The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew

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The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith – Trust Me On This One

51ifgjed8slHere we have the end of a trilogy with a lot of ups and down. Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, by Jon Hollins, was one of my bookclub books awhile back (reviewed here). It was a satirical take on quest fantasy that my club had a wide range of opinions on. Some thought it was incredibly bad, and some with better taste (like myself) thought it showed a lot of promise despite its flaws. I decided to continue on with the series and read book two, Dragon Lords: False Idols, which you can find the review of here. The short summary of that review is – book two showed a ton of improvement, and was a very solid read. Today, I am talking about the final book in the series, Dragon Lords: Bad Faith, and deciding if I think the entire thing is worth your time.

The plot of the final book is slightly reminiscent of the previous two: our merry band of rejects repeatedly fails their way into saving the world by murdering beings severely outside their weight class. Will, Lette, Balur, and others spend most of their time wandering from place to place, trying to execute half-ass plans that backfire immediately. The book is funny, outrageous, and a generally good time with lots of memorable insane moments. I will say that the third installment has a much more somber tone than the first two (and it feels appropriate). The humor is still there in spades, but it moves from less of a focus on slapstick, and more towards a focus on bad puns in chapter titles and contextual humor. The book manages that rare quality of being both sad and funny, and it works well.

In addition, the key difference between the plot of Bad Faith and the other two books is that this time the crew is motivated from a desire to save the world instead of a desire to save themselves from poverty. When looking back at the series as a whole, it’s truly impressive how Hollins organically grew his team of sociopaths into better people. I found their (sometimes painfully) slow transition into admirable people believable and relatable. There is always a question when reading about flawed protagonists of: is it worth reading about absolute asshats now for emotional pay off when they become good people later on? In this case I would say yes, but only just. I think where the crew of characters ends is a great spot – but I also don’t think it’s the greatest character development of all time.

Where the book really shines is in the worldbuilding. I can tell that Hollins was sort of making up his world as he was going in the earlier books – but Bad Faith has a fully fleshed out, and interesting, world where the team spends a lot of time wandering around. Hollins also finally gets around to exploring the backstories of some of our more silent characters and I really enjoyed the depth they added to some of the previously shallow people.

The book ends on a really strong note, but getting there was occasionally a little slow. There are definitely some pacing issues that feel more apparent due the third book’s smaller amount of jokes. The focus on POV’s is fairly uneven, with some characters hogging the spotlight. I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with this, but in Bad Faith’s instance it results in some characters over telling their stories a bit. I can only hear the inner monologue of a person so many times before I think “I get it”.

Overall, I would definitively say that Dragon Lords is worth your time. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. If you are looking for a laugh, a lot of failure, and watching a boat load of people learn how to be slightly less garbage – I recommend you check out the Dragon Lords series by Jon Hollins.

Rating:
The Dragon Lords – 7.5/10
Bad Faith – 8.0/10

Redemption’s Blade And Children Of Time – An Interview With Adrian Tchaikovsky

We have been all about Adrian Tchaikovsky recently. If you missed our recent reviews of Redemption’s Blade, which can be be found here, or Children of Time, which can be found here, you should check them out. Both of these books are worth your time and Adrian has about 20 others you can check out. We wanted to find out more about Adrian to better understand how he makes such great stuff, and managed to get a hold of him to ask some questions. For your reading pleasure we have written them up and added them below, enjoy:

Questions: General

You are a really prolific author with multiple series in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Do you have a preference for a genre and do you think there are any major differences in writing for one vs. the other? If so, what are those differences?

Fantasy and SF are very different writing experiences for me. With SF I generally want to make the science as sound as possible, and so it’s often a slower process involving lots of research and consultation with people better informed than I am. With fantasy, as the pressure is for internal consistency rather than external, the writing process can be a lot freer.

In addition, do you have a favorite series among the many that you have written?

I think the Shadows of the Apt world is still my favourite to dabble in, just because I know it so well.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? What are you reading right now?

I am just finishing off Jeff Noon’s The Body Library, which is something of a mind-bending read. Before that was the wonderfully poetic and brutal Tower of Living and Dying by Anne Smith-Sparkes. Amongst my other favourites are Mary Gentle’s Ash and Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Arete.

What is one fact about yourself that your readers would be surprised to know?

I still (as of this moment at least) have a day job, albeit a part time one.

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Redemption’s Blade is a tragic tale about… well… redemption (unsurprisingly). What made you want to tell a story about the after affects of a war? Do you think this kind of story is something that the fantasy genre is missing – or were you feeling particularly passionate about this specific war?

The post-war setup was in the brief I received from Rebellion, so the credit is theirs for that. It’s certainly not the first time the topic has been touched, but stories about martial triumph are commonplace enough that it seems there’s more unexplored space if you pick up a narrative after the dust settles.

I noticed that the sequel to Redemption’s BladeSalvation’s Fire, just came out and was written by Justina Robson. What is going on with the writing? Is it a joint project and will you be writing in this world more? How many novels are planned?

The series is envisaged as multi-author, and Justina had the unenviable task of picking up my toys when I’d finished using them. As for the future, that’s in Rebellion’s hands, but I’d certainly like to see more of the world.

Following up on the last question, the world of Redemption is incredible. The original races, power, and locations that you explored in the book really captured my imagination. Did you have any particular inspiration for the various races (or the torments visited on them, which were equally creative in a different sadder way)? Was the world build collectively with other authors?

I got a very loose brief, and then a very free hand, and in fact the sheer untrammelled creation I got to put into the project made writing it an absolute joy. I wanted to set up a complex world with a lot of areas left to be explored, a lot of hints and hooks for writers who might come after me. In that, it was a lot like setting up a campaign for a role-playing game – you need room to expand into.

There was a lot to like in Redemption’s Blade, but I particularly loved the ideas of the guardians – demigods sent to watch over life in the world. In many ways, the novel feels like it really revolves around them and their choices. What was your inspiration for these divine characters?

They were part of the brief, so again a tip of the hat to Rebellion. My own touch came mostly in the way that the guardians had already become mostly surplus to requirements before the war broke out – living alongside mortals meant that they were learning as much as they taught, including self interest.

I also really enjoyed the magical artifacts that litter the world in Redemption’s Blade. Were there any artifacts (or species of people) that you came up with that didn’t quite make it into the book?

Because of the nature of the project I got to shoehorn in a lot of things that I didn’t need to explore, just to flesh out the world. There were a few things I’d like to have played more with, though – there’s a bronze army mentioned early on, that apparently wasn’t much use against the Kinslayer and his legions, and one wonders what might be left over of *that* and precisely what it thinks about things.

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What was your favorite thing to write in Children of Time? Was there a particular evolution you liked most?

I think the big war between the spiders and the ants was fun, and also the stealing of the sacred eye of the ant god, because it let me do something I love to read – writing hard SF in the style of epic fantasy (like Gene Wolfe does so well, or M John Harrison). Also, it’s nice to write a genuine heroic narrative where the protagonist is a spider.

How did you land on spiders as the species the humans would face?

It happened the other way round. I came across Portia labiata in my researches and knew that I needed to find a way of writing a book about them. The humans came later.

Children of Time has a lot of tangible themes that rarely get the treatment you gave them (such as evolution and the passage of time). What inspired you to write the book in the way that you did?

The focus of the book was always the evolutionary process, so the narrative would always be a longitudinal one. I wanted to show just how the society might change and adapt  through the generations.

I was very impressed with your ability to control tone through the book, going from wonder to anxiety to horror fairly quickly without dissonance. How did you manage the tone in your head, while also making sure it translated to the page?

I think Children of Time is now pretty much the benchmark for my style now – Serious Narrative with a bit of nastiness sugar coated with a big of humour. I have never been a strictly technical writer, and the writing comes out as it comes out – the evolution of my style is an entirely subconscious process.

I just recently found out that there will be a sequel, Children of Ruin. While I felt CoT worked amazingly as a standalone, I’m incredibly excited about the sequel. What to you felt unfinished about Children of Time that led to Children of Ruin?

Well there’s that last sequence, the epilogue, where they’re setting off on a voyage of discovery. Children of Ruin is the story of What They Find There, and as the title suggests it’s not necessarily pretty.

How much research went into creating the insect led ecosystem upon the planet?  

Well, to a certain extent it’s an extrapolation of Earth ecosystems, so there was a lot less work than trying to create a genuine alien world from first principles. The major work was the logistics of increasing arthropod size, and in how spider senses might work, in which I was ably assisted by the entomology department at the Natural History Museum.

-Thank you for your time Adrian, and everyone should check out one of his various books as soon as possible!

Children of Time – The Web Of Life Finds A Way

51wkqa3knrlI have a confession to make. Sometimes, I can get a little vain about my ability to think about books. I also have a penchant for wanting to discuss themes in books in a way that shows how smart I think I might be. It’s a frustrating vanity I can’t seem to rid myself of. It reared its ugly head in a big way with a beautiful science fiction standalone titled Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I bought it on impulse one late night last year as it popped up as a “readers also enjoyed.” All I needed were four words: intelligent spiders in space. How could I resist such a notion, especially with an Arthur C. Clarke award and a glowing quote from Peter F. Hamilton? I read it in July 2017, and I have been struggling to put into words ever since how much I love this book. Every time I sit down to write a review, new revelations dawn on me about the book, and nothing gets written. This is my attempt to lure you into its web.

Children of Time begins far into the future, where humanity has begun to terraform planets and spread throughout the stars. A scientist by name of Avrana Kern has decided that, instead of inhabiting some of these created paradises, we should send apes down onto them with an “uplift virus” that will hyper-evolve generations of mammals towards intelligence in order to eventually have a dialogue with someone in an otherwise empty galaxy. Unsurprisingly, there is a large group of people who do not like this idea, and they attack the space station where the scientists are operating. In the chaos, Kern manages to send the virus, but fails in sending the monkeys. The virus, with nothing better to do, finds its way into something else: spiders (portia labiate). From there the story splits into semi-parallel storylines: one told from the perspective of the evolving spiders, the other told by the descendants of humanity who are recovering from the civil war sparked a thousand years ago by Kern’s vision.

Tchaikovsky’s story straddles centuries. We are introduced to a new generation of spiders every few chapters (with each generation showcasing the evolutions gained from the previous spider protagonists). The humans on the other hand manage to stretch their lives by cleverly spanning large chunks of time using cryogenic freezing chambers. He keeps the reader engaged through tight pacing and complex characters built from recognizable archetypes. Additionally, the incredible detail with which he describes the evolution of the spiders would make National Geographic’s best travel and nature writers jealous. Tchaikovsky misses no small details, providing what feels like a historical highlight reel of the spider’s physical and cultural development as the species and society progress.

That is not to say that the human story is boring, but it was harder to get engaged with their storyline. It follows the perspective of Holsten Mason, a historian of sorts who is tasked with witnessing humanity leaving Earth for the last time and document the life it is going to build for itself. The magic of this side of the story is that the constant time jumps that leave the main character, and the reader, disoriented. Every time Mason wakes up, something new has happened or some bit of information is missing, and the reader finds out what has changed alongside the character. Tchaikovsky keeps all of these perspective shifts and leaps fresh with a few tricks that provide insights into the human condition, without beating the reader over the head with them.

The characters on a whole feel organic and lived in. The humans have a touch of desperation to them that not only expresses their fears of the future, but their apprehension towards each other. They are a broken people, the children of a civil war so toxic it poisoned the Earth itself. On the flip side, the spiders feel curious, ambitious and altogether optimistic. They are a new species carving out a space in existence on a not so perfect planet, but without the baggage of history weighing them down. These and other differences are painstakingly highlighted as the novel goes on, showing different ways problems are solved without pointing out direct differences. Tchaikovsky’s use of science fiction trappings is creative and feels organic. Most of the human technology is traditional sci-fi fare, but it has a flair to it that took me aback several times. The humans’ technology feels rigid, decrepit, and built with a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the spiders are clever and flexible in their use of biological technologies. They have access to so much, and they use everything to their fullest ability. Tchaikovsky goes through great lengths to show how both species interact with their environment through use of their resources. Each species feels different and unique, making technology a theme instead of a setting. Humanity feels isolated, paranoid, and defensive, while the spiders are inclusive, challenging, and integrate themselves into the world.

I could go on about this book, peeling back its many layers, and pointing out all the clever devices that Tchaikovsky left as surprises for the readers. I could gush even more about his commentary on power in relation to information, squeal about how the main characters and their roles in society reflect the values those societies hold dear. I could blather on about how the ending is a glorious refutation of stories we as civilized, economically focused, western Europeans have told ourselves about ourselves. I could highlight that accepting and promoting the education, validity, and intelligence of a society’s oppressed groups can bring about greater freedom for everyone is a theme that both the spiders and humans share. Instead, I will say Children of Time is easily one of my favorite books of this year, if not one of my favorite books ever. It is not perfect, even though all I want to do is talk about it. The initial human chapters did nothing for me and felt standard and unexciting until I started looking backwards. It requires a lot of buy in from the reader to feel the nuances and the gears turning while reading. However, every moment of build up is worth it as the payoff is one of the coolest takes on evolution and alien competition I have ever read. The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends you check out Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Rating: Children of Time – 10/10
-Alex

Foundryside – An Interview With Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside RD4 clean flatLast week was the general release of Robert Jackson Bennett’s new book, Foundryside, which we really enjoyed (and you can find the review here). It is an exciting new world with a number of mysteries that we wanted to know more about. Our group had a number of questions coming out of the book that Bennett was gracious enough to answer on both events in Foundryside and the future of the series. These questions do have mild spoilers for the first book, so I would recommend checking it out after you have read it. For those of you who have already finished this great read, enjoy:

I have had a love of houses with different creeds dating back to when I read Harry Potter as a child, so I was a big fan of the different houses in Foundryside. I had a bit of a specific question for you, how does one apply to enter one of the existing houses? How does a house go about recruiting new people? Are most employees born into their houses, or poached from others, or do you have any ideas for what a house interview process would be like?

This isn’t spelled out in the story, but if I were to imagine how it’d work…

So, probably about forty or fifty years before the story, when there were twenty, thirty, or a hundred merchant houses, they probably had an apprentice education system and scriving academies that anyone could go to, and if you went through the process and either passed an entrance exam or knew the right people, you could get hired by one of those houses.

However, in the decades since, four houses have completely consolidated nearly all power. So if you didn’t get in before or during the consolidation period, it’s a lot, lot harder to get into the merchant houses now. Now scriving is probably much more hereditary and nepotistic, where a spectrum of families within the four houses have cemented their positions and are trying to get their relations seeded all throughout the house’s structures. Each merchant house likely has not just one school but many schools within the campo, and getting into any of the schools probably requires a great deal of royal intrigue, favor jockeying, blackmail, and bribery. If you want your son to be a scriver (another thing they decided during the consolidation period is that scriving is a masculine art), and you’re external to Tevanne, you probably have to buy their way in. It is, in other words, not a meritocracy by any means.

The end result is that the merchant houses aren’t innovating nearly as much as they used to anymore, but they still wield unchallenged power, because the entry barrier to scriving is just way, way too high.

Scriving seems like an interesting profession. To me, if felt kind of like crossing a jeweler and a lawyer, needing the delicate hands and mind for rules. If scriving was suddenly real, what professions in the real world do you think would have the most applicable skills to make a career change into making magical artifacts?

Coding. When I was first sketching out the story in my mind, I settled on the thesis that magic is basically just a hack for reality – you are feeding reality instructions that makes it break the rules for you. Functionally speaking, scriving is a hack that makes objects disobey physics in select ways.

I noticed that there was a particular emphasis on scrivings based on gravity in the book, both good and bad. It resulted in some particularly spectacular and gruesome scenes that have really stuck with me. What made you think: gravity, this is the force I want to focus on?

Gravity is not very well understood today – where it came from, how it works, and so on. There’s an ongoing discussion about its nature, starting with general relativity, then dipping into string theory, quantum mechanics, and so on. As such, the idea of tampering with something immensely powerful but not well understood worked brilliantly with Foundryside.

Foundryside was a really fantastic book with a distinctly Venetian feel (a favorite location of inspiration for me). Are there any other cities you feel particularly drawn too that you have considered for inspiration for future books?

I will say that Haiti is an inspiration for an upcoming setting in the series. Historically more than geographically. It is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in human history.

Ophelia felt like a very hard-edged character verging on the edge of evil in this book. However, I might be extrapolating my impressions of her because she didn’t get a ton of screen time. Will we get to see her more of her in future books? If so, in what spoiler free context?

Ofelia Dandolo is going to figure very, very prominently in the next book. She is a hard-edged person, but it would be difficult not to be when you’re running a merchant house in the ruthless and cutthroat city of Tevanne. She’s always been devoted to protecting her family at all costs, which has led her to make some hard and desperate choices she’s still paying for.

The Mountain itself was one of the most interesting ‘characters’ in the book. It seemed to embody similar characteristics to where we currently are in developing Artificial Intelligence in the modern age. My question is, why did it still seem fairly ‘nice’ after watching and learning from generations of humans? Why wasn’t it pursuing power or love or any of the other things it has likely witnessed in it’s great walls? Also, please tell me it will return in the sequels!

Was the Mountain nice? I’m not sure. It was primarily created to attract a very specific sort of entity to Tevanne, but as far as it’s aware, those entities have not appeared. So I think it’s really more lonely and desperate than it is nice or cruel. It is its ongoing failure to fulfill its purpose that defines its attitude, as opposed to what it’s learned from human beings, since it’s still a fairly rudimentary intelligence.

I think it will likely make an appearance in the next book. There’s rather a lot happening in it, though.

The city in Foundryside seems to be a location in the Golden Age of scriving. How much scriving is actually taking place outside the city walls? Is it more of a traditional world out there? Why are there not more merchants coming to buy scrived tech in this city?

Tevanne’s primary industry is manufacturing scrived weapons and smaller lexicons – like combat lexicons – which it then either uses to capture territory, or sells to warlords to help them capture territory (it then taxes the everliving shit out of the warlords, and if they don’t pay up, they annihilate them with their superior scrived weaponry). There are tons and tons of diplomats in Tevanne trying to place contracts for rigs and lexicons, mostly for horrible purposes. There is no other scriving innovation taking place outside of Tevanne, because it’s expensive and hard to do, and it’s not in Tevanne’s interests to make it any easier. They want everyone coming to them.

Your books are often filled with imaginative inventions and creatures. Was there any idea or scriving type in Foundryside that you were particularly proud of?

What Orso comes up with in the climax is probably my favorite innovation, though it is very, very mind-bendy.

One of my favorite aspects of Foundryside as a story is the unlikely team up from people in so many different walks of life (the orphan, the prince, the sheltered genius, etc.). Was this an intentional combination on your part? What was the inspiration for drawing together such different people?

Yes. I’m a big sucker for the “ragtag group of misfits comes together to hatch a cunning plan” plot. I also like it when everyone yells and argues a lot, so making them all very different is critical to that.

Do you have any mock drawings of what scrivings would look like?

No. Scrivings convey an insane amount of information in each sigil and, to be frank, I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a scriver.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you mentioned in an earlier conversation we had that the main POVs of book two in The Founders would be different. Looking back at your past work with the Divine Cities as well, you don’t seem to like to stay in the head of a character for more than one book. Is there a particular reason or ethos for this?

I will say that Foundryside was very much Sancia’s book, but the sequel will be an ensemble story as the ragtag group of misfits tries to run the equivalent of a magic startup. Foundryside slowly spread out into using Orso, Sancia, and Gregor as POVs, but the sequel will begin in this format, and will add in some new ones. This is just a result of the story and world getting bigger. You need new perspectives to help the audience comprehend the scale of the stakes. I suspect that’s why I often mix up my POVs – as the story expands, it moves into a new space.

-Thank you to Robert Jackson Bennett for taking the time to answer our questions!

Blood Of The Gods – Parting The Veil

mealing_bloodofthegods-tpI am sorry I have been so slow with the reviews this month, there has been a lot to get through and talk about. August has been a hard month for a fantasy book to stand out in, simply because of how many good things have come out. There have been over nine books I was highly anticipating that have released in about a 5 week stint, and getting to them all is proving difficult – but worthwhile. Up today we have Blood of the Gods, by David Mealing. Blood is the sequel to Mealing’s debut book, Soul of the World, which you can find a review of here, and an interview about the book here. The long story short is that Soul of the World was a batshit crazy book, filled to the brim with batshit crazy magic, that embraced its batshit crazy and confusing nature to tell a great story. With the sequel I was intensely curious to see what direction Mealing would take the story, and I was impressed and engrossed with the result.

Blood of the Gods picks up right where Soul of the World left off, but talking about the plot is difficult, as a large part of their charm is slowly understanding what is going on. So, if I can’t tell you about the plot what can I tell you about? Well, I can tell you that you should read these books. Our story still follows the same three characters from book one: Sarine, an artist street urchin with a magical pet dragon; Arak’jur, a guardian of the one of the native tribes with powerful animal and elemental magic; and Erris, a high ranking military officer with magic bound to leylines through the land. They are joined by a new fourth POV, Tigai, who has an entirely new school of magic and whose story initially seems completely unrelated to our original trio. All four of the characters remain in great form and bring a lot of different personality to the story. In addition, I think it says a lot about the quality of character writing that I still remembered (fondly) the full range of support characters as I went into Blood of the Gods.

What is most interesting about Blood of the Gods is that the story starts to make a lot of concrete sense. Seemingly random powers and events from both book one and two start to be understandable, and slowly the puzzle of what is going on in the world will click in place. When Mealing first put out Soul of the World I thought that the book was somewhat chaotic because he had decided to embrace ridiculousness and was focusing more on telling an imaginative story than on one that was polished and streamlined. After reading Blood of the Gods I have realized that he was playing a long con, and that he is actually somehow doing both.

However, the real core of these books is their magic. Back when I reviewed Soul of the World, I commented on the fact that the number of magics in the book was frankly absurd. The characters of the story have a ridiculous number of powers, and by the end of the book I was just starting to get a handle on the 30 some powers I was trying to keep track of. I was looking forward to continuing to familiarize myself with these powers in book two, which was an incredibly naive thought that I imagine David would laugh at if he ever reads this review. Book two doubles down, and by that I mean he pretty much doubles the number of magics in the book. If this sounds insane, well you aren’t wrong, but as I briefly talked about in the last review – it works because Mealing knows what he is doing as an author. The powers are never used as a deus ex machina, and despite being insanely numerous, are fairly well-defined. Instead, Mealing has created a world where our protagonists are constantly meeting new people, friend and foe, that they have to assess and work with/around as they figure out their magic. It makes you excited to keep reading and see what new magical person will be on the next page. Mealing also has an impressive imagination, and despite being up to 40 some powers by the end of Soul of the World, the magics remained fun and inventive with little overlap.

I can only imagine how much planning must have gone into a storyboard and world of this scope. While the first book took place in a set of colonies who had thrown off their parent country American revolution style, the second book expands the scope massively to the full globe. We spend a significant amount of time on other continents and learning about a number of other culture and people. The worldbuilding is functional but slightly uninspired. Most of the people and places you will see are fairly obvious fantasy adaptations of our various real world peoples (Native Americans, American Colonies, Europe, Asia, etc.). There is nothing wrong with it, but it lacks the imaginative brilliance of Mealing’s magic systems. In addition, the plot mostly continued at a fast and exciting speed; however, the book is long and it did feel like it flagged a little around the 80% mark as it built to a climax. There was a prolonged battle scene involving Erris near the end of the book that felt slightly unnecessary to an already long book. At the end of the day though, this book was a fantastic read and these flaws did not do much to dampen my enthusiasm as I systematically tore through it.

Mealing has managed to get me to reassess his skill as an author with his second book, Blood of the Gods. While I initially thought he was a crazy imaginative author who might need a little polish; now I think he is a crazy imaginative author who clearly knows what he is doing. Mealing is an author with incredible potential, and if you can handle not knowing what is going on for a massive payoff, I highly recommend you check out both Soul of the World and Blood if the Gods. I just hope that at some point in the future Mealing releases an appendix of all the powers he has introduced in his story.

Rating: Blood of the Gods – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – It’s A Frighteningly Good Time

Boy howdy it’s mid-August and you know what that means: horror review time! There’s nothing scarier to me than 90 degree days with 90% humidity, and the electric bill that will be coming from me running my AC on the highest possible setting for months on end. In honor of the true terror brought on by the depths of summer, we’re hopping back on the Cabal Train!

Wait…no, that was the first book. The Cabal Dirigib-

No, no that was book two. Let me try again.

We’re back on the Cabal Long-Journey-Through-Mysterious-Lands-With-Mysterious-Travel-Partners-That-Involves-Multiple-Transportation-Methods.

Perfect.

51toff8i01l-_sx331_bo1204203200_For those of you who forgot, we reviewed the first two books in the series quite some time ago, you can find those reviews here and here. As a quick catch-up (though I don’t know why you’d be reading the review of a third book in a series if you had forgotten, kinda weird to be completely honest), the series follows a German necromancer (of some little infamy) named Johannes Cabal on his various travels and travails. To this point in the series proper (spoilers follow) he has bargained his way out of a deal with the devil and foiled an aristocratic plot aboard a dirigible. Having literally walked away from the dirigible’s crash landing, he has arrived back at his three-story Victorian townhouse that has been somehow moved to a deserted countryside through less-than-mundane means. As he recovers from his unexpected turn to heroism, he is approached by three men from the Fear Institute who want him to be their guide through the Dreamlands, and this is where our story begins.

The Fear Institute is a small group of intelligentsia that has dedicated itself to eradicating what they call the “Phobic Animus”, which is a silly name they have for the physical embodiment of fear itself. They believe that by eliminating this Animus they can eliminate fear in the human race and lead mankind to a more rational way of living and thinking. The problem, for them, is that the Animus resides in the Dreamlands, which are notoriously difficult to access and travel in. Based on the fact that the book isn’t over after three chapters, I think it’s fairly safe to spoil that they do end up in the Dreamlands, and it is there that the vast majority of the book takes place.

Any of you that have read Lovecraft in the past will have at least a passing familiarity with the Dreamlands, as they feature in one of his most popular stories: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. It is in this book that readers will solidify this series as a favorite or decide that it’s not for them after all. In previous books there were scattered references to the Cthulhu mythos, one-off moments of horror, and the occasional weirdness among what were mostly fun adventure stories. This is a stark contrast to that as the lovecraftian horror and sense of the weird really takes its place at the fore. I will not spoil the specifics, but the group’s entry into the dreamlands reads as a straight cross of parts from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Music of Erich Zann” in only the best way. There are many more moments which brought to mind my favorite aspects of cosmic horror and instill a true feeling of mortal minds in a place not meant for them. As someone who enjoys that style of writing and that particular flavor of horror, this book was so far up my alley it was in the adjacent street. I can, however, see this as being a major issue if you are a reader for who the horror was tolerated in order to get to the action or detective scenes. There are still moments of almost Sherlockian deduction from Cabal, but the horror and weird has taken a front row seat and does not relinquish it for the majority of the book.

While this was certainly the spookiest of the Cabal novels thus far, it was also the funniest to me. Until this point in the series Cabal has relied mostly on having one character as the foil to his dry and biting wit. Horst, in the first book, played the sidekick and doting protector. Leonie, in the second book, acted in more of a friendly antagonism. In this book, we have three travelling companions, who all have very distinct personalities, that fall victim to Cabal’s jibes and sarcasm. In a way, this tripling of party members leads to a similar tripling of sardonic remarks and cutting jokes, all of which were as funny as any in the previous books. I find Howard’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of spine-tingling terror absolutely astounding and was continually impressed by how he always seems to find just the right balance of scares and scoffs.

The Cabal series has only gotten stronger with each entry, and after each story I find myself liking Johannes himself even more. His character arc is absolutely fantastic and never feels unrealistic to me. His slow transition from actual villain to reluctant hero has been believable and fun on every page. I cannot recommend reading the Cabal series highly enough, and while the series’ mix of cosmic horror and sardonic humor may throw some people for a loop, I have enjoyed each novel more than the last (and the short stories are well worth a read, too). Give it a go and I guarantee you have a ghoulishly good time.

Rating: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – 9.5/10
-Will