The Best Of Science Fantasy

I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.

So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.

So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:

  • Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
  • Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
  • Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.

Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.

71td5pweetl1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.

81g3gpska-l2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.

gideon-the-ninth-cover3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.

red2bsister2bcover5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.

355205646) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.

threepartsdead_1507) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.

514r1y8fc6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.

51zeepnspsl._sx331_bo1204203200_9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.

812bsf2bbnqul10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).

978057508516911) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.

51oul60c3fl12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.

Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.

-Andrew

Cuphead Carnival Chaos: A Gollywompin’ Good Time

When you see Cuphead Carnival Chaos on shelves, be they virtual or digital, you may ask yourself: who is this book for? Fair question. There are two answers. One is obvious, and the other is semi-obvious. The obvious answer: Cuphead Carnival Chaos is for fans of Cuphead. The semi-obvious answer is that this book is for kids. I know nothing about kids, other than having virtually identical hobbies to most elementary-level young-ins. Carnival Chaos won’t reinvigorate your love of prose, nor will it take your breath away with nuanced characters. You know what it will do, though? Make you exhale through your nose in that pseudo-laugh we all do when nobody else is around to laugh with us. 

So if you’re a kid (or you have one) who could use a fun little book, pick this one up. If you’re a Cuphead fan looking to dive deeper into the lore, then you probably look like this:

Anyway, to the book. Ron Bates does a wallopin’ good job at capturing the essence of the Inkwell Isles in Carnival Chaos. You’re on an adult fantasy/sci-fi review website, so if you’re reading this review I’ll just assume you fall into that Cuphead fan bucket I mentioned earlier. Here’s the skinny, fellow Cuphead fanatic: this book evokes the 1930s cartoony feel of the Cuphead universe. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s wacky. But it’s also–as I warned you–for kids. Cuphead Carnival Chaos expands on Cuphead’s world in tame ways. For example, Cuphead apparently goes to grade school (didn’t he make a deal with the Devil at a CASINO in the video game?!), loves baseball, and can’t resist the allure of an obviously villainous carnival that just happens to show up on the day of Elder Kettle’s surprise birthday party. 

Carnival Chaos’ paper-thin plot is just fine, to be honest. Cuphead and his pal (actually his brother, but you can be friends with your brother, I think my sister considers me a friend… anyway) Mugman are tasked with buying Elder Kettle a gift, but the temptations of the titular carnival whisk them away into a world of treachery, thievery, and classic carney scams. The story serves more as a vehicle through which we experience the Inkwell Isles and their many wonders than it does as a worthwhile narrative, and that’s okay in a book marketed to kids and that nerd pictured above. 

When you pick up Carnival Chaos, you’ll be treated to such verbal morsels as “humdinger” and “gollywompers.” Bates plays around with language in a way completely befitting Cuphead’s signature style. My eyes awooo-gah-ed out of their sockets a few times to appreciate the linguistic inventions on the page. The imagery packs a punch, too. I remember one segment vividly, in which Cuphead is a nickel short when he’s paying for an item. He reaches into his pocket and his hand, walking like a person using the index and middle fingers as legs, traipses through “pocket world,” a literal universe made of lint in his pocket. The hand asks one of pocket world’s citizens for a coin. The linty denizens oblige, and I can only assume Cuphead is their god and is swindling them and/or dropping huge metal discs onto the poor saps. But damn if that visual isn’t striking as heckaroo. 

I have one gripe with Carnival Chaos, and it has nothing to do with the writing, story, or characters. My edition of the novel skipped from page 220 to 253. From there, it continued through to the end, then resumed on page 221 after the author bio. Unless this is some late-90s choose your own adventure BS (trust me, it’s not), it’s just a blatant misprint. I sat, shook, staring blankly at the page and wondering what I had missed for about five minutes before I realized the error. And I’m a 28-year-old man. Maybe sharp-minded youth will notice the issue faster, but buyer beware. 

Carnival Chaos, like its video game source material, is fun and wacky. As a kids’ book, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly difficult as the game is, but it does offer a bright story that showcases author Ron Bates’ respect for the Cuphead universe. He had “too much fun” writing the book, according to his bio appearing smack-dab in the middle of the story, and it shows even beyond the misprint. 

Rating: Cuphead Carnival Chaos – 8.0/10

The Girl and the Stars – Not Exactly a Light in the Dark

I haven’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s work since Emperor of Thorns back in 2014. I was particularly put off by the final book in that trilogy, and I could not bother to pick up any of his later books, despite hearing reliable appraisals for them. It was just one of those rare instances where I gave up on following the conversation. So when Lawrence announced a new trilogy, I saw the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse with The Girl and the Stars

The book follows a teenage girl named Yaz. A member of the Ictha tribe, she’s reached an age where she has to pass the test that would solidify her within the tribe. The Ictha, along with other tribes, live within the northern icy regions of a planet called Abeth. There is not a lot of food, and no shelter as these tribes wander the frozen wastes, and only the fittest can survive. You couldn’t be too big, lest you eat too much food, and if you were too weak, you were a waste of energy to carry. So, children were tested, and those found wanting are tossed into a large pit within the ice. Yaz feels she will fail the test and be tossed into the hole. However, she passes, but her brother does not. As he is pushed down, she jumps without hesitation. At the bottom Yaz finds the Broken, a society made up of survivors of the fall. Unfortunately, they also have their own problems.

I’m going to rip the band-aid off right now. I had trouble with this book. Don’t get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff in here, but ultimately my experience was akin to Michael Bluth opening the famed paper bag in the freezer labeled “Dead dove do not eat:” “I don’t know what I expected.” I wouldn’t say Girl and the Stars is a bad book, but I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the world Lawrence built an incredible amount. Abeth is a really fantastic example of a new and interesting world. It’s a planet at the end of its ability to support human life, with undertones that the folks who live there are descendants of a space-faring human civilization, who have also forgotten that very fact. It’s such a satisfying and tasty seed from which to grow, and it scratches an itch and inflames a curiosity I haven’t had in a science fiction world for a while. 

However, while I enjoyed the end product and the horizons it presents, I did not like the actual worldbuilding in and of itself. Many reviews I read led me to believe that if I had not read Book of the Ancestor, I would miss nothing here. Now in some ways, this lack of context was interesting. The characters felt within their world, no need to explain the types of people that inhabited the wastes of Abeth. But with that also came a very distinct feeling that I should know, and therein lies the problem. Rarely do I reread paragraphs in books, but with Girl and the Stars, I found myself rereading whole chapters as if I missed something only to discover I was not missing anything from the text I had been given. Which leads me to my next gripe, Lawrence’s writing style. 

In this book, Lawrence writes from an informed third-person perspective, tied to Yaz. For half the book, this did not present problems. I often felt like I knew how Yaz was feeling and her immediate reactions to events. Unfortunately, Lawrence felt that this was occasionally limiting to describing what you might consider “cool events”. There are moments where, without warning, I was pulled out of Yaz into an out of body experience to witness something outside her senses, with narration to match. A paragraph later, I’m back with Yaz, my brain scrambled and without any greater context. This happened frequently enough to disrupt the whole experience, but not enough to build a pattern wherein I could expect it. It also felt as if sometimes this was used to hide information, moving the action forward without time to think about the implications of how something was said. It was incredibly jarring, especially when Lawrence eschewed all sense of place in an underground network of ice caverns by providing the barest minimum of descriptions. There was no sense of scale or understanding of where the characters were relative to anyone else. In some ways it can work, highlighting the labyrinth that is the underground, but Yaz doesn’t even mention it. Not even a single sentence of how confusing it would be to wander on her own without the help of the Broken. I just never got a sense of place or any sort of grounding, so the whole place just ran together.

Speaking of Yaz and the Broken, there was not a single character I could really get into – including Yaz herself. She seemed to fill the fairly typical YA female lead character role. She was indecisive, brash, and ended up finding a leadership role among an incredibly small group of folks to achieve her one goal – find her brother and leave, regardless of the harm caused to those around her. All the other characters could be defined using their name and a single sentence; and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t remember most of their names. I don’t want to skip over the fact that Yaz also seems to be entangled in a love square, but I also don’t have time or energy to get into that whole thing beyond the mere mention of it. I found the society of the Broken to be a cool concept, but we don’t get to see their lives. We don’t get to hear about how hard it is to scrape a living together at the bottom of the world. The reader is barely even given a hint to their struggles beyond “this guy wants war, and this lady doesn’t and it makes them mad at each other.” When characters died, the only thought in my head was “well that’s one less name to remember,” and that’s never a good thought to have. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate, I have not read Lawrence since 2014. I walked in with reservations, regardless of how open I was to the idea. I may have been led astray by other reviews in what to expect in terms of accessibility. You could even blame my fellow reviewers, people who know my opinions, and say “why would you do this?” All of those are very real points, and I think satisfying enough that if you like Lawrence, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl and the Stars. This was my experience as someone who has moved away from his work long enough to feel refreshed and ready to look at it with new eyes. So if you’ve had similar experiences in the past, the paper bag is best left unopened. If you’re newer and still curious, I would suggest starting somewhere else. 

Rating: The Girl and the Stars 5.0/10
-Alex 

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Fantasy Cop Throw Down – A Triple Review

I’m switching things up today and reviewing three books at once. Why? Because I accidentally read three fantasy cop stories in two weeks and I don’t think I have it in me to review each one separately, but I want to talk about all of them. So the question of the day is this: which of the following fantasy cop novels takes home the golden gumshoe? Is it a) The Last Smile In Sunder City by Luke Arnold, b) The Last Sun by K. D. Edwards, or c) Titan’s Day by Dan Stout? For full transparency, Sunder and Last Sun are both the first book in their respective series, while Titan’s Day is a sequel to Titanshade, a book I have already reviewed. It’s possible that because of this I came into this showdown with a favorite, but let it be known that I attempted to curtail my bias to the best of my ability.

Next, let’s establish some judging criteria. I want to keep this clean and easy, so I’ll judge the books on three categories: worldbuilding, plot, and characters. For worldbuilding, I am looking for reasons this story couldn’t just be a cop drama – show me a cool world that adds something to the story and tension. For the plot, I am looking for a mystery or drama that is exciting and keeps me guessing. For characters, I am looking (begging) for a cast that breaks out of the bottomless pit of cop tropes and tired cast members you can find in any cop show. Now, let’s meet our contestants.

Sunder City is about a former soldier turned PI named Fetch Phillips. He is searching for repentance in a ruined world that he had a hand in destroying. Years ago he was part of an army that accidentally ripped magic out of the world, badly disfiguring and killing the majority of fantasy creatures that lived in it. Now he tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined.

The Last Sun is about Rune Saint John, the last child of the fallen Sun Court. John is the last remaining member of an aristocratic Atlantean family. The Atlanteans are essentially high tech magical elves who resurfaced the continent of Atlantis to live alongside humans because they were bored (I am not doing it justice, but it’s complicated and not well explained). There are TONS of magical families in Atlantis with different powers, and John is hired to search for a missing son of one of the most prominent ones.

Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and tells the next chapter of Detective Carter – a good cop who isn’t afraid to do the right thing no matter what. This book follows the discovery of a new source of energy in an oil town that is desperate for something to restart its dying economy. While political factions squabble over the new lifeblood of the city, Carter single-mindedly pursues a seemingly unrelated murder case of a “candy”. He is forced to navigate political pressures and resist becoming a pawn in the struggles tipping the city toward anarchy. But when more innocent lives are lost and time runs short, he’s forced to decide if justice is worth sparking an all-out war in the streets during the biggest celebration of the year: Titan’s Day.

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Category one: worldbuilding. Worldbuilding (to me) in a fantasy cop story is more important than in a normal book. The author has to justify placing the story in a fantasy setting instead of just writing a piece of fiction. In addition, the best fantasy cop stories tie the investigation/crimes to the magic while making the worldbuilding clear enough that the reader can use it to solve the crime themselves. What I don’t want, is to read a cop story in a cool world where the magic is just a backdrop.

Sunder City starts us off strong by killing it with the worldbuilding. Luke Arnold has crafted an impressively detailed magical world then pulled the rug out from under it. He does a fantastic job of showing the reader how magic was a foundation that his society was built on – and how it crumpled, was rebuilt, and evolved once the magic disappeared. The worldbuilding is brilliantly interwoven with the mystery, and he empowers the reader to solve it themselves. Sunder City gets 4 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

The Last Sun, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. On the good hand, the world and magic are cool as heck. Each house has a different set of powers and there is a fun and inventive magic system involving the use of trinkets called “crests”. On the bad hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t quite feel coherent. It constantly feels like Edwards is giving the reader just enough information to get them through the current scene and that the world beyond the current situation is unfinished. I didn’t really believe the world was a real place. And while the magic was integral to the mystery of the plot, I didn’t really feel equipped to solve it. The Last Sun gets 2 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Titan’s Day likely had the strongest worldbuilding of the three, but I need to ding it slightly. If you read my review of the previous novel you will see that the series has an impressively well-realized world. Stout put an agonizing amount of detail into how his magic and worldbuilding are fused into the world and the story. The rules and restrictions of the magic are set down like laws and it empowers the reader wonderfully to enter the mind of the protagonist and solve the crimes. However, one thing I was unimpressed with was I did not feel like Titan’s Day did a good job expanding the world past the road that Titanshade paved for it. Titan’s Day gets 3 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

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Category two: plot. This one in my mind is the most subjective. I don’t have crystal clear criteria for the plot – but what I am hoping for is a story that isn’t predictable, is exciting, and has some good twists.

Sunder City has a perfectly serviceable plot, but it didn’t really impress me. The story focuses primarily on how the case takes Fetch through a cavalcade of situations that are difficult due to his involvement in the destruction of magic. The plot feels more like a vehicle for character growth than a good murder mystery. At the same time, it isn’t terrible, and there were a few good twists. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for plot.

The Last Sun was my frontrunner for plot. Despite the fact that the book didn’t set me up to solve the mystery myself, I was extremely invested in what was happening and urgently turning pages to find out what happened. In some ways, Edwards’ loose worldbuilding helped the book here as it provided a stronger sense of mystery and intrigue. In addition, The Last Sun has excellent combat and action scenes that put it at the top of the group in terms of excitement. The Last Sun gets 4 out of 5 for plot.

Titan’s Day continues to make this competition difficult by being complicated. On some level, I actually think Titan’s plot is phenomenal – but I am the wrong audience for it. Titan focuses on hyperrealism and trying to make the book feel like it uses real police work. I am sure there is someone out there who will really appreciate this, but it is not me. I found Titan’s Day’s plot boring — a rehash of the same exact story as Titanshade. The book felt like it had almost no growth whatsoever, and I didn’t like where it started. Titan’s Day gets 2 out of 5 for plot.

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Category three: characters. With characters, I am looking for all the usual hallmarks of good character design: depth, growth, relatability, and originality. In particular, I was hoping to see something beyond the usual tropes you see in every cop drama on TV.

Sunder City has good characters that pull you into the story. Fetch is a complicated person with some very believable demons. The slow reveal of his past over the course of the story is a masterclass example in how to control what information to give the reader when. On the other hand, the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sunder City is the Fetch show and it doesn’t feel like there is much room for anyone else. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for characters.

The Last Sun does well on characters. John is fun, relatable, original, and deep enough to stand out in this crowd. In addition, there is a plethora of supporting cast members who stand well on their own and do a lot to enhance the story. I was invested in almost every character who made it onto the page and I think Edwards killed it on their character writing. The Last Sun gets 5 out of 5 for characters.

Titan’s Day has terrible characters. I don’t know how else to phrase it. They are box standard tropes of the timeless cop identities. The characters have almost no depth. They demonstrate little to no growth over two entire books. I didn’t really like or care about any of them. After two books of no one growing or evolving, I found myself frustrated with the cast and considering giving up on the book entirely. Titan’s Day gets 1 out of 5 for characters.

Final Scores: The Last Sun just barely edges out The Last Smile In Sunder City to take my top spot of cop books I have read within the last two weeks – which is clearly a prestigious victory. Coming in way beneath both is Titan’s Day, which struggled to do anything with the excellent groundwork that Titanshade built. If I had compared Titanshade to the other two books I think the competition would have been a lot closer to a threeway tie – but I don’t think it would have taken the crown. Though each of these books has its strengths and weaknesses, The Last Sun is my recommendation for any of you looking for a good fantasy cop drama right now.

Rating:

The Last Sun – 7.5/10
The Last Smile In Sunder City – 7.0/10
Titan’s Day – 4.0/10

-Andrew

The Flight Of The Darkstar Dragon – Flight Of Fancy

51qrje8hdulAlright, let’s reveal a fun, embarrassing, personal fact. Ever since I was a young boy I have usually used the same moniker when playing videogames. As you might imagine, being a boy of about seven when I first came up with it, I was not particularly creative. I went with “Darkstar” because I thought it sounded cool as hell. Well, here we are decades later, and I still think the concept of a star made out of darkness sounds cool as hell. The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is a new self-published book by Benedict Patrick – who is better known for his other self-published book with a really long title: They Mostly Come Out at Night. When I saw a book with the word “Darkstar” in the title, I bought it without reading the back because of a) how bad could it be? And b) look at that kickass cover. This was the largest case of “judging a book by its cover” I have ever experienced… but you know what they say about that…

… That sometimes you make a fantastic decision. Flight is a portal fantasy, a genre I naturally gravitate away from. For those unfamiliar, portal fantasies are stories about individuals going through magical portals to other worlds and strange lands. Usually, they focus on the protagonist becoming instantly important for the unearned reason of having general basic knowledge from a different universe that makes them god-like in their new surroundings. Often, portal fantasies are lazy, poorly written, power fantasies that border on masturbatory – so I tend to give them a wide berth. However, that is definitely not always the case and there are a number of books I have seen that do more with the genre – and Flight is an example of that.

Flight is a fast-paced and well oiled short book that has a very clean plot and not a lot of worldbuilding. The story revolves around a ship that is ripped from their world into a strange parallel dimension with a dark star and a massive dragon. Their new surroundings are confusing, deadly, and fascinating – and the crew must cobble together a solution to get out of this dangerous realm before it kills them. They do this by exploring additional portals out of the ‘Darkstar Realm’ into other realities like interdimensional scavengers. That’s pretty much the whole plot.

On top of having a cut-down plot, the majority of the characters are shallow with the exception of the protagonist and a key support character. The POV character, Min, is great and shows growth – but the rest of her crew are definitely there just to support her story. So, with a thin plot, light worldbuilding, and simple cast – why do I like this book so much? It’s because Flight is a simple book that was written as a pet project out of love to explore one key theme – wanderlust. And it nails it. Flight is a story about how there is joy and fulfillment in making a living out of wandering the stars and seeing new and unknown. It is a story about how the universe is filled with more beauty than you can possibly imagine, and all you need to do to see it is go out and look.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is not an epic fantasy with every detail methodically written out, with epic prose and a once in a generation plot. And that’s ok. It is a short story investigating a wonderful theme with brilliant clarity and execution. I in absolutely no way regret my impulsive decision to pick up this book and I am overjoyed to find another example of portal fantasy done right. If you find joy when you look out at the wonders of our world, or if you want to, this is a book for you.

Rating: The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex