The Holver Alley Crew – A Solid Score

Hi everyone, apologies for the sporadic posting recently but things at my job have been a bit nuts. I plan on getting back to my regular posting schedule starting next week. In the meantime, let’s talk about The Holver Alley Crew.

51hc-zmhtgl-_sx304_bo1204203200_The Holver Alley Crew, by Marshall Maresca, is a fantasy heist novel, winning it a boatload of points right off the bat. I am a huge fan of heist novels, and they definitely fall under the umbrella of my guilty pleasures. This first book in a trilogy takes place in the same universe as both of Maresca’s earlier work, following a vigilante and a detective in the same city of Maradaine. For those wondering if you need to have read all his previous work, I have not read either of his previous stories and I had no problem jumping straight into this novel. The title of the book is fairly self explanatory, and follows a group of shopkeepers on Holver Alley as they team up and try to pull off a heist, and more, in order to recover from a tragedy.

The aforementioned tragedy is that Holver Alley burns down, putting many poorer shopkeepers out of work and home, and that is where we start the novel. As in most heist novels, the team is made up of an eclectic group of people with a variety of skills and backgrounds. We have the mechanical expert, the retired spy, the sharpshooter, the muscle, the wheelman, the makeup artist, the locksmith, the chemist, and the understudy. Of the group about half have experience in the crime underworld, and half are taking their first step into the shadier side of life. It makes for a good dynamic and I enjoyed the overall synergy of the crew. What starts as a simple story about planning the heist of a statue to pay the bills morphs into a more complex plotline as the crew finds hints that their alley didn’t burn down by accident. It is fun to watch the crew plan out all of the steps of their various heists and I was fairly invested in most of the story from start to finish.

The world building felt a little sparse for me, but I suspect that is likely due to being heavily developed in earlier novels (and even without that context, the world building wasn’t bad). My one request is that I would have liked to know a little more about the aristocracy that we are intended to hate throughout the novel. The characters varied in terms of how I felt about them. Some felt really fleshed out and interesting, while others felt a little flat and two dimensional. However, I will say that the ratio of interesting to bland was in favor of the interesting. My real major complaint for the books was that it never really got me excited enough. I was invested the entire time, and enjoyed the story plenty, but I never quite felt on the edge of my seat. There was a really detailed planning sequence to the heists (which of course never go according to plan) and I think it stripped away a little bit of that feeling of “how are they going to do this” that is ever present in most heist stories, and is what keeps me coming back. However, The Holver Alley Crew has a lot of charm and spunk that made up for the missing heist elements.

I enjoyed The Holver Alley Crew, but I was a little disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it more as I tend to love books of this genre. I definitely recommend it, especially if you also love heist stories or are a fan of Maresca’s earlier work. However, I will also say I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had a little more worldbuilding, some characters were a little more fleshed out, and the heists a little more exciting. All in all, still a fun read and I will have to check out some of Maresca’s other work.

Rating: The Holver Alley Crew – 7.0/10

Observations About LotR – The Fellowship

lotr11The Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember:

1) Sam is really obviously the hero of the story – I read LotR when I was 12, and am 27 now. When I was about 18 I remember reading a piece by Tolkien talking about how he actually intended Sam to be the hero of the story, and it blew my mind. What a revelation! Who could have guessed that Sam was the true hero all along? Answer – probably everyone. At 12 I thought it was the cool prince, but reading now it is painfully obvious that Sam is the greatest. When everyone is running around being an egotistical douche, Sam is usually making comments like “all I want is love and peace on Middle Earth, and to see elves and tell them I love them”. He is the most wonderful character in the series, gets shit done, and whenever he is asked a question usually has a profoundly wise answer. He is not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need.

2) The famous “Not all who wander are lost” line that is quoted endlessly actually comes from a much larger poem – And the rest is equally kickass. It is from Aragorn’s prophecy and the rest goes like this:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

3) Aragorn is a lot less princely, and a lot more crazy homeless person than I remember – When I read LotR I remember thinking Aragorn was the coolest. That was probably some projection on my part, because Aragorn feels like a crazy person who lives in the woods (which he is!) in the books. He’s a lot less romantic and a lot more “can’t have a normal conversation with another person” than I remember. The movie Aragorn with his lush hair, perfect smile, and princely charisma has definitely warped my memory of this crazy ranger who lives in the trees

4) Tolkien has some pretty ridiculous “TL:DR” writing occasionally – For those unfamiliar, TL:DR stands for “too long, didn’t read” and is usually a one line summary of a long piece of writing. Here are some of the major events that Tolkien sums up in a single line: Aragorn randomly reforging his sword, the entire fellowship dealing with the death of Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli going from hating one another to being BFFs, and Gandalf escaping from the death trap atop Saruman’s tower. I would have liked to see all these scenes in more detail, but I also found a lot of humor at their suddenness.

5) Tolkien is actually really funny – It can be hard to realize that Tolkien is actually hilarious, because his prose is usually so complex and occasionally archaic. But after reading a few scenes I took a step back and thought about them and found myself laughing out loud. An example; when the hobbits and Aragorn are being chased by the Ringwraiths, Frodo turns to Aragorn and asks him what is following them and here is a close approximation of how the conversation goes:

Frodo: Hey Aragorn, you are wise and worldly – can you tell us what this scary mystery force is chasing us? I am quite terrified and anything you can tell me about them will make me feel better.

Aragorn: Oh no, you are much better with me not telling you. Like, what is chasing us is so pants-shittingly terrifying that if I told you even a little about what they are and the 11 million ways they will murder and torture you when they catch you, you would be so scared you would LITERALLY die.

Frodo: HOW? HOW WAS THAT HELPFUL? IN WHAT WAY WAS THAT USEFUL INFORMATION, YOU COULDN’T HAVE JUST LIED TO ME? ALSO WHATEVER THEY ARE CANNOT BE SCARIER THAN THAT HORRIFIC DESCRIPTION YOU JUST GAVE.

Rereading the Lord of the Rings has been a lot more fun than we realized, and we recommend you all reread it (or read it for the first time!) when you get a chance. The movies had corrupted my memory of the actual books a lot, and I was surprised to realize how much better many aspects of the story are in their pure original version. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien continues to impress with every read of his masterpiece.

Waking Gods – More Of The Same

30134847Last year saw a large break-out success in the science fiction genre in the form of Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. For a spoiler free summary: the book told the story of a young girl who falls through the earth onto a giant’s hand. This young girl grows up to assemble a team of scientists, military, and government officials who set about digging out the giant – tracking down the missing pieces – and assembling them. This is arguably a huge achievement for science, and an incredibly bad/good idea depending on your point of view. Our second book picks up ten years after the first with a new threat looming on the horizon – other giants have arrived on earth.

The main sell of Sleeping Giants was its innovative (yes I know it has been done before, but it still felt fresh) style of using only dialogue to tell the story. The chapters are interviews, conversations, phone calls, radio broadcasts etc. and they keep the book moving at a very fast pace. Dialogue is a lot of fun, and often my favorite part of stories. With the entire story told through talking you can expect lots of great one liners left and right. However, as we move into Waking Gods, the second book in Neuval’s trilogy, the appeal of only dialogue is starting to grow old for me. There are some inherent issues that arise with only dialogue storytelling in the second novel. For starters, the first book lent itself to mostly research, explorations, and discussion – something that dialogue does really well. Book two on the other hand, has a lot of combat and action. And frankly action scenes told only through dialogue, are pretty bad. The idea of two giant colossi duking it out in downtown London gets me hot and bothered, but when it happens in Waking Gods the scene only lasts a few seconds and you can barely tell what is happening. However, that is not to say the book isn’t exciting.

The conflict is successfully elevated from book one, and follows an escalating mystery with the answer preventing human extinction – so the stakes feel high the entire time. The puzzle feels both captivating and well planned, and kept me burning through the book straight until the end. The answer to the mystery was not the greatest reveal of all time, but nor was it disappointing – falling somewhere in the middle of the two. If I had one request it wouild be that I wished the escalation through the book was a little more gradual, as we went from mild concern to pants-soiling terror in a very short period – something I usually like more slowly build up. In addition, the characters range from lovable, to getting on your nerves. The best characters still tend to be the two who we know nothing about, the shadowy government worker conducting all the interviews and the mysterious Mr. Burns. While we know little about them, they have huge personalities and brighten up Waking Gods (which is severely needed as it is not a particularly happy book).

In the end I don’t have that much more to say about Waking Gods, other than if you liked the first book you will likely enjoy the second. I am starting to tire a little of the style, but Waking Gods definitely delivers more of that punchy dialogue I liked in Sleeping Giants with some new mysteries to solve. I would recommend Neuval avoid combat though, unless he comes up with a more interesting way to talk about it. If you enjoyed Sleeping Giants, I recommend you continue on with the series with the next installment, Waking gods.

Rating: Waking Gods – 6.5/10

The Liberation – A Stong End To The Alchemy Wars

tregillis_liberation-tp1The Alchemy Wars series, by Ian Tregillis, has consistently surpassed my expectations over the last three years. The Mechanical, The Rising, and The Liberation have all been great, and each sequel improves on the previous in small ways. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can find reviews of books one and two here. The story is about an ongoing conflict between the Dutch, the global superpower, and the French, the only holdouts of Dutch world conquest. The Dutch have an army of mechanical servants, soldiers, and marvels that have made them basically untouchable – and the French have invented a range of chemical weapons to try and counter them.

The final book in the series follows the same pattern as the previous, with two POVs belonging to Jax (a Dutch mechanical), Berenice (a French spy), and a third new perspective. Our new POV for The Liberation is finally from the Dutch side, giving us an insightful POV into the final conflict from all angles. It is always hard to talk about a final book in a series without giving spoilers, but the final books does everything I could want from the end of a series. The characters in The Alchemy Wars are fascinating, Berenice in particular. Tregillis is really good at character growth, and it is a joy to watch his creations change as the books go on. They are shaped by tragedy and success, and some of them become stronger, and some of them break. The entire cast feels so organic and real that I might have to admit Tregillis is one of the strongest character writers I have ever read.

In addition, the tech throughout the series only gets cooler. It feels like Tregillis has some awesome new piece of machinery or science to show you every few chapters in all three books, making the entire series exciting and thrilling to read constantly. One thing I really appreciate is that steampunk often feels like a polarizing genre, with some people absolutely hating it. However, The Alchemy Wars does a great job being appealing to everyone by moving the steampunk awesomeness to the background and focusing on a thrilling historical fiction plot with incredible characters.

Tregillis is also great at writing emotionally intense scenes, particularly in The Liberation. The combat is ridiculous and Tregillis’ descriptions of humans fighting mechanical haymakers on legs that will mulch you for one misstep is awesome. The books also do not give plot armor to anyone or anything, something that is much more common in historical fictions (unsurprisingly in real wars A LOT of people die). There are some truly grisly and upsetting deaths, though I would never describe them as gratuitous or there for shock value. Tregillis continuously wants you to remember that wars are terrible, people die, and that this is not an adventure (a lesson Berenice has to learn in the earlier books). The Liberation sees the stakes, combat, and horrors of war reach new heights making it easily the most intense book of the three.

In summary, I honestly did not expect a lot from The Alchemy Wars when I picked it up. I was intrigued by the Dutch vs. French premise, and was hoping for some cool combat at most. What I found was one of the most thoughtful and exciting series I have read over the last few years, with some of the best characters I have ever read. The series is definitely worth your time and I will be purchasing the rest of Tregillis’ catalog, past and future, when I get a chance. For the third and final time, The Quill to Live recommends The Alchemy Wars, do yourself a favor and pick all of it up.

Rating:

The Liberation – 9.0/10
The Alchemy Wars – 8.5/10

Jhereg – Tip Of The Iceberg

jheregAlright, before we begin I just want to throw out a note to all you authors out there: please stop writing books out of chronological order – it is killing me. This is the third major series I have read this year that the books do not sequentially and chronologically lineup, and while these series are great (Drenai, Craft, and Vlad Taltos) I can’t help but wish they were in the right order. Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about Jhereg. If you follow this blog you will know of our undying love for the great Sebastien De Castell (author of The Greatcoats). While interviewing him last year we asking him his favorite fantasy books, and he mentioned Steven Brust has been a major influence on him. We had no idea who that was (forgive us) but then we took /r/fantasy’s top 100 quiz later that month, and Jhereg came up as one of the great fantasy classics that we had somehow missed – so we immediately added it to our book club reading list.

For those of you who don’t know, Jhereg follows the story of Vlad Taltos, a Jhereg assassin, and his various adventures throughout his life. It is the first book in a huge series named after the protagonist. Jhereg is about establishing Vlad as a character, meeting some of his companions who are featured heavily through all the books (like his Jhereg familiar), and attempting to kill a particularly difficult target. The books are short, only about 200 pages each, so they are fairly focused on a single task/event and chronicle a major event in Vlads life. Vlad is a wise cracking and funny lead, which is good because he is the only POV. However, while I would describe him as amusing, it is more the occasional smile to yourself kind of funny as opposed to the laugh out loud. Vlad falls into an interesting category of protagonists that have strength not because of their personal skills or talents, but from their connections and friends. He solves problems through his vast network of allies, similar to The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher if you have read it. It is an exciting style of writing, in particular because Brust is so good at characterization and world building. His characters are varied and well developed, all with their own personalities and quirks.

In addition, his world building, while slow to kick off, is very strong. The world of Vlad Taltos has two races, essentially humans and elves (called Dragaerans). Vlad is a human, but he lives in the elven part of the world where humans are looked down on heavily. In addition, the elves are separated into a number of houses with very different ideals, jobs, and quirks that are all named after different animals. Each book in the Vlad Taltos series is named after one of these sub houses and deals with a plot line involving that house. The Jhereg house (named after a psychic dragon like creature the size of a cat) is one of the only ones who allow the admittance of humans, and is the house that Vlad belows too. Brust does an amazing job at intra world politics, and the map of how each of the seventeen (that’s right, SEVENTEEN) houses feel about one another would need a wall two stories tall to accurately map out. While you will feel a little in the deep end breaking into Jhereg, Brust manages to keep the information intake manageable as he introduces on house in full per book, while a few houses are always a part of the plotline (due to Vlad’s membership in the Jhereg and his connections to other houses).

In the end, reading Jhereg was an interesting experience that was mostly positive. The first book is short, fun, and simple. When I finished it I was curious about the world, but neither hooked or turned off. In response, I decided to read the next two books in the story (Yendi and Teckla), which I will talk about at a later date. While Jhereg left me a little lukewarm, the first three books has given me a glimpse at what all of the people in the intro were talking about, and I am very excited to press on. Jhereg is a decent read, and I recommend you check it out. If you are even slightly intrigued by it, keep going, because there is an exciting and fun adventure around the corner for you.

Rating:

Jhereg: 7.5/10
Yendi: 9.0/10
Teckla: 8.5/10

Altered Starscape – Conflict of Disinterest

26001236Hey there readers, I’m Alex, a new guest poster here at The Quill To Live, and boy do I have a treat for you. I recently read Altered Starscape: Andromeda Dark Book One by Ian Douglas of Star Carrier fame. Altered Starscape follows one Lord Commander St. Clair, a naval officer within the newly proclaimed United Earth Directorate, as he leads his crew to set up an embassy at the galactic center- a super massive black hole. Upon arrival, an attack blows up the space station and the blast throws the Tellus Ad Astra (the ship) and its crew into the black hole. In ways that can only be explained by some science, it throws them four billion years into the future, where the majority of their time is spent encountering the mysterious enemy, known only as the “Andromedan Dark.”

The story itself is a military space adventure, following the crew as they discover a breadcrumb trail of interstellar coordinates left behind by another species. As they reach each location, the crew finds several wondrous and derelict superstructures. Most of these were variations on the Dyson sphere, a construct that encapsulates a star. As the ship approaches the objects, the size grabs the reader’s imagination. However, upon landing on the artifacts, the language employed leaves the reader wanting, destroying any sense of awe I had. Too many of these discoveries were shoved into a short span to evoke any sort of fascination or make the reader feel small.  There was no sense of human scale, as the environment becomes uninteresting scenery where the marines  engage in battle. With a little time and some flourish, these landscapes could have been unforgettable. Instead, they’ll continue to float in space, and the reader couldn’t care less.

The few scenes of action that do take place are exciting. Especially important is Douglas’ ability to illustrate the chaos of the scene without getting lost. While not as engaging as some other military science fiction I’ve read, the story is built on clear action with a good amount of frenetic tension. There were moments of confusion, distress, and triumph that blended together in a satisfying way. The enemy’s otherworldly ability to appear out of nowhere using the fourth dimension was a delightful addition that made the conflict more exciting as well.  However, as the story pushed on, I was less and less engaged as it became apparent that the Dark’s sole motivation was mere domination. Each successive battle felt like there was less on the line, instead of ratcheting up to a climactic battle that sets the stage for future books.

Another positive aspect of the book is Douglas’ willingness to talk science. Black holes, fourth and onwards dimensions, spacetime, faster than light travel- you name it, this book probably mentions it somewhere. Luckily, Douglas spends a decent amount of time trying to explain the theory, even working to break it down so that the reader can follow along. Because St. Clair is no scientist, he relies on his crew to explain, allowing the reader to feel included. To me, this is Douglas’ strongest skill in this book, even though he makes a bad habit of explaining after the fact.

Douglas doesn’t only depend on the latest scientific theories to tell his story, but frequently turns to other science fiction writers’ ideas. Unfortunately it never feels like a tribute, as the book descends into a show of one-upmanship.  Douglas builds his world on concepts introduced by the likes of Asimov and Niven.  Instead of accepting the fictional worlds they created, however, he uses them as a jumping-off point to promote what he believes to be his own shinier, more streamlined ideas.  The book also tends to follow in the tradition set forth by Heinlein. As if it were an ode to Starship Troopers, Douglas blends military action with musings on the nature of civic responsibility and personal liberty. Regrettably, the book read more like an self serving update to the genre, rather than an expansion of science fiction.

As I continued to read the book, I became painfully aware of its incompleteness. Douglas rarely spends the time necessary to polish his ideas. From his history of robots to the establishment of the imperial United Earth Directorate, I never felt that any major theme or idea in the book was satisfactorily explored. Everything was the beginning of something that turned out to be nothing, which was disappointing. While it makes sense to set a foundation in book one of a series, everything felt unfinished in a “project due tomorrow” sort of way. On top of that, all these small parts served as reminders to the reader that they are, in fact, reading a science fiction book.

Altered Starscape continues to fall apart from there. It’s hard to discern what the point of the book actually is. Is it just a military sci fi romp? Is it a discussion of freedom within an inherently rigid societal structure? Is it a sightseeing tour of a future universe we can only begin to imagine? These are several of many questions that never get answered. It also doesn’t help that our point of view is very limited. As the book is written in the third-person, following mostly St. Clair, every scene feels tinted and in some ways tainted by the main character’s perception. St. Clair’s feelings set the standard for every character’s  feelings and the tone for every interaction, regardless of his involvement in the scene. The narration is intended to be taken at face value, hiding nothing about St. Clair’s intentions, and offering no alternative perspective.

This problem is only compounded early in the book, where the entirety of chapter five is devoted to St. Clair’s political and personal views. St. Clair’s worldview consists mainly of notions of individual freedom, a dislike of concentrated power, and distrust of those willing to use that power. The bluntness with which they are unveiled shades future interactions between St. Clair and his peers. The rare times when St. Clair engages with his dissenters were lectures, not conversations.  These diatribes occur at different times throughout the book, and never feel like they are a part of the plot. On top of that, there is very little nuance in these interactions. It was disengaging, as no character really had an ability to dialogue with the protagonist. This distance is further solidified by the fact that St. Clair’s convictions are never truly tested, almost making them pointless.

Gunter Adler is particularly illustrative of these interactions.   Adler, the leader of the civilian portion of the Tellus Ad Astra, is portrayed as a sniveling man who flexes his power to enrich himself under the guise of civic duty.  In contrast to St. Clair’s unquestioned stability and virtue, Adler is shown to be weak of mind and spirit through his inability to act in the interest of anyone but himself.  In keeping with the superficial nature of their relationship, Adler spends most of his time belittling St. Clair without actually challenging the substance of what St. Clair says.  Had Douglas added weight to Adler’s character through deeper conversations, he would have also added dimension to St Clair as well. Instead the reader just gets to enjoy the show without witnessing any moral consequences of these leaders’ decisions.

In the end, I just couldn’t enjoy this book. Unfortunately for Douglas, I’m a tenacious little bastard and powered through, trying to enjoy the little bits of the book that felt like they belonged to a larger narrative. Even though it’s clearly written with the intention to continue as a series, Douglas just tried to do too much with very little space. The characters never felt fully fleshed out. Even St. Clair only felt characterized to the point of relatable, but reluctant hero. After the initial politics were outlined, I read it out of spite. While there is still so much more to discuss, I will end this here for fear of this review turning into a political rant. I recommend this book only to people who aren’t concerned by their personal politics or those who want to read it in spite, to discuss it afterwards.

Verdict : 4.5 out 10

Heartstone – Pride, Prejudice, and Dragons

30037275The lovely people at Harper Voyager must think I am super lonely, because they keep sending me fantasy romance novels (don’t stop). As this is the week of Valentine’s Day, I decided it would probably be appropriate to review one of the standout reads from the group. That one in particular is Heartstone, by Elle Katherine White. I am not immensely familiar with the works of Jane Eyre, but the book distinctly feels like a piece evoking her writing style in a fantasy setting – a version of Pride and Prejudice I can really get behind. It turns out the addition of dragons makes almost any book something I am interesting in.

Heartstone tells the story of Aliza, a quaint farm girl, who is the middle daughter of a fairly large family with a ton of girls. Her home is being raided by wild griffons, and things have come to a head when the most recent attack leaves her youngest sister dead. To deal with the menace, the town bands together and spends enough money to hire riders – essentially mythical exterminators, The riders are all warriors that have bonded with mythical animals to help them combat other creatures, and the warrior’s companions run the gamut from large super bear to wyvern. However, there is one family – and only one – that have bonded with one of the greatest creatures of all, dragons. Our male love interest in the story is, of course, from this family, and is one of the riders who comes to the village to deal with the griffins. While I am no expert at romance novels, this seems to me a fairly standard set-up for most novels (minus awesome dragons) and I was ready for a decent story with some of my favorite giant lizards thrown in for some flair. What I was not ready for was how good Elle Katherine White is at worldbuilding.

The characters in Heartstone are good, interesting and immersive to the point where I was invested in their lives and story, but what really drew me in was the world that White has crafted. The setting and politics of Heartstone are extremely well developed, making the world feel like a real place that people inhabit. The creatures and places of the story are some of the coolest I have read in recent memory. You have things like forge-wrights, creatures of flame and metal that work smithies and craft things out of heartstone (the hearts of other mythic creatures) with their bare hands. Or several locations with rich histories and vividly described towns and homes that stand out in my memory. This is a world I want to be in longer and more. The riders themselves fascinate me. White dives in to their training and history slightly, but not nearly enough for my liking. This story left me wanting to hear more and more of White’s world because I didn’t get nearly enough.

The issues of Heartstone stem just from that, it is too short. I felt like White needed to make this a trilogy – something I don’t often say – because it just needed more space. I felt the relationships in the story developed a little too rapidly, the ending was a bit abrupt, and I was left wanting to see a lot more of the world than I got to. However, as they say, if your critique of a book is that there needed to be more of it, it is a sign you were enjoying yourself.

As I said, I do not usually go in for romance novels, but Heartstone had me invested from start to finish. While its short length took away from a bit of my enjoyment, I have also marked down Elle Katherine White as one of the most exciting debut authors I have read in awhile. I will certainly be paying attention to her future releases as I think she will have a successful writing career ahead of her. I would love to see White write an epic fantasy with this level of worldbuilding. Regardless, if you are looking for a little romance this week, or like Pride and Prejudice but think it needed more dragons, The Quill to Live recommends you check out Heartstone.

Rating: Heartstone – 7.5/10