The Empire Of Ashes – Come Get It While It’s Hot

a19o2yo0d2blI find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.

The PlotEmpire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.

The World – Each book in Draconis has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot is a step up from his past work with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.

The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.

The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.

Rating:
The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10
Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
-Andrew

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Revenant Gun – A Puzzle In Reverse

81s4snnvywlThis year closes out one of the most original and batshit crazy series I have ever read, The Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee. The final book in the trilogy (I assume), Revenant Gun, wraps up our current story impressively well. If you haven’t read the first two books you should, and you can find their reviews here and here. The running theme in the series so far is having absolutely no idea what is happening in the book, but still having a good time anyway. I would say I understood approximately 10% of what was happening in The Ninefox Gambit, and maybe 20% in The Raven Stratagem. This is switched up in Revenant Gun, as Lee open the floodgates of knowledge and everything that has happened in the series becomes clear and understood.

I have already seen a few reviewers complain about this dynamic shift in Revenant Gun. They feel that a large part of Machineries’ charm is being completely lost, and don’t like that the third book pulls back to curtain and shows you how everything works. I feel the opposite. Machineries’ to me is a narrative masterpiece where Lee somehow found a way to do all the world building in the back third of the series, and make it work. His decision to show us how his tech works didn’t detract from its wonder, but instead shows that there was a method to the madness all along and helps provide context to appreciate the earlier books more. It also creates a weird reading experience, where I only understood the beginning of a series after I had read its end, and I always value weird reading experiences.

As for the quality of Revenant Gun, it still has all the good things that made its predecessors great. Strange characters with a lot of personality and depth to fall in love with, an exciting military plot that somehow feels brilliant despite you not understanding why it is, and a cool world with odd technology that makes you want to unlock its secrets. The plot follows a final stand off between all the parties that have been established in the previous books, as the three factions all look to defeat the others.

There was only one real negative in the book and that is there is simply not enough screen time of the best character: Mikodez. The perspectives that the book follows are spoilers, so I won’t announce them, but suffice to say none of them are Mikodez and I am outraged. Lee, you can’t just give us one of the best POV ever in book two and then take him away from us in the final book. I need my fix. Really though I don’t have anything negative to say about Revenant Gun, it was a very solid book.

If you liked the other two books, you will like this one. If you are a holdout on this series, you now know it ends strongly and should definitely pick it up. Revenant Gun, and The Machineries of Empire, and some of the best science fiction books in the last decade and will likely make it into my all time favorite books. You are doing yourself a great disservice by not reading this weirdness, go check it out.

Rating:
Revenant Gun – 9.0/10
The Machineries of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – A Gritty Adventure With A Cast Of One

35838132I am back from Europe where I bought way too many heavy books that I had to carry home. While on my trip I managed to read a number of books that I am excited to talk about, starting with The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. The book actually comes out today, and since I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about it, I thought I would do my duty to bring it to your attention.

Ardor Benn is a massive (~800 pages) heist novel that I have had my eye on for awhile. It is Tyler’s debut work and is extremely impressive in size and scope for a first book. The story follows the aforementioned Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire, as he steals from the rich and gives to himself across the archipelago in which the story takes place. The world and plot that Tyler has created in this book is definitely its best quality, and is one of the most interesting settings I have come across. Ardor, known for his con talents, is sought out by a priest who hires him for a multi-stage heist to save the world. The heist part of this heist novel is excellent with each stage being complicated, exciting, and engrossing as you watch Ardor and his crew work through a series of roadblocks on the way to their prize. The pacing is mostly good, with the book moving quickly despite its massive size, but there were a few moments where it felt like the plot was dragging its feet as it went through the minutiae of planning various ruses. In the end though, the plot kept me deeply invested until the last page despite a couple of issues becoming apparent the deeper I got into the novel. However, before I talk about the bad, let’s talk about more of the great: the worldbuilding.

The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written with a complicated nation laid out for you over the course of the novel. You slowly learn about the backstory, government, religion, and economy of the islands, and Tyler has made an original and interesting world that I want to be in. In addition, there is a “magic system” that revolves around a substance called “grit” – material that has been fed to, and pooped out of, dragons for processing. Depending on the material fed to the dragons, different kinds of explosive grit can be made to do a number of different things such as: make orbs of light, cancel gravity, create explosions, or form barriers. The book heavily revolves around grit, and it is a cool idea for a weapon that results in tons of weird fights where people are using the various effects to gain an upper hand.

Although I loved the world and the plot, Ardon Benn was not flawless and as I got further and further into the book, a number of small issues started to snowball. First, the characters. A key issue with this heist novel is that despite the book having multiple POV, more than one antagonist, and a number of side characters, there is really only one character of import in the story – Ardor Benn. Ardor is a great character himself, but the more time that you spend with his supporting cast, the more you realize that they have no depth and are only there to make Ardor look good. Take Ardor’s partner in crime and oldest friend, Raek. I was super excited to get to know Raek, a goliath of a man who is great at math, because his introduction was awesome. However, as the book progressed, Raek would disappear for hundreds of pages at a time – only to return when Ardor needed a cool tool or gadget that only Raek could make. Then there was the thief that Ardor partners with for this massive ruse, Quarrah. Quarrah was clearly meant to be a major part of the narrative, even being one of the POV’s through which the book was narrated. But at the end of the day, Quarrah’s story really only consists of her having internal monologues about one of two things – how her skills as a thief have left her woefully unprepared to be a con artist (which while true, got super old after 400 pages of it) and how Ardor Benn was the greatest person she has ever met in every possible way. Both Raek and Quarrah has no depth at all, and I found myself very unmoved when they revealed their backstories later in the novel. I am slightly exaggerating when I say the only character was Ardor; both the priest who hires them for the job and the King they are trying to rob (spoilers) are interesting and fun – but it doesn’t do enough to make up for the fact that 80% of the book revolves around Ardor. The book is simply too long to spend that much time talking about one person.

The one additional problem that Ardor Benn has, besides some of it cast, is Tyler tends to over explain what is happening in the book sometimes. There was one instance in particular that is burned into my mind, where one character threatened another (very obviously) and Tyler wrote what felt like a paragraph of internal monologue of the threatened character saying “this guy is threatening me”. A big part of the fun in heist novels is the balance of understanding what is going on, and the mystery of guessing at what you don’t get. Tyler leaned a little to much into giving the reader full understanding and it turned a few passages that might have been thrilling into dull exposition.

Despite ragging on it for two paragraphs, I want to stress that the plot and world of this book are one of a kind and I definitely still recommend it and will be continuing on with the series myself. This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential. However, there are still a few kinks in his writing and this book desperately needs some more leads to share the narrative load. All in all, it was an original and thrilling read, and if you can get past some issues I am sure you will love The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn.

Rating: The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The King of Ashes – Feeling Feisty

18505747Goodness gracious, Raymond Feist is back. I hope all of you are somewhat familiar with Feist. He was a staple of my childhood and wrote a ton of fantasy that was a part of my gateway into the genre, and into reading in general. His classic Magician is fantastic and I was excited to hear that he was writing something new. His new release is called The King of Ashes, and is the first in a new series called The Firemane Saga. I dove into it full of nostalgia and the hope that it would be another classic – but did it live up to my expectations?

First, as always, let’s talk about the plot. The King of Ashes is the start of a “big” series that has plans on being a sweeping epic that tells the story of a large continent. Appropriately, the story starts with some backstory about the death of a kingdom. On the continent of Tembria there are five countries, all in an uneasy peace with each other. The King of Ashes begins with the death of one of these countries, Ithrace, at the hands of the other four. The kings of these four countries have gotten greedy, and came up with a backstabby plan to collectively take out a rival, kill all of his bloodline, and split his land. Not everyone in the four kingdoms supports this plan, and we open the book with the POV of a semi-independent duke who is trying to quietly avoid being involved with the pillaging of Ithrace. Due to the duke’s reluctance to be a part of the bloodbath, the sole remaining heir to Ithrace (a baby named Hatu) ends up in his care. The duke, in a moment of kindness, decides to hide the child and have him raised to one day take back his home. Declan is sent to a school of spies and assassins to learn their ways until he comes of age. Hatu is our first protagonist, but we also have a second lead named Declan on the other side of the world. Declan is a smith prodigy that is beginning to come up in the world and his rise to stardom slowly brings him to meet Hatu. Each of these boys is part of a puzzle that will change the land of Tembria forever, and this is their story.

I know that plot summary is vaguer than I usually give, but this story is massive and it is really hard to give you a spoiler-free sum in a paragraph. Our time is divided half between Hatu at his magical school (which seem to be big this year in fantasy books) and Declan mastering his forge. Both the leads are enjoyable POV’s to follow, but I tended to prefer Declan. Hatu is an angry and spontaneous orphan that can sometimes make his story frustrating to read about, but I came to enjoy him a great deal by the time I finished the book. The world of Tembria is vast, complicated, and has a ton going on. A significant part of the book is devoted to world building, with Hatu often going on spy missions to gather intel or Declan spending time at taverns learning what is going on in the world. The King of Ashes felt like it was laying a foundation of a sweeping epic with a huge scope, but it still manages to hold its own as a self-contained book.

The book is filled with magic, friends, twists and all the things that Feist’s older novels taught me to expect in the fantasy genre as a child. On the other hand, The King of Ashes is definitely aimed at an older reader compared to Feist’s earlier work, with a larger emphasis on graphic scenes (both sexual and violent) and more complex prose. It felt like the perfect novel for someone who grew up on his earlier work and was now looking for a more adult version.

However, despite my praise I did have one major problem with The King of Ashes that held it back from getting high marks. The book can feel noticeably repetitive sometimes. In particular when it came to internal monologues, several characters obsess over things and will bring them up multiple times per chapter. For example, Hatu is obsessed with his growing feelings for one of his classmates. While I enjoyed this the first time it was brought up, my appreciation for the budding love interest waned after it was brought up an additional 20 times without any indication of Hatu actually doing anything about his feelings. The King of Ashes is not a small book and I felt it could have been trimmed a little more to take out several of these repetitive moments for a better paced read.

Overall, I would say that Feist still has it and has created another book that people will be talking about for awhile. I did not enjoy it as much as some of his earlier works, but that was a high bar to meet and I still think The King of Ashes is worth picking up. I look forward to seeing if Hatu and Declan change the world as it is for the better or if they burn it down and rebuild it as kings of the ashes.

Rating: The King of Ashes – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Defiant Heir – The Price Of Power

35921536I am going to Europe next week, so I felt like reading about pseudo-fantasy Venice as I was packing. In order to scratch that itch, I am back with a review for the second book in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, The Defiant Heir. Also, while we are on the subject – I realized in book two that the reason the series is called “Swords and Fire” is that it’s about trying to accomplish things while using neither. It is an interesting choice for the series title, and it makes me slightly dubious that the characters will be about to accomplish their goals by just talking.

I reviewed the first book in this series here and, despite some mixed feelings, came out feeling positively. I didn’t think I was that invested in the story of The Tethered Mage, but it turns out that Caruso sunk her talons into me deeper than I knew (this is a falcon pun that makes sense if you read the first book, which you should, so you can see how funny I am). My curiosity was piqued, so I jumped into The Defiant Heir and found that Caruso brought her A-game.

At the end of the first book, our lead (Amalia) had foiled a dastardly plot, brought a rogue city state back into the empire, fallen in love with someone beneath her station, and built up a friendship with her hot-headed falcon partner. The awful antagonist from book one, the witchlord prince Ruven, is still running around unchecked and has a new plot that involves enticing his country to go to war against Amalia’s. In order to sabotage Ruven, Amalia enters a political courtship with another witchlord, Kathe, and she travels to the witchlord realm to try persuade them to not go to war. The plot is awesome, and I felt myself much more invested in the story and its characters than I was in book one. The pacing of The Defiant Heir is excellent, with the story constantly pulls you back in for one more chapter. I found myself up reading way later than I should multiple nights until I finished it, a surefire sign of a great book. While I didn’t have major issues with the characters in the first book, the entire cast feels more complex, likable, and relatable than they did previously. Amalia and her falcon Zaira in particular were a lot more interesting and I loved spending time in Amalia’s head as she made hard choices.

One of core issues I had with The Tethered Mage is its setup and first chapters felt a little far fetched. The Defiant Heir addresses this issue in a number of ways. First, because the book picks up an already moving plot, it doesn’t suffer from the ramp up period that The Tethered Mage did. Second, Amalia feels like a much more flawed and believable character, which helps her power through some truly Mary Sue moments. I am not exaggerating when I say you find out that Amalia is an UBER-princess in this book. It is casually mentioned that she is basically related to every single monarch in every single country in this book – which sounds like a recipe for a terrible lead. However, Caruso makes it work spectacularly because of her emphasis on a key theme in the series – the price of power.

An idea that is present in both books, but much more so in the second, is the idea that with power comes responsibility. As I mentioned, Amalia is a princess to three different countries – but what is expected of royalty in each of those places is vastly different. In one, it guarantees the right to rule, in another it gives you certain advantages as you start your career but not much else, and in the last royal blood is completely meaningless. Despite these differences, there is one key similarity that runs through all the countries – with power comes the burden of making hard choices. This is a theme that has been around for eons, but I honestly have not seen many people who handle it as well as Amalia. Amalia shatters her Mary Sue status by having to make hard choices that have no good answers. These choices have terrible fallout and Caruso does not shield her from the consequences of her decisions. It creates a compelling read about the price of power and makes me genuinely sympathetic to the aristocrats of old – a group of people that the fantasy genre has generally painted in a negative light. This is my second favorite part of this book, and my most favorite is indirectly related to this theme.

I cannot believe I am saying this, but my absolute favorite part of The Defiant Heir is the love triangle. I almost always hate love triangles, but Caruso avoids every single pitfall I usually hate about them. First, both the love interests are wonderful and you will adore them both. The first is Marcello, the soldier love interest from the first book, and the second is the witchlord Kathe who Amalia is courting for political gain. Second, the two men represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. So many books you read with this sort of scenario feel like you are just waiting for the obligation guy to die or leave so that “true love can win in the end”. It is so damn refreshing to see someone treat the idea of a royal needing to marry for the good of the realm as a positive thing. Again, this comes back to the theme of “price of power” – Amalia lives a very pampered aristocratic life and there is a cost to that. Caruso refuses to give Amalia loop holes to let her have her cake and eat it to. This is what elevates The Defiant Heir over so many other books I have read recently. Each choice feels like it has weight and it pulls you into the story. Also, this is just my personal opinion, but I am TEAM KATHE ALL THE WAY. Other members of The Quill to Live are incorrectly on Team Marcello though, so we support both competitors.

I have a ton of other things I want to praise The Defiant Heir for, like the world building and culture, but I think at this point you get that this is a series worth your time. In particular, The Defiant Heir takes everything that was good about its predecessor and ads depth and weight to make it a more serious and compelling read. There was nothing lukewarm about my feelings for this book and I cannot wait for the next installment of Swords and Fire. Go pick up a copy and join me on Team Kathe after you realize his clear superiority.

Rating: The Defiant Heir – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Poppy War – The Makings Of Greatness

35068705For my older readers, you know how, when you turn on the Olympics and see these 18 year old athletes achieving tremendous success, you start to feel incredibly old? This month I got to experience that for the first time with a book. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, is a Chinese inspired fantasy about a magical school. Kuang is in her early 20’s and I am astounded that an author this young created something of this quality. Before I start heaping on more praise, let’s talk about the plot of the book.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan raised by a pair of drug lords because they were legally obligated to take her in after the last conflict. To escape being sold as a bride, Rin tests into the most prestigious military academy in land where she will be trained alongside the children of aristocrats on how to be a general. Upon arriving at the school, Rin realizes that even though she tested in – her orphan background and peasant upbringing does not endear her to her teachers or classmates, and she has a lot of work to do to succeed at the school. The one advantage she has is she seems to have a connection to a mysterious teacher that no one else talks to and he may be able to teach her the art of shamanism.

There is a distinct Harry Potter vibe going on here: orphan with terrible step-family goes to magical school to escape terrible previous life. However, that is where the direct comparisons end for me, and I am happy that Kuang did a good job of making The Poppy War her own book. Rin is a likeable character with an interesting story. Watching her explore the world and master challenges thrown at her is very satisfying. I love all the time we spend in her classes learning about the world, and she is surrounded by a host of interesting side characters that made the book more fun to read. The school itself is awesome, feeling like a place I myself want to attend. The shamanism teacher is great, on par with a number of my other favorite teacher characters throughout fantasy. All of this creates an engrossing backdrop for an exciting and fun plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The world itself is also fascinating. I love the history of the empire where Rin lives. As I mentioned, the school that Rin tests into is an extremely prestigious military academy to train generals. While famous schools in books are not new, Kuang’s angle for its importance was very original. The school is not prestigious for training the greatest military minds of all time or because it has a history of greatness. Instead, the school is elevated above its peers because it is seen by the governing leadership as a chance to finally stop losing wars. The empire does not have the best track record in its poppy wars (for which the book is named). They have been on the losing side twice, and are getting rather tired of it. To combat this, they established a premier school with the hopes of distilling the best and brightest to win the coming conflicts. All of this adds a deep feeling of genuine urgency to the classes and lessons. These are not kids taking abstract classes with no application or stakes, these are people trying to distinguish themselves to be the leaders in a war that is right around the corner. This was a fascinating change to the magical school formula and I loved it.

For all my praise, The Poppy War is not without faults. The two issues I had with the book were its prose and its pacing. At times the prose could feel rather rough. There were repeated phrases or responses in the same paragraph occasionally and the dialogue could feel wooden and awkward once in awhile. In addition, while the pacing was good for the majority of the time – there were clear sections where the book moved way too fast to fully grasp events and lost me as a reader. There were scenes I had to read multiple times to understand what was happening and scenes that felt like they had little to no emotional payoff because they moved too fast. However, both of these problems are things that authors tend to improve on as they write more, and with her powerful skills in tons of other areas I expect Kuang to only get better.

The Poppy War was a fun, engrossing, journey to a world I wish I could visit and a school I wish I could attend. With its strong characters, interesting world building, and intriguing plot it is a great read that I would recommend to anyone. I look forward to seeing what R. F. Kuang has in store for us next, as I expect her next book will be even better.

Rating: The Poppy War – 8.0/10
-Andrew