The Best Of 2019

Welcome back to another end of the year list! 2019 is rumbling to a close, which means it’s once again time to talk about the best books of the year. This year was a tough one for us. With our expanded set of reviewers, we got through a much larger number of new books and had a much harder time cutting them down to a top list. The competition was hot for every single spot this year, and our list is coming out a little later than usual due to all the discussions we had about where to rank everything. This year, the competition was so tight that we chose to include 22 books plus a few honorable mentions. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2018 into this list, and December 2019 will be rolled into 2020’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2019.

Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:

4145903722) The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull – A more personal book that takes a large event and brings it home in ways that most first contact stories don’t examine. There are no interstellar battles, no open threats of planetwide war, just three islands, the people that live on them, and the aliens that occupy them. It is an intensely close look at the effects of colonialism in its many forms and how it affects the relationships of those under the boot, literally and metaphorically. While major events rarely happen within the POV of a character, the rumors and feelings of those events bleed into the narrative, coloring the reactions of everyone in different ways. Turnbull makes every interaction feel deliberate, earned, and uncomfortable. He provokes the reader to think about the events of the book. If you want an intimate and contemplative character-based science fiction story, see if you can learn The Lesson.

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_21) System Failure by Joe Zieja – A surprisingly deep ending to an extremely humorous trilogy with a ton of excellent character development. With the publication of his third book, Zieja seems to be done with writing books for the near future–a damn shame, if you ask me. He has demonstrated that he is capable of creating thoughtful commentary and entertaining jokes at the same time, and I consider the Epic Failure trilogy to be one of the best satires I have ever read. Now that book three has stuck the landing, you can be reassured that these books are definitely worth your time. Unless you hate laughter, fun, and joy, and in that case, I am not really sure what to recommend you read.

71e9du8wynl20) Middlegame by Seanan McGuireMiddlegame was a book that flew under my radar for a while. In retrospect, I don’t know how the description didn’t jump off the back of the book at me. The book takes place in a near-future or the alt-universe United States, it’s a little unclear exactly what year the book starts in due to the fact it’s almost entirely about time travel and manipulating the flow of time. In this version of the USA, the magical practice of alchemy is real and there is a secret society of alchemists that have been pulling the strings of government and world development for centuries. The book follows a pair of alchemically created twins as they try to subvert the murderous intent of their maker and find a way to create a future for themselves. The time travel mechanic is handled fantastically, the magic feels truly mystical, and the singsong nature of the prose ties in well with the initial conceit of Asphodel Baker hiding her magic in children’s books. We highly recommend you give it a try.

81hheui0g8l19) The Killing Light by Myke Cole – A stunning finish to an already fantastic series. Myke Cole digs deep offering a sobering but impactful piece of revolution and identity. Cole maintains a loyalty to his characters through to the end, providing rich character growth inside a bombastic action-filled trilogy. The excellent pacing will keep you on the edge of your seat, with a steady but explosive ramping of the stakes in the final act. There is barely a dull moment, but Cole manages to squeeze in the occasional introspective paragraph to develop the characters. While the prose may not be overly detailed, it conveys a range of atmospheres that sell the setting and the fight ahead for Heloise and her compatriots. If you haven’t read the others in the series, this book is worth picking them up for.

51q9knbilel._sx321_bo1204203200_18) The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – Leckie’s first fantasy novel is a slow burn and odd book to pick up, but definitely worth the time. Leckie performs an amazing juggling act by building a new world, exploring the power of language, and the nature of authority in a gripping tale of succession. There is nothing I like more than deconstructing a genre, and Leckie does it with admirable finesse. The human characters are not much to write home about but serve the story in interesting ways that don’t betray who they are. Gods and kings are at each other’s mercy in this robust world where faith is a contract, and not fulfilling it has vast repercussions. If you’re looking for a book that cooks its elements like a stew, rewarding you with a satisfying finish after a deliberate and planned preparation, then look no further than The Raven Tower.

91fi4au2qfl17) For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones – Another of our Dark Horses, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic fantasy novel. It has an engrossing world, a fast-paced plot, and a smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. The protagonists are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free-time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. While I wouldn’t say this book reinvented the wheel, I think it is both a stunning tribute to old school quest fantasy and a fresh and original take on some classic fantasy tropes. This book is worth your time.

gideon-the-ninth-cover16) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – A powerful debut from a new author with a stunning voice, Gideon the Ninth is a story I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. A story with endless ambition and complication, Muir’s debut built a window into her very chaotic and fascinating mind. It takes a clever artist to combine necromancy and a science fiction setting, and yet Muir’s fascinating world seems as effortless as it is captivating. Her universe is both cool and believable, though not necessarily a place I want to live. Although her twists were somewhat unsurprising, her characters were bundles of mystery and watching them evolve over the course of the book was wonderful. Thank god the second book comes out early next year after the ridiculous cliffhanger of an ending in book one. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly.

71uzngwnyel15) This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – I didn’t expect a book about time-traveling super agents fighting a time war on opposite sides to be so…romantic. This Is How You Lose The Time War is a short book that feels so much bigger than it is. The ideas it contains and the relationship it explores expand in weight and depth far past what the short run time should allow. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have created a poetic romance of a sci-fi novella and luxuriate in it. Their prose is lavish but fitting and never feels overwrought despite always toeing the line of excessive. I was moved by this story to a depth that I have difficulty getting across in words and cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to experience the story Red and Blue live within its pages.

51QyF0Oma0L._SX311_BO1204203200_14) A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White – Alex White is on a roll, making two of our best-of-the-year lists in a row with his next installment of The Salvagers series. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. The Quill to Live reviewers will always be drawn toward books that do a good job blending fantasy and science fiction, and White has a real talent for it. These novels are a mind exploding stream of cool ideas and blockbuster set pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

51tbh9qip2l13) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Bancroft’s incredible prose,  delightful sense of humor, and mysterious storytelling are back again with the third installment of his The Books of Babel Series. The Hod King is the latest in an incredible character study and journey of the titular Senlin – and watching him grow book by book has been pure joy. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The book has heart and there were a number of touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction.

51dp2bmink2l12) A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Martine’s debut is a frenetic political space opera that asks the reader to put in some work, for easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the year. The worldbuilding is near seamlessly blended into the narrative, allowing osmosis like an exchange between the characters and their world. It’s a character-driven drama, wherein the characters have as much agency as the situation allows, leading to the characters to deeply question their own identity, especially when it comes to nationality and the goals of an inherited community. To top it off, Empire has one of the most exciting and bombastic conclusions I’ve read in a long while; it closes the book, but it opens the world.

43521682._sy475_11) The Bone Ships by RJ Barker – Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. The world is top-tier in its quality and the plot is surprising in its direction and themes. The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that speaks to me on several levels. This book was one of the only ‘escort quests’ I have ever enjoyed being a part of, and it was a privilege to watch the protagonists forge a legendary ship’s crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Welcome to the top 10 of 2019. Please note that the competition for these top 10 spots was fierce this year, so all of these books should be given high accolades.

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_10) The Burning White by Brent Weeks – I gotta tell you, I did not have a lot of faith that Weeks could pull off a powerful ending for The Lightbringer – and wow was I wrong. This is one of the twistiest series I have ever read, and the more turns you have the harder it is the land the final reveal. The Burning White sticks a landing that would earn a straight 10 from Olympic judges. The final installment of this modern classic cements its standing in my mind and does a lot to alleviate some of the minor animosity created by book four in the series. Future generations of readers will not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to read these five books back to back, and will never know the pain of having to wait years to find out what happens in the story next. Give these books a spin if you haven’t already.

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form once again.

The Luminous Dead8) The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – Horror and science fiction have an interesting relationship as they can sometimes explore similar ideas with wildly different approaches. Luckily, Starling is an excellent matchmaker, highlighting both genres’ strongest attributes in her debut, which also happens to be our top Dark Horse pick. The setting and the characters are the biggest stars in this book. Gyre and Em have layers to them that heighten the tension and horror of the deep caves Gyre is exploring. The first person perspective is purposefully disoriented, making the reader feel as if they are in Gyre’s shoes, and needing to ask the questions she herself has trouble answering. The character’s flaws are on full display in an incredibly human fashion. Their reckless decisions feel necessary, but also stupid and punishable. I never really felt safe during the story, especially when Gyre’s radio only partner Em, seemed so questionable. The Luminous Dead has buried itself deep in my brain and will remain there for years to come. If you’re looking for an intimate horror experience, turn out the lights and let the dead light your way.

91dsajyop2l7) A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs – If I had my way this would be in the first slot. I have evangelized about this book to everyone I have spoken to about reading since I experienced it and will continue to for as long as I live. A duology of novellas, one longer than the other, A Lush and Seething Hell may be my favorite book of all time. The longer I’ve had to think about and reflect upon its story the more profoundly it has impacted me and influenced my thoughts. Each of the stories it contains is compelling and moving in the extreme, and while I personally have my favorite of the two either one would top a list of what my personal “best” short stories would be. The genre and subject matter means that by default this book won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to find out personally. I will get my ARC signed by John Hornor Jacobs someday if it is the last thing I do, and I would highly recommend every single person reading this article to go and pick this book up. I cannot wait for what Jacobs does next.

51xnnd8dqtl6) Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey – I have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now.” The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the series tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how The Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

71wcezdltrl5) Exhalation by Ted Chiang – One of two books to sneak into the top five in the last two weeks of the year and cause a delay on the list. As far as I am concerned, Exhalation should be required reading for everyone. It is a book that evokes curiosity in the reader and kickstarts introspection. It is such a thoughtful and inspirational book and I can’t imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy it. In 300 pages and nine stories, Chiang will drop a boatload of wisdom on you and ask some questions that will have you thinking weeks after you finish the collection. This series of shorts pack punches orders of magnitude larger than other things that have come out this year, it a much smaller package. Just read it, seriously. You really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of these wonderful stories.

356060414) A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie – Like anyone familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised this is in the top five. Headline: author who everyone agrees is dope as hell writes next installment of beloved series and it turns out really good – surprising no one and delighting everyone. Seriously, A Little Hatred is amazing. Abercrombie has ushered in a new generation of characters that are just as compelling, unconventional, and emotional as the last – without cannibalizing his own work. The book is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, one of the best books I have read this year.

51sght5qhjl3) Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – With powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of its predecessor allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. While Time had great characters, Tchaikovsky really upped the ante in Ruin. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. Unfortunately, this closeness led me to feel that some of their stories were not fully explored by the end of the book, but it did not dampen the power of the story overall. Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

81h2bkqvsgyl2) The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This sneaky little snake is the true reason our list is late again this year. The silver-tongued Morgenstern must have known what she was doing when she released 2019’s arguably most anticipated book a week before reviewers like me had to put out best-of lists. I have not written a full review for The Starless Sea yet because I am still digesting how I feel about the book after binging it in a few days. However, I was only about ten pages into the book before I knew it would be a top contender for the book of the year on every fantasy and sci-fi list. With one of the most relatable protagonists of all time, The Starless Sea captured my imagination in a way few stories ever have. The book, simply put, is a work of art. With its stunning exterior and gorgeous prose upon its pages, I found myself holding this modern classic to my chest for comfort after it hammered my heart into oblivious with its touching 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 dive into The Starless Sea.

91gyhjy8mjl1) A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – This year it was a close thing. The difference in ranking between the number one and two books this year is minuscule, but at the end of the day(year) I had to give it to A Brightness Long Ago. Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read. It is a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and is The Quill to Live’s #1 book of 2019 – I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Happy 2019 from The Quill to Live Team

Blood Of Empire – An Empirically Sanguine End To The Year

81ioqfizh4lOur best of 2019 list is out, but that doesn’t mean 2019 is done giving us fantastic reads. We always roll December releases over into the next year in order to get the list out, and it can sometimes result in the powerful end-of-year releases not getting the accolades they deserve until the following year. This is one of those instances. Brian McClellan released Blood of Empire this week, his third and final installment of The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, and it has likely already earned itself a spot on our 2020 best-of list. This is a fantastic conclusion to an already great trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with this series you should read my reviews of the first two books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire. But, if you are here to find out how McClellan ties up his second trilogy in this magic world then I have some good news for you.

The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy has an…interesting…structure. In a good way. To me, it seems to eschew the traditional set-up for a trilogy of an introduction first book, bridge second book, and climactic final third book. Instead, Sins of Empire was a powerful introduction book but McClellan jumped straight to a powerful climax in Wrath of Empire, skipping the bridge. This left space for Blood of Empire to be something a bit different. While the book does have a fantastic final climax, it also focuses more on the aftermath of battles and the cleanup that often goes unmentioned. The series usually pulls me in with its epic scale, but I found myself drawn into the politics surrounding the deployment of foreign armies, recovery of soldiers with PTSD, and how war strains relationships. They were all fresh takes on the genre that drew kept the series exciting by upending my expectations for a concluding book in a trilogy.

While there is a lot to praise here, the greatest strength of Blood is its characters. I have always enjoyed McClellan’s talent for writing interesting characters, and he’s only getting better at it. This series has a fantastic cast of POVs; Vlora, Styke, and Michel are all deep characters with vivid personalities and clear strengths and weaknesses. Oddly, the three leads spend almost zero time interacting with one another in the entire series, and it is almost like reading three entire independent stories that create echos that affect one another. However, the three narratives create this beautiful balance that makes the books a very easy and fun read – always switching up the prose and style of the story every chapter keeping you fresh. Although the entire series has strong character stories, Blood takes things up a notch by focusing on how each of the three leads overcomes their own weaknesses. Without going into detail to avoid spoilers, each of the POVs finds themselves in new surroundings with a job that demands skills they are terrible at. Styke has to be diplomatic and level headed, Michel has to be courageous and honest, and Vlora has to be trusting and learn to delegate. Each of the leads is awful at these things, and the book is a case study in how they struggle to improve, avoid, or think around their own flaws. It makes for a book with some truly memorable character growth and a kick-ass ending that I would recommend to anyone.

There are a number of other positives about Blood of Empire. The combat continues to be exciting. McClellan has done a fantastic job of balancing returning characters from his first trilogy and fun new faces. We get to see a new continent and part of McClellan’s very well developed world. In keeping with the more challenging themes, McClellan put a lot of effort into humanizing or at least digging into the mentality of the “enemy” in the series – which I liked a lot. There is an astounding level of detail in his worldbuilding and I definitely think that McClellan could just keep making new series in this universe and they wouldn’t get old for a while. The mysteries and plots of the series as a whole all come to satisfying and emotional conclusions. The only real criticisms of Blood of Empire are that the pacing could sometimes feel slightly uneven, especially in Vlora’s POV. Sometimes the book could feel like it was stalling in flight as the chapters dragged along and other times I felt like they were moving way too fast and I wasn’t getting enough time to luxuriate in major character or story moments.

I really liked Blood of Empire. It does an excellent job capping off a fun and thoughtful trilogy that significantly expanded McClellan’s world in positive ways. The structure of the final book alone makes it a worthwhile read, and the book feels particularly topical to today’s world events in ways that I couldn’t get into to avoid spoilers. If you are holding out on this series after reading Powdermage, are even slightly curious about ‘flintlock fantasy’, or are looking for a good story with excellent character growth – I recommend you pick up this series ASAP.

Rating: Blood of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons – This is the Longest Review Title Ever

Memoirs don’t typically fall within The Quill To Live’s purview. But Ben Folds, in a move reflective of his genre-bending career as a musician, has broken the mold and crafted a decidedly whimsical and punk autobiography that hooked me, a near-exclusive SFF reader, from start to finish. Ben Folds fans will likely flock to the artist’s book, which shines with the same exuberance and flair that he so often pours into his music.

Ben Folds, in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, weaves tales that cover an impressive range of emotions and topics, reflecting his songwriting. Sadness, anger, hardship, and moments of success color the book, boosted by Folds’ signature voice. That voice, stripped from its usual sonic medium, hops off the page and makes Fold’s unique brand of celebrity feel accessible to readers, even without his expertly crafted melodies setting the stage for the prose. Like his album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” A Dream About Lightning Bugs makes its creator intensely relatable, even as he tells stories of performing on stage for thousands. 

The book succeeds because it is unabashedly Ben Folds. I usually steer clear of memoirs for fear of ghostwriters diluting the subject’s personality. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, though deftly edited and polished, bears no signs of outside influence. It reads like a Ben Folds song sounds, and his tales mirror the music he produced during the time in which those stories took place. 

A welcome wave of relief rushed over me when I discovered that Ben Folds’ life is actually interesting. Too often authors, in their autobiographies, try to make something out of nothing. Folds has a way of packaging the seemingly mundane in evergreen life lessons. When he explores his later work, he calls back to the earlier struggles that influenced it. This is all to say that Folds knows the story he wants to tell, the message he wants to share, and he does it well by carefully choosing the right anecdotes to grace the page. 

Certain moments stand out to me personally because I’ve always imagined Ben Folds a certain way through the lens of his music. Folds is Dad-like, unafraid of controversy, and willing to be himself without hesitation. Moments in the book showcase that he is that person (and much more) while also highlighting the moments that shaped his confidence as a musician and a person. He’s honest about his shortcomings. He accepts responsibility for his wrongdoings, including events that led to his multiple marriages and subsequent divorces. He describes throwing his shitty drum set into a lake as a rage-addled end to his time in college. He considers the good and the bad equally, and his memoir feels utterly balanced and satisfying as a result. This isn’t the story of a man justifying the things he’s done wrong. It’s the story of Folds coming to terms with his hardships, self-inflicted or otherwise, and understanding their role in his eventual (and continuing) success. 

After finishing A Dream About Lightning Bugs, I felt a new appreciation for Ben Folds. Reading his story in his own words lent me a new perspective on his music, which I’ve listened to voraciously for years. On the heels of this memoir, I’m more excited than ever to see what he does next. 

Rating: A Dream About Lightning Bugs – 8/10

Science Fiction for 2019

2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:

The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.

81fywrtjuolThe Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.

Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.

32758901Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.

Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.

51wkqa3knrlChildren of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”

51o34bvmuol._sx325_bo1204203200_The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).

Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.

26850100Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.

41-d2bw0dpxl._sx324_bo1204203200_Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.

Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.

91alssdftvlArmor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.

9780312536633_p0_v3_s1200x630The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.

An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.

26114545Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.

91rstamsxzlPandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.

A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.

gideon-the-ninth-coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.

Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.

Upon The Flight Of The Queen – A Clipped Wing

9781250148803In a few weeks, we’ll release our top books of 2019 list! This has been a strong year for fantasy and sci-fi; with a number of powerful debuts, and the countless sequels and new releases made narrowing down our list very difficult. However, one debut that has definitely earned a spot on the list is For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones. A stunning take on a number of classic fantasy tropes, this book burst onto the scene in February of this year and secured a spot on our top 2019 picks (the review can be found here). Interestingly though, Jones has managed to put out the second book in his trilogy, Upon the Flight of the Queen, just last week, and given my love of book one, I jumped right into it. Unfortunately, in this particular instance lightning does not strike twice.

Upon the Flight of the Queen, or Queen for short, is an enjoyable book that fails in a number of the traditional responsibilities of a sequel novel. Kings introduced a fantastic world to explore, a large cast of complex and interesting characters, a political hierarchy that dripped with intrigue, and high stakes that got you invested. The first book did an amazing job of pulling you in and telling a cohesive part of a multi-part story. It was nicely self-contained, and although there is still a looming threat at the end of the book, you got the sense that there was a fully fleshed out start-to-end narrative in the book. Queen, on the other hand, felt more like “DLC” for Kings than an actual fully fleshed out novel.

Queen hit the ground running, picking up in the aftermath of the end of book one and focusing primarily on cleaning up lingering plot points from Kings. However, it doesn’t feel like it really has a cohesive story of its own other than turning the tide in one long three-hundred-page battle. It follows a similar set of POVs from the initial book (Elenai and Rylin for those keeping track), but adds a few new ones as the story progresses. One of Kings’ strongest characteristics to me was its excellent pacing and balance between the POVs, spending the perfect time with each before alternating. In book two, instead of being a strength, the pacing is a weakness with the POVs feeling choppy and unbalanced. I felt like I was riding in an unsecured pickup bed on the highway and being flung about. In addition, the powerful worldbuilding in Kings is expanded upon in Queen, but it feels like a footnote and I found myself eating up huge amounts of pages without actually understanding more about the world. However, it isn’t all bad as the character development in Queen continues to be phenomenal. Although I didn’t enjoy that the book was one long war scene, I did enjoy the complex character arcs that it put all of the cast through. There was powerful and meaningful growth with almost everyone and it kept me invested when I thought other elements of the book were falling short.

In the end, Upon the Flight of the Queen is a fun and captivating book that I enjoyed. However, it fails as a sequel to For the Killing of Kings by not appropriately progressing the story, not standing on its own as a complete narrative, and declining in some areas that were strengths in the first book. I still absolutely recommend that everyone pick up this series and give it a spin, but I am hoping that Jones pulls out the stops for book three and returns the narrative to the high bar he set with the first entry.

Rating: Upon the Flight of the Queen – 7.0/10
-Andrew

System Failure – It’s All Fun And Games Until The Universe Is Ending

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.

If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.

Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.

If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.

System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.

Rating: System Failure – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – Human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew