaped by his experiences. The thing is, while the plot of the book is not exactly revolutionary – the growth of Simon as a character is. Simon’s story is probably the single greatest example of good character development I have ever read in my life. I will not lie to you, the first part of book one was rough for me. Simon starts as a irreverent, self-centered child (though only as much as you would expect of an actual child) and slowly grows into a hero. The beauty of the book is that this doesn’t happen due to some traumatic events resulting in him realizing he should be a better person. Instead, he grows due to the thousands of small interactions with people across the country that help him grow up and become a better person. It is the single most organic growth I have ever seen in a character and the change is truly stunning to watch, although, as mentioned it takes patience and investment on the part of the reader.

61uxop2akxlWhile The Dragonbone Chair focuses primarily on Simon, the second book (The Stone of Farewell) sees a large diversification of character screen time. Dragonbone is all about introducing you to Simon and building his foundation as a person – often through his interactions with a wonderful support cast around him. Once you get to Stone though, Simon has built up enough momentum that we do not need to spend every moment with him and it allows Tad to flesh out and grow his incredible support characters and make them closer to secondary protagonists. While Dragonbone took some time to get into, I absolutely flew through Stone.

The first two books show how a seemingly useless young man can change and grow in convincing ways that don’t feel like reader wish fulfillment. Simon’s origin story made me feel like I could be the person I wanted to be with hard work and determination, and that only you can decide who you are. The first two books have earned their place as two of the most powerful pieces of fantasy or fiction I have ever read, but you will have to come back for part two to hear about the finale: To Green Angel Tower (because it is frankly absurdly large and reading it is seriously messing up my review schedule).

Rating:

The Dragonbone Chair – 8.5/10

The Stone of Farewell – 9.0/10

-Andrew