Axiom’s End – Ellis’ Beginning

Axioms EndAxiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.

Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.

As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.

First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.

Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.

Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.

If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Axiom’s End 8.5/10
-Alex

The Emperor’s Wolves – Something Out Of Nothing

51cdzyavlalAlright, so this is mildly embarrassing. The Emperor’s Wolves is the start of a spin-off series by Michelle Sagara. It follows some of the side characters from her sixteen book Chronicles of Elantra series. I did not know this when I picked up The Emperor’s Wolves and somehow didn’t figure it out until I had completely finished the book. Thus, I will be reviewing Wolves as a stand-alone independent novel, but please know that it is part of a much larger world. I have no familiarity with the original Chronicles of Elantra series, but now that I have finished Wolves I am tempted to pick it up.

Wolves has a strong premise that leapt off its back cover and drew me in right away. The book takes place in a magical empire ruled by a dragon emperor. In order to keep the peace between the myriad of magical races that live in his domain, the emperor has a number of specialized forces that handle unpleasant business that crops up from time to time. One of these groups is The Wolves, a band of legally mandated pseudo-assassins that are deployed to bring in, or cut down, dangerous beings who believe they are above the empire’s law. It’s a dangerous job with little upside and a horrible recruitment process – but someone has to do it.

The book is an extremely character-focused story about a young Severn Handred, newest recruit of the Emperor’s Wolves. The story follows his progression from promising street rogue, to the interview process to become a Wolf, and finally to his first case. The story is centered around Severn, and in hindsight is clearly an origin story, but it is mostly told from the perspective of the other veteran Wolves around Severn as they comment and judge his behavior and first days as a Wolf. By moving the focus to outsiders observing Severn, instead of hearing his internal thoughts, two effects are achieved. First, Severn is written to be a quiet and private character, and this narrative style does a fantastic job of reinforcing that. It allows Sagara to have a character who doesn’t like to talk, likes to listen, but still has consistent and meaningful agency to the story. It’s really nice as we don’t often get quiet and thoughtful leads in fantasy, and it made Severn stand out in the larger genre landscape. The second effect this narrative style has on Severn is that it makes him seem really cool/clever/awesome really quickly and very naturally. By never having Severn state his own greatness, and having most of the positive reinforcement come from external characters around him, he organically starts to seem brilliant and mysterious. I was a big fan of the effect.

Something you need to understand about The Emperor’s Wolves is that it is a book about nothing. The entire plot of the book revolves around Severn just walking around and talking to people. While there is a ton of character growth, fantastic worldbuilding, and fun themes around the human condition – nothing really happens. The cast doesn’t do anything other than chat – and that’s fine. I still really enjoy the book and had a blast exploring the world. However, I know that there are some readers who will feel that this story doesn’t have enough meat on its bones and will be bored by its character-focused narrative. The one place I struggled with Wolves is that it has the occasional tendency to be a little too self-absorbed to keep me immersed in the story. I suspect this will be less of an issue for those coming from the original core series, but there were times in the story where the book failed to sell me on the gravity of events and I was momentarily pulled out of the book and it felt over the top. But, these moments were few and far between, and in general, the book was very engaging.

The Emperor’s Wolves is a very enjoyable book on its own, and I suspect that fans of the original Chronicles of Elantra series will love it even more. Severn is an interesting character to focus a narrative around, and the world of Elantra is fun to explore with its variety of original magical races and creatures. The dialogue is fun and snappy, the characters experience meaningful growth over the course of the book, and I had a good time. Although I have no idea what the greater series has in store, I still recommend The Emperor’s Wolves.

Rating: The Emperor’s Wolves – 8.0/10
-Andrew

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – A Bridge To Greatness

81llcanwmulNo no, not this time. I am not letting another book in The Thorne Chronicle series slip under my radar. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge (called Revenge going forwards) is the sequel to How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (Rory) by K. Eason. I somehow missed the first book when it came out last year and I refused to commit the same crime twice. You can find my review of Rory here, and you can find some bonus thoughts on it in our Best of Science Fantasy List here. It’s a wonderful story about female empowerment, everyone empowerment, creative problem solving, and how to use words and diplomacy to solve problems. The sequel lives up to the high bar that Rory set, with some minor change-ups that are worth talking about.

Revenge picks up a little while after the ending of Rory. One of my only complaints about the first book was how Eason handled the ending of the story. In essence, at the end of book one Eason waves her hands, lightly summarizes a number of big events that change the status quo of the universe, and announces that the remaining cast of characters from the book disappears into the void. It felt like a hard reset of all the progress the characters had made in Rory, and I am not a huge fan of major off-page events being quickly summarized in epilogues.

However, this reset did do a great job setting up the stakes for Revenge. Revenge’s narrative is split into two stories, each focusing on a different group of people. One follows Rupert (Rory’s old teacher) and Grytt (Rory’s old bodyguard), which I am calling team parental, as they receive a nebulous message that Rory is in danger and they should try to help her. Their story revolves around locating where Rory has gone, building an alliance to go help her, and trying to avoid igniting a war between different races that have a lot of friction. The second storyline follows Rory and the remaining side characters from book one. After too much time in the spotlight, they have decided to carve out a quiet life as salvagers – until they run into salvage that multiple galactic species are fighting over. So in one story, you have Rory and the crew fighting to stay alive while protecting their dangerous find. And in the other story, you have Rory’s parental figures marshaling the troops to come to rescue her.

It’s a really interesting story with a fun fusion of different science fiction and fantasy concepts that kept me engaged the entire time. The plot is generally satisfying, but the ending once again does the thing where it has a large number of major off-page events announced to you in a few pages. This is a bigger problem for me in Revenge than it was in Rory because it exacerbates the second book’s biggest issue – there isn’t enough there. I very much like Revenge, and the paragraphs following this one will talk all about the amazing things the book accomplishes. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I was cheated out of a full book. While the plot of book two was very engaging, there doesn’t feel like there was enough of it for a single book. I didn’t feel like the story had progressed enough to devote one of three books in a trilogy to this story. I found myself feeling starved of content and really wishing that Eason had explored almost everything in the book more. It was pretty disappointing. I get a distinct feeling that this is a classic “bridge book problem,” where the second novel in a trilogy spends too much time setting up the finale and loses some of its own identity.

Yet, all of these feelings are born from the fact that what is there in Revenge is so good. In Rory, Eason focused primarily on the titular character, and the themes revolved around female empowerment, solving situations that feel like they require violence with words, and exploring the idea of diplomacy more than all parties being unhappy with a compromise. These themes are all there in Revenge, but Eason shifts the focus primarily from Rory and her personal growth to the full cast. She elevates the supporting characters and builds a fleet of protagonists with Rory at the helm. This is a wonderful experience because much like Rory all five side characters that got elevated are amazing. In addition, Eason brings in a whole new set of side characters that fill the void left by the old. The result is the chance to read about a ton of meaningful character growth from six (Rory still grows herself) different personalities. It is a buffet of excellent character writing.

Thanks to the expansion of the character focus, we also get a much larger diversity of themes in Revenge. Rory is still dealing with the problems of being a woman in a man’s world, but she also has a whole slew of new problems that divide her focus. One person is coping with the idea of being loved as a person instead of as a possession. One person is coping with the complete loss of their identity and looking for new meaning. One person is coping with the pressures of duty vs friendship. And everyone is dealing with themes like the first contact, the value of lesser evils, and weighing personal loss against the greater good. On top of all of this, Eason does a fabulous job exploring the nature of friendship. There are a number of interesting relationships and dichotomies between different characters that I never see explored, and it was so refreshing to see a more diverse set of connections.

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic book that checks all of my boxes for something I highly recommend. In my opinion, its only failing is how short it feels, but given the pressures of working in a plague riddled world, it is easy to forgive the book for its singular issue. This series is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, and I highly recommend you find the time to read it. Its heartfelt and emotional take on the bonds between people helped me feel more connected to those around me despite being locked inside to socially distance.

Rating: How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – 8.0/10
-Andrew

A Deadly Education – Learn To Love It

41hu2u1muhlA Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, is a super interesting and clever book. This first installment in her new Scholomance series is a refreshing take on the classic wizard school trope. Novik made a lot of choices in the structure of the book that initially seemed very strange, but actually give Education a lot of character, identity, and differentiation. Novik is a seasoned author, and it’s great to see that she is still able to produce original and imaginative story ideas. Although Education has a couple of missteps, overall I think it is a stunning success and the start to a very promising new fantasy series.

A Deadly Education tells the story of El, short for Galadriel, in a school that is actively trying to kill her, in a good way. In the world of Scholomance, most people can do magic and the world is filled with these horror manifestations that try to murder mages. In order to noticeably lower the death rate among children, a bunch of people came together to build a magical school that serves as a training gauntlet of sorts to make students stronger. While the school still is filled with monsters that try to knife you, it’s treated as more of a learning exercise to prepare you for the real world – where the monsters have much larger knives. I could write an entire review based just on the fascinating mechanical working of the school (the Scholomance), but all you really need to know is that freshmen come in at the top level, the school slowly rotates downwards over four years, and that seniors need to battle their way out of the school at the end through all sorts of demons that have been building up over the years to jump the graduating class.

Not a lot of worldbuilding goes into why the world is this way, but I get a distinct impression that these juicy details are going to be explored in future books. In the meantime, the primary focus of book one is not dying – which is somewhat of an issue for El. Each mage has an affinity, which means they attract and learn spells of a sort more easily. Learning to use your affinity to its greatest potential is how you survive – but El’s affinity is a little unorthodox: she has a natural affinity for apocalyptic spells. While the ability to make a tactical nuke sounds incredible, it’s not super helpful against a lone person with a knife. So while most of El’s classmates are trying to learn how to pack more power into their arcana, El is trying to learn how to downsize almost anything she learns.

El’s problem is a really interesting one and not one I have encountered in fantasy so far. In essence, Novik has built this wonderful paradox where the protagonist has untold power and feels incredible – but her strengths aren’t relevant to her problems. The issues that El faces, namely “not getting shanked,” are clearly defined so that while she feels enormously strong she also feels like she has real difficulties she needs to work through. It’s a wonderful balance that leads to some really interesting problems with unorthodox solutions. Novik never goes too far and makes El feel unrelatable in her strength, and El is satisfying to project yourself onto.

The other really unique quirk of the book is that it contains an enormous amount of exposition. The dialogue is occasional, and the vast majority of the book is composed of El explaining events, magic, people, the school, politics, history, cultures, and anything else you can think of in a running monologue in her own head, diary-style. The book is primarily tell instead of show, which normally would be a recipe for a low score. The thing is, it works for the narrative style of the book. El’s inner dialogue takes a little time to get used to, but it rapidly becomes clear that her cyclical roundabout storytelling has sharp points and that everything she is telling the reader is relevant in clever ways. The narrative feels like Novik drops a giant puzzle onto the table and starts slowly putting it together. It doesn’t always work. Some of the sections feel glacially paced and weighed down by tangents that could have been cut down. But most of the time the narrative all comes together nicely.

The world is grim, dark, and delicious. The Scholomance is kickass, the spells are cool, and the monsters are terrifying. Novik puts a lot of thought and detail into the minutia of her world and it builds to a very well-realized environment that has clear rules. It’s a very different path to the more whimsical styles of other magic schools like Hogwarts. The Scholomance has forms and rules that will be obeyed or it will yeet you into the void. I love this more rigid take on magic that makes it feel closer to studying science or language. The Scholomance feels like an actual school, the reverse of which is a surprisingly common problem with magical school books.

The characters are also interesting. El is an angry, bitter girl who lacks friends. Her penchant for apocalyptic magic has alienated her and makes her life extremely difficult. El starts out pretty unlikable, but as she moves past her anger and frustration and builds connections with others in the school she changes into a lovable rascal. The supporting cast is equally memorable and collectively they transform from a group of strangers into a lovable group of rapscallions that steal your heart.

Novik has drawn some criticism for her takes on various cultures in Education, and I have mixed feelings about it. There is a small selection of passages that contain some racially insensitive ideas. Novik has apologized for these and is having them changed in future copies of the book, which is all we can really ask for as readers. On the other hand, I think these mistakes were made in an attempt to make the book feel as inclusive and as multicultural as possible – i.e., with good intentions. Education takes place on Earth, and Novik goes into detail about how the various countries, and the wizard enclaves that run them, are dealing with hostile monsters. Generally, I really enjoy Novik’s attempt to pull in less used cultures to the book but it seems as though Novik made a few missteps on the way to try to include as many people as she could.

A Deadly Education is a fresh take on one of my favorite tropes and I really hope that Novik turns it into a long-reaching several book series like her Temeraire story. The problems the characters face are unique, and their solutions are thrilling to read. The characters show real growth, the world is fascinating, and the plot is engaging. This book is pretty much the full package.

Rating: A Deadly Education – 9.5/10
-Andrew

P.S. The book as a physical object is gorgeous, so this is one you will probably want to physically own if you are a mixed media reader like me.

The Wormwood Trilogy – It’s Here to Win Hearts, Minds and Bodies

51geqr9ecilRosewater has taunted me from my bookshelf for the past year. Handed to me by QTL Founder Andrew in one of his multi annual book distributions, it sat there slowly seducing me with its elegant cover. I knew nothing about it other than it garnered a lot of praise within review circles. “I’ll get to it one day,” I’d say to myself every time I looked at it, picking instead another ARC with a deadline, or a book I felt I needed to get out of the way. Until one day, I decided to venture into Rosewater’s unknown maze, to get lost in something I had no notion of beyond it being a first contact story that took place in Nigeria. Upon finishing Rosewater, I immediately ordered the next two books, their covers gleaming at me and taunting me with the horrors that awaited me inside them. Even during quarantine I tried to stick to a schedule, staying on top of the ARCs I requested, knowing that somewhere Wormwood was waiting for me. If you haven’t heard of it, or know very little of it beyond the review hype, let me tell you the Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson, is a delightful descent into madness with pitch perfect atmosphere, memorable characters and astonishing worldbuilding. That’s not even to mention the absolutely batshit plot developments, science fiction wondery, and the biting critiques that litter the pages of every book while remaining an undeniably fun experience to behold.

The Wormwood Trilogy takes place in a near future around 2062. Decades after a massive biodome appeared and ravaged London, a second Dome appeared in Nigeria. Upon discovering that the Dome provided electricity, and once a year opened its doors to heal those standing in front of it, people began to build the city of Rosewater around it. Due to the presence of these unexplained phenomena, the United States has shut itself off from the rest of the world and no one has heard a single peep from them since the 2010s. Rosewater begins the trilogy with the exploits of Kaaro, a man with a criminal past and a special ability that appeared after the Dome materialized. Kaaro is a “sensitive”, meaning he can read people’s minds and emotions and connect with other sensitives on a psychic level. During the day, he acts as part of a psychic firewall for the banking system, and he moonlights as an agent for the government of Nigeria. Most of the time he is brought in by his boss, Femi, for more overt forms of interrogation (aka questioning after torture). Kaaro is one of the most powerful sensitives, and he’s very good at using his powers, despite being lazy and recalcitrant at times. Soon, Kaaro finds out that other sensitives are starting to die mysterious deaths, and he may be next.

I will only really explain the plot of the first book because going into Wormwood as blind as possible makes the whole series a delight. Even the back-cover blurbs don’t give much away, throwing the reader for early loops. Instead, I want to focus on what makes each book great on its own, then delve a little into the series as a whole and how Thompson makes everything fit so well together.

The first book, Rosewater, reads like a murder mystery. The book flips back and forth between the present moment and Kaaro’s past, providing snapshots of how Kaaro’s powers grew, and how he learned to use them. The plot is incredibly well paced, feeling like you rowed your little boat into a massive whirlpool. It starts slow, luring you in without giving too much a hint at what lies ahead. Before you know it, you can’t escape, and the only way to truly end the swirling madness is to meet it in the middle.This is amplified by Thompson’s writing style in Rosewater, as the story is told through Kaaro’s eyes with with noir-esque prose. The women have a sense of mystery to them, and even with his abilities Kaaro is not sure how to approach them. Not to mention Femi has ways to avoid him and is able to block his intuitions altogether, presenting herself as always cold, always in control. The past and present sections perform an intimate dance, never fully revealing their purpose or relevance to each other until later in the story, and the maze starts to make sense. There is an ever present creeping sensation through the novel, as if you, the reader, are being tracked as well, as if the information Kaaro is delivering to you through his narration is enough for you to be a target with him, and it never lets up. The conclusion is astounding in every sense of the word as every piece of information past and present feels relevant, as if it was all right there in front of you this whole time. I still get chills and the hairs raise on my skin whenever I think about it.

Rosewater Insurrection does not disappoint either. If Rosewater is the whirlpool, Insurrection is all of the debris pulled in and spit back out as the whirlpool implodes. Kaaro is no longer the sole narrator, and while he doesn’t take a backseat, there are bigger players in the game. The political and social implications that follow the conclusion of the first book become the main focus here. We’re introduced to more people who have a stake in understanding what the Dome is and what purpose it might serve. The history of the city of Rosewater begins to be revealed, along with meditations on the colonial history of Nigeria. Thompson juggles a lot in Insurrection and in a lot of ways makes it look easy. The atmosphere is far more intense as we’re no longer just in Kaaro’s head. Not everyone has the playful pulpy outlook he has, and it really highlights Thompson’s ability to shift tone and give his characters interior lives. Thompson drags you into the story with larger than life personalities and dangerous games of political and espionage chicken as Rosewater begins a path towards independence from Nigeria. I found myself fascinated by the intrigue, unsure of who was right and who was wrong as everything became shades of grey mixed with the colors of the rainbow. Thompson deftly manages to make you feel both righteous and guilty at the same time as characters take on the fight of their lives and risk who they thought they were. Insurrection is a story in its own right, and while it does help to set up the plot of Redemption, Thompson avoids the typical middle book slump through sharp characterization, an acceleration of pace and a focusing of his larger themes.

Rosewater Redemption is an astonishing finale. Considering it had to follow both Rosewater and Insurrection, I was honestly taken aback by how hard Thompson comes out swinging. Loose threads left dangling from the previous books are picked up and yanked on. Consequences of previous actions bite back in full as characters reckon with their choices on a personal and political scale. It’s hard to describe Redemption without spoiling its plot, but thematically it is the most cutting of the three books, especially when it comes to the narrative of colonization and self determination. Thompson does not flinch, and Redemption is all the better for it.

On the whole, Wormwood is an incredibly fresh take on the first contact sub-genre. Thompson has incredible ideas that are interwoven into entrancing stories filled with rich, vibrant characters. Thompson performs amazing feats with his shifts in perspective giving his characters different perspectives, goals and fears. In turn, Thompson pulls his meditations on colonization into sharp focus as the characters act like a kaleidoscope, rapidly twisting and turning as they individually process and bargain their way through the constantly changing political landscape. I had an absolute blast reading Wormwood. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and I full-throatedly recommend you engage with it on your own and experience all Thompson has to offer.

Rating:
Rosewater – 9.0/10
Rosewater Insurrection – 9.5/10
Rosewater Redemption – 9.0/10
-Alex

Phoenix Extravagant – A Common Fowl

phoenix-extravagant-9781781087947_hrYoon Ha Lee is a science fiction writer with a penchant for the strange and the imaginative. His Machineries of Empire series came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed the pants off of myself and many other reviews. His work has a tendency to be surreal and confusing but with clever guardrails built in to get the reader invested long enough to understand what is going on. Since finishing his first trilogy, he has been a part of a number of different projects, one of which is a brand new stand-alone novel called Phoenix Extravagant. But while the premise of the story initially felt extremely strong, the book’s lack of substance eventually turned me off.

Phoenix Extravagant tells the story of Gyen Jebi, a young person in Razanei who is studying to become a painter. Normally this would be an admirable pursuit on its own, but in Razanei painting is a form of magic. Seals, enchantments, and simulacrums can all be created with the stroke of a brush. Jebi hopes to score well on the national placement exam and test into a strong government position to set them and their family up for life. This causes friction with their family as they are a part of a native ethnicity that has been oppressed and subjugated by the Razanei. However, as long as Jebi can earn a living and survive, they are happy to do whatever the Razanei asks of them. That is until Jebi catches the eye of an experimental division of the government. The group kidnaps their family as hostages and forces Jebi to work on a weapon of mass destruction (a fully animated dragon). Jebi must wrestle with their loyalties, discover what is important to them, and find a way to escape this predicament.

This premise has legs. I really liked the idea of exploring painting as a medium for magic. The first part of the book, which focuses on Jebi studying for and taking the placement exam, is great. The stakes are clear, the objective is relatable, and the painting is fascinating. Where the book starts to fall apart is after Jebi is kidnapped to work on the weapon. I just feel like nothing really happens. There is an interesting subplot between a growing relationship between Jebi and a soldier assigned to monitor them – but the majority of the book felt slow and directionless. The dragon simulacrum is exciting at first, but the plot line doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere. Phoenix Extravagant feels like it is trying to do too many things at the same time and only manages to half-ass most of them.

Jebi is also just a boring character. They have no real personality or identity that I could find, and their actions are mostly dictated by dealing with what is directly in front of them. Their importance to the story feels unearned, and the book’s tendency to continually reveal that Jebi is even more special than originally thought feels cliché and boring. The supporting cast isn’t much better. We spend a ton of time trapped in small rooms with individuals who are uninteresting, so I never really got a good feel for the culture – let alone the differences between the groups at odds. The people and places were generally just unengaging.

I was pretty disappointed with Phoenix Extravagant and have a hard time finding many redeemable features other than its clever premise. After reading a number of Lee’s other works I have the distinct feeling that he could do better than this. If you are desperate for a fantasy book with a mechanical dragon and a focus on art, you might enjoy this – but I honestly think there are better pieces out there for even this niche combination. I, unfortunately, do not recommend Phoenix Extravagant.

Rating: Phoenix Extravagant – 4.0/10
-Andrew

To Sleep In A Sea of Stars – Or Preferably Under Six Feet Of Dirt

51lv5uh7nml._sx327_bo1204203200_Originally this “review” was going to just cover the partial galley. I made a promise to myself that I would not get lost in this book, allowing it to consume my soul, a quest I have clearly failed. I had three-quarters of a draft completed when my old pal Hugh-Brist showed up and petitioned me to read further. I asked him “Why Hugh, pray tell, would I embark on such a ridiculous endeavor?” His response was obvious: “Why not? Are you really going to call it quits after one hundred and thirty pages out of eight hundred and eighty? Are you that weak of heart?” I looked him dead in the eyes and I knew he had beaten me. So I bought a full copy of the book, and upon opening it on my e-reader, I knew I had fallen for one Hugh’s classic traps. The words “a book in the Fractalverse” flashed on my screen and I felt what was left of my soul scream and try to leave my corporeal form, but I held fast. I hunkered down with some tea, looked at my copy of The Trouble With Peace and whispered to it lovingly “please remain my lighthouse that guides me through these dark treacherous waters,” and I began to read the remainder of the book. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (hereafter TSIASOS), by Christopher Paolini, is a textbook example of doing too little with far too much and still leaves you feeling emptier than a bout of food poisoning.

TSIASOS follows one Kira Navarez, a xeno-biologist who does (surprise!) xenobiology. She travels the galaxy, researching planets that may have signs of extraterrestrial life. But after years of travelling and being away from her boyfriend, xeno-geologist Alan J. Barnes, they decide it is time to settle down on a planet and forgo the long swaths of time apart. While studying some interesting rock formations at the request of Alan, Kira discovers something weird, and her world is turned upside down. She awakens in a medical facility, unsure of what happened, and no idea what she may have discovered. But the planet she was just about to call home is now forbidden, and she, along with the rest of her crew, have been quarantined awaiting study. Soon she discovers she has been exposed to something alien and a “living” skin suit has attached itself to her body, and she has no understanding of its purpose, let alone how to communicate with it. Not soon after, her ship, along with the majority of humanity, is attacked by an alien civilization that up until this point had been non-existent, plunging Kira into a galactic battle that would decide the fate of humanity itself.

Continuing with the theme of being honest, I don’t even really know where I can begin to talk about this book. I had to take a week to process it and get the demons out of my system. Several people had to walk me back from the precipice of lovecraftian madness, laughing at my misery while egging me on, craving those delicious moments where I cracked and revealed my feelings about the book. I knew I had to soldier on, but how can one reviewer withstand so much darkness and not emerge unscathed? Well, I didn’t, and really no hero should emerge without scars, otherwise there is no reminder of who you once were healing into the person you’ve become. Yes, that was a specific dig at this book. So, I might as well actually get to why I did not like this thing and be a decent reviewer so you, like all of my smart friends, can stay away from this pain.

This is an incredibly plot heavy book that does the absolute minimum required to service a fast-paced action heavy story. Now, some people do not mind a good page turner like that. Hell, I’m even predisposed to it on occasion. What I found extremely troubling about this particular book is that it is all payoff, no setup. Every moment that should have an impact on the characters and the reader just comes out of left field. There were several times where something is revealed to the reader that the characters already just knew. Ideally you would want this; it makes the world feel grounded in its own reality. However, Paolini makes it fall flat by shoving the interesting aspect of the world and a limp character moment into the same paragraph, making both fall even flatter. Sometimes he does the opposite, taking an interesting character moment and then blaming it on some behind the scenes tampering. There is no moment that feels like it will come back to haunt Kira, or any of the crew members. Every bit of tension is immediately released, or has zero consequences. There were clear moments where set up could have occurred, but Paolini just sidestepped it, had a small conversation about it between his characters, and moved on. This is very clearly an issue of showing versus telling, and somehow Paolini manages to do both at the same time while accomplishing nothing.

It does not take very long for the book to become a fantasy book in space, and the first clue rears its mighty head the moment Kira is able to understand the alien that has attached itself to her, and she learns its name is Soft Blade. Admittedly, the name itself is interesting, and adds an incredible amount of potential depth, but as I mentioned above, it never really pays off. After Kira’s entire crew is fridged–and no, I don’t mean cryogenically frozen, I mean killed– she is whisked away onto another ship full of ragtag smugglers/traders who do their very best to act out their tropes. A bit of mysticism ensues with a seemingly random passerby who tells her to “eat the path” and our gallant heroes are off to save the galaxy by finding a magical staff, right as a second batch of different aliens shows up to turn the war into a three-way. Listen, I’m not here to kink-shame, nor am I here to be a genre gatekeeper (hell we wrote a whole piece praising the idea of Science-Fantasy), but this book did not read as advertised and was worse for it.

“But Alex,” I hear you say, “what if I forgive this book of said trespass, will I enjoy it otherwise?” No dear reader, beyond the plot there is not really much else. Worldbuilding seems to be what people might be expecting given Paolini’s history, but it’s bare bones at best here, and even those bones have been cracked open and the marrow dried to dust. There are hints at interesting things, but there is never a why. There is no history, no politics, no governance, no corporations, no real reason to be in outer space. There are seemingly interesting groups of people, but they have no raison d’etre. The Entropists are the best example as they are the most fleshed out. The Entropists are an ill-defined group of humans who feel that the pursuit of science and reason should be first and foremost, but they just end up being space wizards. Their philosophy doesn’t really conflict with Kira or the other crew members, nor does it bolster her decisions. They are just there to shoot lasers and be cool. Literally every other group in the book gets a couple of sentences at best, even those who exist among the crew. In the end, the worldbuilding in TSIASOS is just cool little “lore-like” tidbits that are mere sprinkles of salt and pepper on an oversized and overcooked steak.

I wish I could sum up the aliens in this book in a laser precise sentence that sums up their narrative purpose while also pointing out their utter dullness. As I mentioned before, there are not one, but TWO alien species in this conflict. If you crank the handle long enough, a third one peeks its head up, gives you the finger and goes to hide in it’s mystery box for the rest of the book. To be fair, this is the one instance where Paolini provides set up, but then decides to put the payoff in another book. Instead we’re left with the Jellies and the Nightmares. The Jellies are a hierarchical form-fits-function civilization of squid-like aliens that have much more advanced technology than us, and they communicate by sense of smell. They are ruled by the mighty Ctein, a centuries old Jelly that controls every aspect of their lives and they don’t like humans. There is a lot to not like about the Jellies, but the part that irked me the most is due to the Soft Blade, Kira has no trouble communicating with them, and there is no translation element to the extremely different way they communicate. I may be spoiled by other authors who do an excellent job of tackling alien communications, but Paolini just punctualizes the speech differently, and has no room for interpretation. It removes any tension between Kira and the Jellies, and it makes me angry. The Nightmares are just space zombies, a giant all consuming space horde that wants to eat everything, for literally no other reason than it’s convenient to the plot. SO THAT’S COOL.

Well if the worldbuilding is lackluster, and plot is incredibly derivative, the characters have to be it, right chief? I don’t like being the consistent bearer of bad news, but no this really ain’t it. Kira herself is a blank slate whose primary character trait is “why did this have to happen to me, this sucks.” You can technically say she experiences “growth” as we are told of how different she is now than she was in the beginning of the book, but Paolini skips grounded character work making it feel unearned. Her big moments are accidentally killing people or Jellies, training with the soft blade while everyone is cryogenically frozen, and consciously killing Jellies. The people who know her are killed early on, allowing her to be free of historical constraints and allowing any moment to be considered development. Her job as a xeno-biologist is just that, a job. A lot of her interactions with other characters feel like transactions with non-player characters in an RPG, utilizing them for what knowledge or skills they can provide her to solve the puzzle and nothing more. What makes it so frustrating is Paolini tries so hard to make these intimate moments between strangers happen, and they all just fall flat, adding to the lore, instead of the drama.

I could write for days about this book, diving into spoilers and going into unwarranted, invasive, and completely unnecessary psychoanalysis. There are lists that could be produced about all the different references Paolini makes in TSIASOS to science fiction that just scream “I read sci-fi you guys, please I swear.” I have so many highlights in my e-reader that amount to “WHAT,” that they could serve as citations in a doctoral thesis on Paolini’s view of the human condition. Instead, I’ll just morosely say, please don’t read this book. Don’t put yourself through this gauntlet, don’t let Hugh-Brist tell you “it won’t be that bad.” I’ve waited until the end to say this, because I wanted you to read the whole warning before getting to this point. I needed you to understand, while not directly feeling this pain yourself. To Sleep In A Sea of Stars is just Eragon in space, and somehow that makes it worse.

Rating: To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars Why did I read this whole book, 2.0/10
Alex

Psycho – Scares From Page To Screen

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is one of those iconic stories that summons a deluge of mental images with its name alone. It’s a flagship horror/murder mystery tale that defines its genre and earns countless homages in various mediums. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation is undoubtedly the first thing that springs to mind when anyone mentions Psycho, thanks largely to the classic shower scene, replete with nails-on-a-chalkboard-esque violin screeches and chocolate syrup masquerading as violent spurts of blood. Hitchcock’s adaptation itself is the very reason I read Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The book and its big-screen sibling were the latest topic of discussion on my Page2Screen series with Kicking the Seat founder and movie critic extraordinaire Ian Simmons. Bloch’s novel of addled minds and murder mysteries is simultaneously prescient and a surefire product of its time. If you’ve missed the book or the movie, here’s your requisite spoiler warning before I dive in. 

Psycho puts Norman Bates centerstage. Bates runs a motel on the side of a now-defunct highway that receives very little traffic. His only constant companion is his mother, who hovers over him and prevents him from truly growing into a functioning adult. Norman, as any reader will quickly discover, suffers from some undefined mental ailment. His mother has been dead for 20 years, and Norman has carried on as though she’s right beside him, and in a way she is. Mary, a beautiful young woman engaged to a hardware store clerk she met on a cruise ship, steals $40,000 from her boss and makes a run for it, hoping the money will help her pay off the debts of Sam Loomis, her fiancé. She makes a wrong turn and ends up at the Bates motel for an evening. Norman welcomes her and checks her in, but his mother’s influence takes over. Norman’s “mother” kills Mary and buries her car in the swamp behind the Bates house near the hotel. The story that follows is told through alternating POVs: Norman Bates as he tries to cover up the damage he’s done and Sam Loomis, accompanied by Lila, Mary’s sister, as they try to track Mary’s whereabouts. 

Psycho offers a chilling dissection of psychosis via Norman Bates. It’s a thin tome–my paperback copy has 176 pages–and the story moves along briskly. The plot itself is fine, and the book’s pace is surprisingly nestled between fast and slow, right in the middle. I won’t waste any space detailing the intricacies of what actually happens, because that’s the crux of the book. Instead, I’ll discuss a few aspects of Psycho that left me uncertain about whether it’s worthy of a recommendation. 

I’ll start with the good. Psycho’s treatment of authorities is hauntingly relevant to our current social climate. Lila believes from the start that Mary’s disappearance bears signs of overt criminality. She finds Sam Loomis and asks him for help, but he is hesitant to bring in the police. A private investigator joins the hunt for Mary and asks for 24 hours before they contact the authorities. Sam and Lila agree. It’s fine to shrug this off as a plot device. But when the 24 hours expires and Sam and Lila do contact the sheriff, he does virtually nothing, sweeping Bates’ crimes under the rug. I actually found this the most haunting aspect of Psycho: the police are unwilling to solve a clear issue, instead choosing to fuel the fire by completely ignoring the problem altogether. Self-interest reigns supreme, especially if it means the guy with a badge doesn’t have to answer for his wrongdoings. I’ll leave it there to avoid delving into more social commentary, but I enjoyed Psycho for its honest look at authoritative complacency and its consequences. 

Psycho faltered when it came time to truly scare the bejeezus out of me. Norman Bates? Terrifying, but as a concept. The things he does? Horrific. His mental impairment (which is explored later in the book)? Tragic, with chilling results. Psycho has all sorts of fodder for a terrifying and suspenseful experience, but I think it’s too much a product of its time to offer any real jump scares or true tension. When I read a book billed as “Icily terrifying!” on its back cover, I want hair-raising horror moments. I want to be scared to head downstairs to my unfinished basement just to do a load of laundry. I’m no horror connoisseur, but I think Bloch’s writing comes from a time when “telling” was the norm and “showing” hadn’t quite snuffed it out as the dominant storytelling device. It’s hard to say this, though, because Psycho excels in many areas, and I appreciate it for its place among influential literary achievements. I just wasn’t bowled over by the prose.

This problem peaked at the novel’s conclusion, when loose ends are tied up neatly with a few pages of blatant exposition. Again, likely a product of the book’s time, but I left unsatisfied. On the other hand, the final pages brought me the only jump-scare-worthy moment of the entire book. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one many first-time readers will likely predict and enjoy despite expecting it. 

From a genre point of view, Psycho seems to teeter between horror/thriller and the slightly supernatural. For me, Psycho felt like a precursor to authors like Stephen King, who blend the mystic with the real and package it all in a tight story. Psycho does just that, though with a few hiccups along the way, making it a worthwhile read for SFF fans. 

Psycho first published in 1959, and Hitchcock’s cinematic retelling released in 1960. I highly doubt a 2020 review will do much to sway newcomers one way or the other. Psycho exists in a weird sort of limbo where the horror elements age poorly but the social issues contained within can still resonate 60 years later. If you’re a horror/thriller or murder mystery fan, Psycho is worth the read if only to understand how it influenced the genre. If you want a modern and tense thriller, you may be better off finding a different read. 

Rating: Psycho – 6.5/10

-Cole

The Vela: Season One – Didn’t Quite Come Together

51-5yjqg17lThe Vela is a (fairly) new serial story that can be purchased in seasons from Serial Box or in collections from Amazon. As a concept, the idea of serials is interesting: the book is written and released one chapter at a time. Instead of having a single author, serials are often written by a group, with a different author handling each chapter. We have also actually covered a serial that we really enjoyed called Bookburners – you can find the review here. The Vela: Season One is written by a group of authors composed of Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers Solomon. All of these authors are individuals whose work I have previously greatly enjoyed, some of whom appear on our yearly best-of lists. This made it surprising when I didn’t really like The Vela.

The Vela is a science fiction drama that reframes how the rich treat the poor through an interesting futuristic lens. The narrative takes place in an original solar system, but to explain it more easily I am going to use ours analogously. So science has progressed, all of the worlds of the solar system have been colonized, but faster-than-light travel is impossible. Mercury and Venus were terraformed early, and they’re home to the wealthiest individuals. Meanwhile, Uranus and Neptune are more problematic and result in a poorer way of life. Then the wealthy of Mercury start to mine the Sun for Hydrogen. This goes on for a long time without issue, until they realize too late that they are diminishing the power of the sun. By the time they figure it out, the people of the furthest planets have essentially had their death warrants signed by the 1%. The planets are cooling and soon will reach lethal temperatures. Given the limitations of space travel, only a few can escape on refugee trips inward – while most will have to sit and freeze to death. The story focuses on a single refugee ship, The Vela, that somehow gets lost on its way towards safety. Our protagonists set off on a humanitarian mission to find and save it, but they find a lot more than they bargained for.

The story starts strong with some very interesting ideas, and I was extremely invested from page one. One of the best things The Vela does is capture the human condition in these refugees and those who are left to die. It is an impressive glimpse into the minds of people in a truly awful position, and it did a great job of reminding me of refugees in the actual world and how we need to help them and how the actions of a single group can have far-reaching implications that we don’t consider. However, while the premise and atmosphere were both fantastic – the story, characters, and writing didn’t really come together.

First off, the story doesn’t really live up to its grand premise. The pacing is a bit clunky, plot points are fairly predictable, and there is a lot of time spent chasing MacGuffins. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the extremely beautiful moments told through diaries and interviews of people doomed to die. They are deeply touching and crystal clear fragments of human experiences – but they don’t actually push the narrative forward. It results in alack of direction that hampers the investment in what is happening.

Second off, the characters feel a bit flat. We have two major POVs, Asala and Niko, and a smattering of minor POVs. Asala is a mercenary hailing from one of the dying planets on the fringe of the solar system. She is contracted to find the Vela, and through her we are supposed to get a glimpse into the psyche of these poor doomed people. Niko is the privileged child of one of the leaders of an inner planet. They join the mission out of a crushing amount of guilt for what their people have done, and a desire to make the world a better place. These two make an interesting duo, but they don’t feel like they have a lot of depth and personality beyond what I have already listed. I did like some of the secondary characters a lot, like the authoritarian dictator who is pulling together her planet after a brutal civil war, but they just don’t represent enough page space to make up for the momentum lost by the two leads.

Third, the writing of the four authors doesn’t blend together well. In Bookburners, I could barely tell when a different writer swapped in. In The Vela, it was extremely evident who was writing at any given time. The different authors have very different foci and voices, and it builds to this inconsistency in the narrative that pulls the reader out. I really liked each of the writers individually, but the end result was a sum that was less than its parts.

The Vela has a strong premise, and it certainly isn’t terrible, but it fails to meet the high standard I have for the authors who wrote it. Each of the authors is fantastic on their own and does a great job creating these pockets of quality work, but the combined product feels uneven and poorly blended. I am mildly curious to find out what happens next in The Vela, but it would take a strong recommendation from someone I trust to get me to pick up Season Two at this point.

Rating: The Vela: Season One – 5.0/10
-Andrew

The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew