Sea of Rust – Get Your Tetanus Booster First

61patfjm1fl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Robots in fiction are intriguing, but except for a few rare cases, they almost always disappoint. They usually feel tacked onto a story, as if to frantically say “Look! There’s A.I.! This must be science fiction.” Alternately, they are the all-consuming antagonist, playing into current anxieties about a robot apocalypse.  By no means am I anti-robots in fiction, but there is no such story that sticks out in my mind as the definitive robot takeover narrative.  Stories aiming to fill that space almost always feel derivative, hitting similar thematic and action beats as all the others and lacking change in the voice or perspective. What made Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill so interesting to pick up is its attempts to view those anxieties from that new perspective: that of a robot. Unfortunately, this technique does not offer that much difference in perspective from a human narrator, as the first person narration drags the story down with its run-of-the-mill feel.

Sea of Rust follows Brittle, a care-bot turned scavenger, thirty years after the robot’s glorious triumph over mankind. Cargill paints a dark future, however, even for the victorious robots. The robots that once fought for their freedom against a robophobic humanity have become paranoid and insular. The promise of self-direction was replaced with self-harm and fear of destruction. Brittle, the embodiment of this future, was a soldier in this war, serving on the frontline and building herself a reputation of  detached competence amongst her peers. As the story begins, she roams the wastelands, scavenging both the living and the dead for parts she can sell. New parts are scarce, and only produced by and for the One World Intelligences (OWIs), massive consciousnesses that contain thousands of hive-minded robots. Brittle’s pure survival instinct is demonstrated through her duplicitous tactics. Promising repair to derelict bots, she coerces them into shutting down and then strips them for parts. Soon after the reader learns about Brittle’s questionable survival tactics,  she is set upon by a rival scavenger and damaged. She manages to get away, opening up the high stakes chase that continues through the rest of the book.

The story itself is written in the first person. In general, I have a hard time accepting this perspective as a narrative device. Unless there is something pointed at the reader that tells you why the story is framed this way, I am a reluctant buyer. Spoiler alert: Sea of Rust is not an exception to this and ultimately subtracts from its own experience through its poor use of the first-person perspective. While it was used to grand effect in the first chapter, developing Brittle as someone who is lost inside herself to the point that she has to justify her own actions, it has no punch afterwards. After setting up the world she inhabits through her own eyes, the fog is immediately lifted and the reader is given a history lesson. Since the story assumes the first-person voice, the reader believes that Brittle is telling the story of the war. Right after what may be one of the lowest points in Brittle’s life, she takes readers on a hard backtrack to the war, introducing them to the backstory. The change felt harsh and yanked me out of the story, as I was subjected to an account of the robot apocalypse that nearly made me roll my eyes. The authenticity felt lost to me as Brittle becomes a documentarian. Her character and view of the world, as it was built up in the first chapter, was destroyed to service the setting of the story. Something that had already felt settled, was stirred up, and it was lackluster. I started to lose interest but did not want to give in so soon.

A lot of my gripes with the novel come from not knowing who Brittle is talking to. There is far too much exposition for the story to be a stream of consciousness, and it leaves me wondering who this story is for. It cannot be for a human, as they were all killed off. There is a possibility that the narrative is for other robots who did not experience the war, but this is not revealed as a possibility until later into the book. The story cannot be for Brittle herself, as she knows her past, and it oozes out that she is specifically hiding her history from the reader. It could have been to reconcile her past with her current self, but the coherent and harshly divided narrative structure of the story ruins this theory. Often, when Brittle starts to lose perspective, her blackouts are easy to divide from the story and loses any literary power it might have, making these scenes feel empty and contrived.

This perspective issue is certainly exacerbated by Cargill’s writing style. This might be another branch on the stick up my ass about first person, but a lot of the writing felt inefficient. Often there were sections where Brittle would give her opinion about a character, and the person would subsequently turn up. The encounter would be followed by a comment from Brittle that felt like “I told you so.” Additionally, the robots’ dialogue in these interactions felt awkward, and was filled with an incredible amount of unnecessary swearing. Unfortunately, Cargill did not seem to have a solid tone for these introductory scenes,  leading back into my question of, “Who is Brittle talking to?” Finally, since the reader relies on Brittle to guide them, the random gaps in her feelings about some characters but not others, left me confused. For instance, readers are introduced to a robot named Murka who has painted himself as the American flag and carries two miniguns named Liberty and Freedom. While this seems like a ridiculous caricature, Murka’s ideals feel sincere and he appears to be very committed to them. Brittle fails to comment on this, and while most other characters get an aside, the reader is left wondering, “is this supposed to be funny or honest?”

It is equally unfortunate that this uninspired perspective also extends into the themes that run through the book. One that stands out to me is the motif of individualism versus conformity. It plays out in the larger world, between individuals and the OWIs, and appears in Brittle’s personal journey as well. As she continues through her story, Brittle’s distrust of groups shows, and she is constantly paranoid that others are out to get her. Cargill also highlights this theme by juxtaposing  her past with the present. Readers get to see Brittle making the decision as an individual to join the robot’s great cause, as well as the atrocities she later committed under that banner. I love that Brittle’s fierce individualism is a toxic antidote to having fervently dedicated herself to the cause of her own liberation. However, it does not feel well-executed, as Brittle never questions her actions as the story evolves. Given that the alternating timelines of her past and present are told in the first-person, the idea of Brittle re-living her past and learning from it felt natural and would lure me to continue reading, to find that hole in Brittle. However, this is not what the reader receives. Instead, the reader is subjected to Brittle’s own justifications and evasiveness about her past decisions and current behaviors so often, that by the time her personal contribution to the war is revealed, it felt like a drop in the bucket.  As the reader, it was frustrating to watch a climactic reveal land with a thump and stumble, while grasping at the strings of theme to stabilize itself.

There is plenty more to talk about, but I think I should note one more good thing about the book before wrapping up. Even with all the issues I have with Cargill’s narrative techniques, there are a few genuine quiet moments of reflection. There are a few short musings on the nature of consciousness or the idea of artificiality that feel incredibly honest compared to Brittle’s general defensiveness. There were several parts I read multiple times because they felt unlike anything I had read before and really connected me to the loneliness  that Brittle cultivates throughout the book. It is just unfortunate the rest of the book could not find a way to deliver these moments in a way that added more weight to the narrative as a whole.

Overall, Sea of Rust was okay. I think I want to dislike it more than I did. I feel that the few nuggets of greatness I found in it make me feel more disappointed with the remainder of the book than upset at its failings.  I want to see future iterations (if there are any) succeed. The way I put it to Andrew as I read was that this is a book I would try to write – and I mean that in a backhanded complimentary fashion. There are clearly good ideas fueling the work, but the rudimentary story does not merely highlight the inconsistencies-it elevates them to new heights.  Ultimately, the story can stay relatively the same if the unreliability of the clearly broken narrator was used to full effect. If you are just looking for an action romp with the feel of a western that is set in a robot future, Sea of Rust delivers. But if you are looking for something different in your pantheon of robot fiction, I would pass on this one.

Rating: Sea of Rust – 5.5 out of 10
-Alex

Extra Thoughts:

There were a few missed opportunities to connect Brittle’s journey with the philosophy and themes. Even though I have a love/hate relationship with speculating how a book could have been better, but I will play that game to try and solidify the themes I detected, but could not quite find. In my imagined version, the book would start the same as it already does, with Brittle being damaged, but she becomes even more unreliable faster. She begins to hint at her dementia as her damaged body begins to fail, affecting her systems. Brittle continues to put up a brave front, but begins to have trouble discerning between her past and the present as the dementia grows. As the lines being to blur, Brittle loses her ability to justify herself. Her identity is lost in her crimes as she tries to sort out who she wants to be. The person she is conversing with (through the first person narrative) becomes herself, rediscovering the drive for freedom and the ability to choose her future. I think this would highlight her vulnerability to the reader, as her posturing and tough facade begins to diminish.  Eventually, through the other robots she encounters, she would recognize the need to be a part of something larger in order to better define herself in the now instead of being haunted by the mistakes of her past. This interior story would become all the more palpable as she begins to solidify near the climax, reclaiming her identity. This whole story could then be juxtaposed against the all consuming OWIs who have gathered their strength through coercion, forcing weaker robots to submit. Brittle then fights a thematic/metaphorical version of herself in the armies of the OWIs, choosing to live free, instead of giving in to her despair.

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Persons Non Grata: More Like Short Stories Really Great-a? I’m sorry, I’ll be going.

I was having a conversation with the other QTL staff the other day about how hard it can be to sort out the proper cosmic horror from the remainder of the “weird fiction”, and how frustrating that can be for someone who likes cosmic horror so much more than weird fiction. We came to the conclusion that cosmic horror is likely so niche that it sells better when lumped in with weird fiction than it would by itself. I think there’s likely something to that. If that is the case, however, imagine how niche cosmic horror stories through the window dressing of old pulp noir detective novels must be. Very niche. Very fun, but definitely very niche. Would you put it in the detective section? It’s definitely a detective story. Would you put it in the thrillers section? It’s definitely thrilling. Would you put it in the weird fiction section? Fuck no, make a cosmic horror section and put it there for god’s sake. Regardless of how you’d like to categorize it, Cassandra Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series is a compelling, fun, and extremely fresh entry into the overarching body of work in the Cthulhu Mythos and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for any of the genres I just listed.

Persons Non Grata is made up of two short novels, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. Both books have runtimes of around a hundred pages, which is a good length for horror in my personal opinion. I find the shorter stories can end up feeling more gimmicky than truly unsettling, the equivalent of jump scares in movies. On the other hand, longer form horror never truly scares me due to it spreading itself so thin. This particular length really allows for a small and focused tale to stretch out and breathe without wearing out its welcome. I think these stories would be published best as one novel with a third part as a finale, but I just review horror books on a fantasy blog, what do I know?

9780765392718_p0_v5_s192x300Hammers On Bone follows John Persons, the series namesake, a hardboiled private investigator from another time. A very, very different time. You see, there’s something not quite right about Persons, maybe the fact that he’s really just a monster wearing human flesh himself. Not really a spoiler, as he mentions this frequent enough to start to get old towards the end of the story. Khaw’s dedication to the pulp detective story vibe comes through most in Persons’ inner monologues, his vocabulary is straight out of a Dick Tracy comic. Women are birds, men are toughs, you get the idea. If you find this particular type of storytelling annoying you probably won’t enjoy it any more than normal here, and I can see this being a major turnoff for people who are unable to fall in to the Spenser vibe. I personally am a fan, and the mix of pulp, noir, thriller, and chthonic entities tickles me in just the right way.

The motivation for the detecting in Hammers on Bone isn’t hugely important. A kid goes to Persons and hires him to kill his dad. It’s made to seem that he’s just a domestic abuser, but based on the fact that the detective is a primordial monster himself that’s probably not the case, right? Right. The horror in Hammers on Bone is absolutely fantastic. Khaw walks a fine line between the concise and punchy narration style of old detective novels while nodding at the overly descriptive and flowery language of the older school of cosmic horror and the combination allows the reader’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. Descriptions of a man transforming into a mass of eyes (Maybe? How reliable is our narrator?), a fight with an eldritch horror, and just the depersonalizing dreary grind of life in modern cities are all dripping with dread and create an absolutely oppressive atmosphere throughout. I thought that some of the descriptions of the actual action were a little confusing, but the novel isn’t about the action and I think that’s forgivable.

a-song-for-quiet_origA Song for Quiet switches protagonist to Deacon James, a saxophone playing blues man from Georgia. Persons still features, but as a persistent secondary character that is shown to be just as monstrous as the things he fights. It’s great to see the protagonist from the first book through another person’s (heh) eyes, you’re shown that he’s not putting on quite as convincing a façade as he believes, and paints the first book in a very different light than if it were read alone. I thought A Song for Quiet was incredible. The horror is varied, it’s described sublimely, the length is perfect, and the characters are everything I want in a horror story. I was on edge from the second page of the book, and there were passages where I desperately wanted to put the book down but found myself unable to, wrapped up in the horrible spectacle of it all. I don’t want to spoil anything about this book, and it’s short enough to take a gamble on without reading the blurb on goodreads, just pick it up and see for yourself. A Song for Quiet is in my top 5 for horror stories, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Persons Non Grata is an absolutely fantastic series that more people should be checking out. Short and easy to read, unique and flavorful, brilliantly written, and absolutely dripping with that heavy sense of wrong that fans of cosmic horror will instantly recognize, this series has jumped into my must reads and I cannot wait to see what Cassandra Khaw does with this series next.

Rating:
Hammers on Bone: 8.5/10
A Song for Quiet: 9.5/10
-Will

Player Of Games vs. Use Of Weapons – Culture Clash

Last post I talked about Consider Phlebas, the first book in the Culture series. You should check out the review if you haven’t, but the general gist was: a kind of boring book, written by an incredibly talented author, that primed me to dive into Phlebas’ sequels. After finishing Plebas I immediately jumped into books two, Player of Games, and three, Use of Weapons. Both of these books continue to showcase Banks’ incredible skill as an author, with his fantastic characters, intense immersion, and philosophical questions – but they also have engrossing plots that make them much more enjoyable reads.

Both the books follow a similar sort of set up; an agent of the Culture is assigned to go to a foreign empire and steer it in the direction the Culture wants through espionage and subversion. Player of Games follows Gurgeh, a Culture celebrity famous for his ability to win any game, as he is recruited by Culture leadership and sent to a despotic empire that determines who rules through a solar system sized game. Use of Weapons follows Cheradenine, a Culture mercenary hired for his problem solving skills, and chronicles the various societies he was/is inserted into over his life and the things he has done to steer them where the Culture wants. The two books share a number of striking similarities and differences that made me want to review them together; let’s start by talking about Player of Games.

51qes5r-5cl-_sx336_bo1204203200_As I mentioned, PoG follows a celebrity turned spy as he is sent to the Azad Empire. The entire solar system power structure is determined by a complicated game (called Azad) and he has been allowed to enter and compete as an ambassador for the Culture so that the Azad people can size up their intergalactic rivals. Both of these books are about culture clash, but in slightly different ways (and I really wish Banks had named his empire something else because I am using “culture” like 600 times in each of these posts). Player of Games is about a sheltered citizen of the Culture and his journey to understand how the world works outside the bubble he has lived in. Gurgeh is witty, relatable, lovable, and a delightful character to follow. I grew attached to him instantly, and was extremely invested in his journey and competition in Azad. The book is filled to the brim with commentary on society, philosophical debates, and interesting observations about people. Azad is a society that fairly resembles a capitalist dictatorship and it allows for some stark and eye opening observations about the way our world currently works. The games themselves are less the focus of the novel compared to Gurgeh’s personal journey – which was both beautiful and touching. In the end, the book touched my heart and made me question my values – both things I highly prize in a reading experience.

51rhthkgoel-_sx310_bo1204203200_Then we have Use of Weapons. Right off the bat, Use of Weapons won a point with me due to its unique narration style. The story doesn’t start at the beginning, or the end, of Cher’s life – but in the middle. There are two timelines that alternate by chapter; one working backwards telling you how Cher came to be who he is (and leading to a largely foreshadowed secret he’s hiding) and one working forwards telling you what he is doing now and showing the problems he is solving. It was a very original structure that worked extremely well for the book. Unlike Gurgeh, Cher is a spy trained to subvert societies and his story details many different people and places he infiltrated. Additionally, while Use of Weapons also intensely focuses on culture clash, Cher is a non-Culture mercenary and the story is told from the perspective of someone trying to understand the Culture’s way of life (the reverse of Player of Games). While I didn’t enjoy the plot of Use of Weapons as much as Games, the books narration style and emotional stories made up for it. The entire time I was reading Weapons I got this foreboding feeling that not everything was as it seems and that I was missing something important (which I was, but I won’t spoil what). Weapons’ subtle language and Banks’ attention to atmospheric details create a cunning and manipulative book that will send you on an emotional roller coaster. Much like PoG, it was a great read that made me want to dive into the series more, but these books both had a meta-theme that made me want to talk about them together.

I recently read Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a great classic science fiction novel defined by a set of points and arguments that Heinlein wants to make, and the novel strongly argues and posits the merits of those points. This is usually how most books work, the author has an argument to make, and uses his book to prove his point. But I feel like Banks missed that memo. A recurring theme in both Player of Games and Use of Weapons (and if I am being honest, Consider Phlebas as well) is Banks making a strong philosophical argument, then shooting it in the foot. He loves to destroy his own arguments and find flaws with every single possible side of a conversation. He has an uncanny ability to spend 100 pages convincing you to believe a thing, and then immediately showing you why that argument was wrong. However, he will then go back and reprove his original argument – then disprove it again. Over and over, Banks has had me flip-flopping on my opinions and convictions as I read his books and its gotten to the point where I no longer know what I believe. Despite the fact that the Culture books are stylized as isolated novels that have almost no overlap except the universe they take place in, I get the distinct sense that there is a bigger puzzle here. Each of the Culture books seem to provide a different angle to think about a single big question: what is the best kind of society? The result is that, despite being a series of ten stand alone books, I feel like I am reading one gigantic novel and that I have only just gotten started on my journey. I can’t wait to see what Banks has in store for me next.

Rating:
Player of Games – 9.5/10
Use of Weapons – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Consider Phlebas – An Exercise In Pointless Excellence

51o34bvmuol-_sx325_bo1204203200_We have been talking about a lot of great new releases recently, so let’s take a step back and talk about a classic I just got around to reading: Consider Phlebas, by Iain Banks. Everyone has a number of classics that they mean to get around to reading. For me, one of the big ones is Banks’ beloved Culture series. Ten books following a benevolent super race that sends agents to tinker and manipulate other fledgling starfaring people into following their way of life. If I am being completely honest, my main drive to read Consider Phlebas was to get through it so I could read the second book in the series, Player of Games, which I have constantly been recommended. Despite the fact that the Culture series could probably be read out of order, I have a weird need to adhere to publication order when reading. However, despite my dubious motivations – once I was inside Phlebas I found a book that had a lot to talk about.

So far as I can tell, Consider Phlebas is a bit of the black sheep in the Culture series. While most of the novels tell self-contained stories about Culture agents working in foreign space empires, Phlebas tells the story of the Culture’s origin and the war it fought for its existence as it established itself in the galaxy. The first book follows a mercenary shapeshifter named Horza fighting for the Iridians, the Culture’s enemy, and his attempts to recover a stranded Culture “mind” (one of the artificial intelligences that lead the Culture) in order to turn the direction of the war. Spoilers from the back cover of the book: he doesn’t, and Phlebas is about his grand spectacle of a failure. The book follows Horza from one location to another, as he slowly makes his way to where the mind is stranded and tries to steal it.

The plot of the book is honestly not very important and is what dragged down the novel for me. The book feels like an overly complicated set up in order to deliver backstory and world building on the Culture in a short amount of time. The storyflow feels artificial and hollow, and I can’t remember half of it only a few weeks later. However, those are all the negative points about the book I have and there are a huge number of positives to balance it out.

While the story is uneventful, the narration is incredible. The choice to introduce readers to the Culture from the POV of their mortal enemies is frankly brilliant, and works to naturally establish the strengths and weaknesses of the Culture. The Iridian POV helps explain the beliefs and tenets of Culture society while also playing devil’s advocate to their ethos – a recurring theme that has continued through both the second and third books I have read so far. Despite being a fairly forgettable tale, Consider Phlebas succeeds in spades setting up the future Culture novels and helping you go into Player of Games with all the tools you need to really connect with it.

In addition, if you look at Phlebas as an independent book outside its series, you will find it also has two enormous strengths: the characters and it’s immersiveness. One major take away I got from Phlebas is that Banks is a writer of incredible skill. His characters do an incredible job in their roles. The characters who are supposed to be similar to us and our way of thinking feel real and deeply relatable and the characters who are supposed to be aliens with foreign ways feel strange and different. It is rare to find an author who can do both of these things so well as Bank’s does with every single character in the story. I could write an entire post about how he handles AI in the series, but for now I will just say it is an original and engrossing take on sentience that made me want to read the entire rest of the series instantly. As to the aforementioned immersiveness – Banks has an unbelievable skill as a writer to make you feel like you are in his book. There are so many vivid and terrifying events in this book that I felt like I lived through. His attention to detail and word choices sucked me in to several death defying scenes that left me surging with adrenaline and needing to lay down as I finished them. Even if the rest of the book was awful, I would still keep reading Banks for this quality alone – it is truly one of a kind.

In the end, Phlebas felt like it both failed and succeeded as a book. I do not think it works as a self-contained novel, which is always how I judge books in a large series. It almost feels more like a series aide than the first novel in the sequence. That being said, it does an incredible job of making you want to pick up Player of Games, the second book that I liked much more (review coming soon), so in that sense Phlebas is a huge success. Despite my middling score, Consider Phlebas is a book that I would recommend to everyone but I encourage you to be aware of its pitfalls.

Rating: Consider Phlebas – 6.5/10
-Andrew

A Veil of Spears – Unbe-veil-ably Point-iant

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smSand. It’s coarse, irritating, hot, encumbering, and all around unpleasant. I have spent a lot of time in sand, both in reality and in fantasy books. However, despite sand’s difficulties, it often provides settings of profound beauty and wonder. When it comes to books set in the desert, I have been championing one series in particular for years now: A Song Of Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu (whose name I just now spelled correctly on my first try for the first time ever). Now, the good news and the bad news. The good news – Bradley just released the third of six books in the Shattered Sand Series, A Veil of Spears. The bad news – I lied, there is no bad news, everything about this news is good.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can check out my earlier reviews from the first books here and here. These novels have not failed to place in my top books of the year whenever they come out, and I am happy to say that I am sure Veil will perform similarly. I am going to avoid talking about the plot of Veil, because I think many of you who read the site haven’t picked up this series yet (it is criminally underrated). If you need to know what happens, suffice to say that the story picks up immediately after With Blood Upon the Sand. Ceda’s war against the kings of Sharakhai has been making progress, but every time a threat is dealt with a new one seem to arise. Instead of talking about plot details let’s jump into why you should be reading this series.

I have talked in the past about how I love the setting, characters, story, magic, and other elements of the world – but as I was reading A Veil of Spears I found myself amazed with the complexity and depth of Bradley’s writing and thought this was the perfect time to talk about it. The Shattered Sand series starts with a simple quest: find the 12 poems of the 12 kings of Sharakhai – each poem detailing a king’s power and the way to kill them. Most epic fantasies would be satisfied with just this plot line, and if it was the only thing happening in the series I would likely still be reviewing it positively because it’s a blast. Ever since Harry Potter set out to find the horcruxes and Bilbo Baggins had to solve Gollum’s riddles I have had a love of collection quests and solving riddles. They tap into something primal for me from when I was first learning to read and discovering my love of fantasy, and the poems and riddles in Sharakhai are extremely well done.

However, reading A Veil of Spears you will see that the poems of the kings were just the tip of the iceberg for the Shattered Sands. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizzaro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story. I frankly don’t understand how Bradley continues to continually expand the size of this story while keeping it so tight and well paced. His storytelling is some of the best I have read and his prose is top notch as well.

As usual, Bradley’s newest Shattered Sands novel has surpassed my high expectations and set the bar higher. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story than I could have imagined. This series is now halfway done, and I am giddy with excitement to see what the next three books have in store. Finally, I hope my annual “why aren’t you reading this” has continued to chisel at the resolve of the many holdouts I have met that have Twelve Kings in Sharakhai in their to read pile.

Rating: A Veil of Spears – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Grey Sister – A Younger Sibling With A Bag Of New Tricks

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.inddI managed to get my hands on one of the most anticipated releases this year, Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence, and thanks to Mark for an early review copy. The book is a sequel to his incredibly powerful Red Sister, a book that placed in my top 3 favorites of 2017. Since most of you are going to be reading this book no matter what I say let me ease your worries and stoke your excitement, Grey Sister is excellent and something to be very pumped for. On the other hand, I don’t think it quite lived up to the success of Red Sister (which is fine as it was an incredibly high bar to reach).

The plot picks up right where Red Sister left off and ties up a few small loose ends and cliffhangers from book one. The story then immediately jumps forward two years as Nona finishes grey class and moves into mystic – ahead of most of her friends (except Darla who is her only ally in her new class). This works as a nice reset for the social dynamic, allowing Nona to still have a great group of friends to interact with, but she is also forced into a new group of people that present new challenges. Nona’s new antagonist classmate is delightful to hate. I found myself constantly hoping she got punched in the face and I felt much more satisfaction when the antagonist experienced small humiliations compared to when they happened to Zole/Ara in Red Sister. The plot mostly follows around a number of characters working to return the Sister Mercy’s shipheart and to ferret out Sherzal’s plans.

One thing I truly like about Mark as an author, and why I will always read his books, is that you can constantly see him growing and evolving as an author. Each book he writes, he tries to improve and iterate on past ideas and techniques. While it can occasionally make it feel like some sequels don’t live up to their predecessors, his books always feel fresh and exciting. Grey Sister still has a ton of strengths that Red had: a lovable cast, intense action, an engrossing setting, and a plot that hooks you and doesn’t let go. It also has a number of new things that improve upon Red Sister, such as the better antagonist I mentioned before. For me, the biggest improvement between Red and Grey Sister is that Abbess Glass is a POV with a large amount of page time. I really, really, like Abbess Glass and getting to spend time in her head did not disappoint at all. In addition, while Red Sister spent a lot of time meandering and exploring the world without direction – Grey Sister is much more laser focused in its pursuit of the shipheart/Sherzal plot established in book one.

I think some will see the more focused approach of Grey Sister as a good thing, but for me it kept me from reaching the highest highs I got in Red. There isn’t a ton of time spent in class or learning things in Grey Sister, instead the book focuses more on the times between class where Nona and her crew can plot and scheme. As a result, there were a lot less moments of delightful discovery as Nona learned a new skill or lesson, one of the biggest draws of Red Sister. They are definitely not absent, Nona’s grey trial was endlessly fun, but they are just noticeably less frequent than in Red Sister and it makes Grey feel like a thinner book.

Despite my few less than positive comments, I read Grey Sister in two days, so I obviously enjoyed it immensely. Grey Sister delivers on most of what Red did with a number of new delightful tricks that help distinguish it from its sister novel. I know that Mark wrote this series as a trilogy all at once, but I find myself hoping that he somehow keeps writing books in the setting. I don’t think I will be ready to leave this world after one more book and I don’t feel like I have gotten nearly enough time with any of these characters.

Rating: Grey Sister – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Wrath of Empire – The Best Kind Of Identity Crisis

This week I have returned to Brian McClellan’s series, Gods of Blood and Powder, to talk about the soon to be released second book – Wrath of Empire. The numeration of the series is starting to feel a little confusing, as this is the second book in the second series and the fifth book overall. However, the important thing to know is that Wrath of Empire continues both the story from, Sins of Empire right where it left off and continues to pull in the story of the original Powder Mage Trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with either the original books, or Sins of Empire, than this review is not for you and I am about to immediately launch into spoilers – but you can check out my reviews for both in the links. I moved the picture lower this week to specifically to keep you from reading spoilers in the next paragraph. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the war for Fatrasta.

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So, we left off in Sins with the Dynize empire rolling into town in force, our protagonists Vlora and Ben on the run to find the godstones, and Michel hiding in a hole hoping he doesn’t get murdered by his fellow blackhats. With the twist of Taniel’s return out in the open McClellen felt like he had a lot more freedom to kick up the plot development and things get moving fast. Michel is stuck inside Fatrasta with absolutely no back up, being hunted by every possible side. Vlora is on the move with Ben and a train of refugees and two different armies on her tail – both bigger in size. And Ben Styke… well Ben is a psychopath who just wants to murder people. That is where we pick up the plot and it takes off like a gunshot and never slows down. Michel quickly meets up with Taniel and agrees to try and sabatoge the Dynize invades from within, while Vlora and Ben split up to go after the two remaining godstones. The book continues to pull in old friends from the previous series to my extreme joy and I can’t wait to see who shows up next.

Pretty much everything I like from book one is still here in force. In the first review I mentioned the similarities between inspector Adamat in the first series and Michel in the latter, but the more I spend with Michel the more I reject that comparison and have come to love him. In the landscape of gods, generals, and warriors shaping the world around them – he is just a man trying to survive and help his people with his limited talents, and he is easily the most empathetic character in the story. It also helps that he feels like he is on every side in the conflict, leading a voice to all the players no matter how small. In Wrath of Empire, his infiltration to the Dynize brings them to life and shows an incredibly complex and interesting culture. His voice in the book is the driving force in moving the conflict from black and white to grey and he has steadily become my favorite character in the series.

That doesn’t mean that Ben and Vlora aren’t seeing their own growth. Ben spends a large portion of Wrath reconciling who he was with who he has become, and where his ideal person is in that range. He starts a revenge quest for people who betrayed him in the middle of the book, and I was honestly surprised and moved with the way it turned out. His inner journey is very well done and I found myself looking inwards as well as he contemplated who he wanted to be. On the other hand, Vlora knows who she wants to be but finds herself having trouble stepping up into that role. Her growth as a character is much more subtle than the other two, but no less important as she slowly decides how she feels about her adoptive father and brother and becomes a better leader. Overall, Wrath of Empire is about people figuring out who they are at a time in their lives where different external factors demand them to be different people. It is a really good piece of self identity while also having all the kick ass plot and action that I have come to expect of Brian McClellen.

In terms of negative, there was really only one complaint I had about Wrath of Empire. An important but difficult thing to do in books is to make sure that you create events that steer the plot in the direction you need without making it look like you are steering. Events in a book should feel like they happened naturally, not because an author needed to set up plot points. When you can see the “author’s hand” it breaks immersion and can be really jarring. While I have had this problem with Brian’s writing occasionally in the past, it never showed up once in Sins of Empire. Unfortunately, that is less true in Wrath with a couple scenes being egregious offenders. The worst I can think of is a moment that Taniel and Vlora arrive in a town together to hunt a godstone. Due to Taniel’s immense power at this point in the series, I suspected that Brian would need to find a way to “occupy” him while Vlora hunted for the stone – because Taniel’s strength would make solving most problems trivial which doesn’t make for good writing. What I didn’t expect was Taniel to “accidentally murder” two people within the first five minutes of being in the town, and then get thrown in jail for the exact amount of time they had to search for the stone. It was just a little too transparent. There were a couple moments like this in Wrath that sucked me out of the story, but overall they didn’t even dent my enjoyment of book two.

Wrath of Empire has flawlessly completes the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is going to be one of the strongest books of 2018.

Rating: Wrath of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew