Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 2: The Merlin Cycle

Welcome to part 2 of The Quill to Live’s roadmap to Amber, a guide to reading The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny. If you are just joining us for the first time, we highly encourage you to take a look at part 1, which covers the first five installments of The Great Book of Amber, the Corwin Cycle. Today we will guide you through the sights and terrors of the second half of the series, named the Merlin Cycle. Despite the fact that this series is often sold as one large unit, the second half of the story takes us through very different terrain with a different focus. If the Corwin Cycle was a tour guide randomly pointing out the window to show you cool things in the landscape, the Merlin Cycle is a person regaling you with the full history of everything you travel past, for better or worse. Which you like better is going to depend on how you like to travel.

But, both have positive and negative qualities, and both have sights that are worth the trip. So once again, we’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the second part of the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. Today, we cover books 6-10, known to Amber fans as The Merlin Cycle.

Get back in losers, we’re dying on the pattern.

Stop 1: The Courts of Chaos – The Plot of Amber Part 2

The second set of Amber books tells the story of Merlin, which is where the series gets its pseudonym – the Merlin Cycle. Merlin is Corwin’s son, who is our protagonist from the first five books if you haven’t been paying attention. Merlin lives on our Earth, which as we all know is actually a shadow of Amber. The first thing we learn about Merlin is a strange fun fact – every year on the same date, someone is trying to kill him. Such a fun and harmless ritual, Merlin even somewhat starts to look forward to these murder attempt. But it’s all fun and games until someone actually succeeds and there is a murder. On one of these murderversaries, Merlin finds his ex-girlfriend dead in her apartment. If you find yourself slightly perturbed by the mention of an “ex-girlfriend” in this trippy fantasy universe, you are not the only one, but roll with it.

Shortly after finding the body, an old friend of Merlin’s, Luke, resurfaces and intimates that he has some knowledge of this mystery. As Merlin attempts to discover his would-be murder, he is ensconsed, like his father, in the various machinations of Amber. Part of this mystery is that his father, Corbin, has been missing since the events at the end of the last cycle and Merlin would like to know where he is. However, this plotline surprisingly takes a somewhat backseat to the murderversary quest. While trying to solve the mystery, we learn that Merlin is actually only half ‘Amber-ese’ and actually also has the bloodline of Chaos – the Yang to Amber’s Yin – running in his veins. We get to spend some time really digging into the clockwork that makes Zelazny’s world run. Various plots and schemes unfold, including one centered in the ‘Keep of the Four Worlds’ which is purported to be a very important place that everyone but the reader has known about forever. As usual, noone is who they say, especially Luke. Merlin, being both of Chaos and of Amber, finds himself in the center of an eternal battle between the two forces. 

Stop 2: Zelazny-tecture – The Worldbuilding of Part 2

One of the more noticeable changes in scenery between the two cycles is worldbuilding style. While the Corwin Cycle has a certain scrappy quality to it, its emphasis is much more on whimsy than on rigid structure. The locations Zelazny takes us to in part 1 are all to explicitly serve the plot and they tend to feel like a video game with bad rendering – everything around the protagonist feels real, but look into the distance and things start to get pixelated quickly.

However, in the Merlin Cycle, we get a much more well-defined setting. The number of places the story jumps to decreases (slightly), but in exchange they feel like actual places that exist outside the character’s needs. In theory, this more concrete grounding should have appealed to us more (given our reading preferences), but there is definitely something lost from the series as a whole. A lot of what makes this story interesting is its ephemeral nature. No, the places we visit in the first cycle aren’t well defined, and that can be frustrating. But it serves to paint a picture of a universe with Amber at its center. By tying down the worldbuilding with more concrete places, the second cycle feels less inherently “amber-y” somehow.

Stop 3: The Pools of Seeing – A More Clearly Defined Protagonist

An interesting and divisive shift in the second Amber cycle is the change in density of our protagonist. As we mentioned in the first half of this guide, Corwin is a blank slate of a character designed so that the reader can insert themselves. Corwin has a vague generic description, no strong character identities other than his core of “win the throne,” and is a perfect platform through which to see Amber for the first time. It makes the Corwin Cycle more akin to an experience, a portal to a new world. On the other hand, the Merlin Cycle is much more of a story.

Merlin is an actual character with definition. He has gumption, drive, and an agenda. Zelazny does the work to flesh him out as a character and this makes the second cycle less of a fun playscape for the reader and more of an actual narrative about a person’s life. There are pros and cons to this, but in this instance, I think it is generally positive. Five books was enough time to tear about Amber exploring and it’s nice to read a set of books in the setting that feel like they have more to say than “I just can’t wait to be king.” That being said, even though Merlin has a lot more personality than Corwin doesn’t mean he is a work of art – the bar was on the ground. Merlin feels very much like the classic fantasy academic who doesn’t get out and about much. He also feels like he has a little more complexity given his dual citizenship in both Amber and Chaos. His strange parentage feels like it gives him a lot of insight and unique perspective through circumstance, and its a nice way to elevate a character’s importance in the story without pushing how “cool and badass” he is. At the same time, Merlin feels like the perfect character for this story, but don’t expect him to stick in your mind long after you finish the series.

Stop 4: The Tavern of Camaraderie and Animosity  – Fate Of The One Over Fate Of The Many

The Corwin Cycle is the story of a throne, and the impact it has on the future. It is a story that is always about big stakes and a large cast of characters that we view at a distance to see how they affect the fate of the world. The Merlin Cycle is about Merlin and his pals.

There is a distinctly more human focus in the Merlin Cycle. The stakes are still large, but it’s much more a personal story about a small cast of characters — good and bad — than one about a cosmic throne that dictates reality for trillions of worlds. It almost feels like Zelazny made the conflict in the first cycle too big and all-encompassing and found that the only place that he had left to go was inward. Generally, I think the story benefits from a more human element. It puts things in perspective and makes them much more relatable, despite the fact that Corwin was a blank slate for the reader to insert themselves. The only problem is that some of the character motivations of the cast can feel a bit pedantic and petty in the greater scheme of things – especially when you just got finished reading about a fight for godhood. After that, reading about how you are sad that your relationship is having communication issues can be a bit of a backward step. 

It’s not all bad, though. The cast of the Merlin Cycle (thought still quite large) shrinks compared to its predecessor. As the focus narrows, you’ll be treated to some exciting character moments. Merlin’s journey is one of discovery, and even the people he knows best have secrets locked away in their depths. The back half of Amber as a result feels less like a full game of chess and more like a series of quickfire fencing bouts. Merlin has time to interact with everyone, and he has his own mysteries to solve in relation to his cadre. 

Regardless, I think it is generally a net positive change and would have like to see more humanizing in the Corwin Cycle. 

Stop 5: The Enigma – Leaning Into Mystery

It could be said that the major question that permeates all of the Corwin Cycle is How? How does the magic work? How is Corwin going to take the throne? How will he find the willpower to survive this latest trial? But the question that suffuses the Merlin Cycle is Why? Why are these things happening? Why is someone trying to kill Merlin? Why has his father disappeared? The shift goes from exploration to mystery and it changes the very nature of the story.

The fact that the Merlin Cycle is couched in mystery serves to further distance it from its more whimsical predecessor. In order to solve puzzles and crimes, you need to have hard facts that you can rely on, tangible pieces of a puzzle that don’t shift when you look away from them. As a result, Zelazy starts to lay the groundwork for a much more rigid and clearly defined world, which, as we mentioned in the earlier section, is a bit weird to put at the end of your ten-book series. And yet, the mystery sections work surprisingly well. Understanding how Amber works is really fun and it is a great stepping stone into some fairly captivating whodunnits. The mystery also serves well to tie the two cycles more cleanly together and make them feel much more synchronized. It was a surprising but excellent idea that differentiates the Merlin Cycle while also bridging the two cycles at the same time.

Stop 6: The Final Stretch – The Pacing of Part 2

An aspect that does feel like a net positive change between the cycles is the pacing. Part one suffers from a very erratic sense of pace. Some of the books involve non-stop action, and others involve Corwin describing what the wall of his jail cell looks like for fifty pages. This is the nature of a series that was written in installments, as Zelazny didn’t plan out and pace the narrative. Instead, he just shepherded it in the direction he wanted.

The Merlin Cycle conversely feels like a set of stories that Zelazny sat down and planned out. The books are much more even and continuous than the first half of the series. This does have the surprising effect of making them slightly less memorable in our opinion. While the first cycle has its ups and downs, the downs fade from the mind while the ups remain clear and vivid. The Merlin Cycle is more difficult to remember with its flatter, more gradual slope. I am sure at the time the change wasn’t easy to notice. These books came out of the course of many years and the shift is gradual. But, to someone reading all of the books in a block the differences in style is very rapid in appearance.

Stop 7: The Visitor Center – Our Final Thoughts on Amber

The Amber Chronicles are a complicated beast to tackle and a little difficult to recommend. There are definitely interesting historical aspects of the series that left their mark on the development of both the fantasy and science fiction genres. It also feels quite unique, with its ephemeral writing style, ten short story installments, and creative mix of science fiction and fantasy. For a series that began publication in 1970, it feels surprisingly ahead of its time.

And yet, though it feels ahead of 1970 it also doesn’t quite live up to some modern classics. There are definite issues to address in the story writing, and some of the more unique characteristics of the storytelling didn’t catch on for the obvious reason of not working that well. 

Nowadays, The Great Book Of Amber is published as a massive single volume. Sure, it’s a convenient purchase, and $30 gets you some otherwordly bang for your buck. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to consume Amber. As you start your venture into the one true world, remember that Zelazny wrote it by the seat of his pants, and nobody will fault you for reading it in the same way. 

At the end of the day, though, Amber is an intensely personal trip. The tome is packed with so many fantasy tidbits that almost any reader will find something to enjoy. Enter Amber with an open mind and a wide net, and you’ll come out the other end better for it. 

And, once you’re done, head back here and let us know what you thought. Thanks for joining us on this journey, and happy reading.

Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 1: The Corwin Cycle

We here at The Quill to Live want to take you on a road trip of sorts. Today we will escort you through the book in the highly appropriate form of a road map to show you the sights, the pitfalls, the wonders, and the dangers of Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber. The 1200+ page journey is well worth it, but first you should know what kind of snacks to bring, where to stop for gas, and whether any murderous hitchhikers might appear on the side of the road.

We’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. 

This behemoth of a book tells its story through the eyes of two main characters over the course of ten books, so we’ll take you on two separate tours. Today, we cover books 1-5, known to Amber fans as The Corwin Cycle.

Hop on in.The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Stop 1: The Road We Travel – The Plot of Amber

Early on in The Great Book of Amber, amnesiac protagonist Corwin embarks on his own inter-world road trip with his brother Random. The trek spans vibrantly imagined worlds, but it’s not purely a physical journey. Corwin, suffering from a loss of memory but addled by gut feelings about the people he encounters, uses the road trip to siphon information from Random. 

The trip turns out to be rather revealing of the strange magic that governs the universe in which these characters live. It exposes the tense family dynamics involving would-be usurpers and a battle for a powerful throne. By extension, the road trip unveils that Corwin is embedded in an intricate web of strange machinations set in place by his colorful cast of family members. Friends, foes, and the ever-beloved “somethings in-between” emerge. 

Though Amber uses “amnesiac protagonist” as a narrative launchpad, Zelazny quickly (and smartly) sheds that skin and welcomes Corwin back into the fold. His amnesia becomes such a burden that he simply reveals the truth to the two family members along for the ride, and it’s honestly impressive he was able to keep the illusion up for a significant stretch.

Let’s pull off to the side of the road for a second and talk about the capital-P Pattern. The Pattern is a powerful design that grants the entire universe order. It is very much a physical thing/place within Amber, but it’s also a force that fuels the magic of true Amberites. Most believe the true Pattern to be the one within the castle of Amber. Fitting, because children of Amber can walk the Pattern–a process that is intensely difficult and possibly deadly. There are a few possible outcomes for anyone who attempts to walk the Pattern. Here’s a helpful chart:

Person walking the PatternWhat happens when they set foot on the PatternFinal result at the end of the Pattern
Child of Amber (part of Amber’s bloodline)The Pattern presents them with increasingly difficult (and potentially fatal) mental and physical obstacles, which they must traverse or die.The Pattern grants them the ability to walk through Shadows and will transport them in that instant to any location they designate.
Anybody ElseThey die.RIP.

It’s also important to note that the Pattern exists in multiple forms throughout the universe. For example, in Rebma, Amber’s watery reflective counterpart, there exists a reflected version of the Pattern that obeys the same rules. You’ll encounter these versions of the Pattern just as often as their “real” counterpart. 

The pattern is the center of Amber as a world AND the story’s core mystery. You will encounter it in so many forms that it’s unclear what the Pattern is. In fact, it’s almost a misnomer because Zelazny is so inconsistent with its inner workings that there’s no recognizable lowercase-p pattern governing how the capital-p Pattern works. Got it? No? Me neither. Good. Back to our journey…

Corwin’s joyride slows to a halt in Rebma, where he walks the reflected Pattern. As Corwin completes the trial in Rebma, his memories (and sweet powers) return, an onslaught of recovered facts and forgotten quarrels that meet at a revelatory zenith: Corwin must ascend Amber’s throne.

Thus Corwin’s story begins in earnest. With his memories restored and powers returned, he sets out to better understand the shifting family dynamics of Amber’s throne-seeking royalty.

Stop 2: King Of Worlds – Amber Reigns Supreme

One of the most magical stops on this road trip is, of course, Amber itself. Roger Zelazny’s crowning achievement focuses on the “one true world,” Amber, the functional center of his fantasy universe. Most other worlds (more on those italics in part 2) exist as capital-S Shadows of Amber. They are reflections, altered versions of the “true” world. The evolving realms of Shadow count our Earth among their ranks, alongside medieval fantasy settings and realities so far-fetched and abstract that they’re hard for the mind to grasp. 

Feeling lost yet? Get used to it. You’ll embark on various romps through Amber and its shadow worlds. At first it’s easy because you’re just the passenger next to Corwin as he races through Shadow worlds. But once he separates from Random and begins to explore in earnest, even the most experienced cartographers would struggle to track his progress. It’s best to read Amber knowing that the titular “true” world serves as a grounding force. You will almost always be somewhere within Amber or its shadow. If the meandering path feels labyrinthine at times, take a deep breath and remember you’ll be back in Amber soon enough. All roads lead to Amber, goes the proverbial wisdom of the book’s lore. That should be your mantra as you read along.

Embark on your Amber-bound road trip expecting this vast web of worlds to be Zelazny’s magnum opus of worldbuilding. You may find yourself expecting a vividly-imagined collection of fantasy vignettes as you speed through otherworldly highways, but almost all of these roads lead to Amber. This larger universe serves not as a panorama of sites to see, but as a backdrop for a battle royale, quite literally. Oberon, Amber’s king, has passed away, and his many children take up arms in a battle for the throne. This is the core of The Great Book of Amber. Zelazny’s worlds–both imagined and reality-based–are often pit stops that propel the familial in-fighting. 

Although the Shadows can be a bit thin, they are still a powerful worldbuilding force that is one of Amber’s defining attractions. Amberites can traverse between Shadows, and there’s hardly a 20-page stretch in which someone doesn’t venture to another world. The settings are so varied and numerous that none can serve as a reader-grounding force. Instead, the narrative plays that role, and you must invest yourself in the twists and turns of the road that lies before you. Never get too comfortable in one place, because Zelazny will jerk you to another as soon as you’ve poured yourself a cup of tea warmed by a hearth full of dancing flames. 

There’s one snag here, though, and it’s Zelazny’s point-of-view selection. The first five books comprising the Corwin Cycle are fittingly narrated by…Corwin. He’s an apt choice as one of the Amberites with the strongest claim to the throne, and his amnesia during the book’s first stretch makes him an excellent worldbuilding device/narrative gift drop. But because the story is so focused on his travels, thoughts, and examinations, it’s easy to feel like there is incredible potential being unrealized. You may feel slightly lost when Corwin feels the same. You may feel the urge to take the evidence one step further when Corwin decides to move on. For better or worse, Corwin tethers himself to you, and you simply have to accept that you’re along for the ride. 

Even as Corwin travels through these different worlds, there are myriad subplots happening off the page. You’re tagging along as he winds his way to the throne. It’s like driving through a maelstrom of ideas, with hundreds billowing about. But you’ll only be able to catch those that latch onto Corwin. As a result, either  buy a ticket for the tour Corwin’s leading or stay home.

Zelazny’s Amber-adjacent Shadow worlds tell a tale of infinite potential but finite execution. It’s a fantasy-setting zoo. You receive a simulacrum of what a world could be, then a guide ushers you to the next exhibit, equally limited in its recreation of an entire ecosystem. 

Stop 3: The Court of Oberon – A Masquerade of Backstabbing

King Oberon’s death sparks a litany of claims to the throne, and all boil over into a conflict between Corwin and his brother Eric. We make no qualms about telling you this, because it’s fairly obvious from the outset. It also highlights an important stop on our journey through Amber: family intrigue. 

If you pine for a blockbuster display of political backstabbing and plotting that is reminiscent of  A Game of Thrones, Zelazny’s epic fantasy might scratch that itch. King Oberon had 20+ children, each varying wildly in how “legitimate” they are perceived to be. Quite frankly, the family of Amber is ridiculous. They resort to flights of fancy and intensely intricate schemes to get ahead, and none of them can trust any other family member for more than mere minutes. Again, here’s Zelazny giving you snippets of vibrant characters, though their goals and complete storylines are hidden in lowercase-s shadow. 

Zelazny has crafted a cast of characters that rivals the best modern fantasies on the market (all the more impressive considering the first installment published in 1972). Though you’ll encounter, admire, and promptly forget Amber’s many Shadows, Zelazny’s cast will stick with you. Come for the world, stay for the (sometimes literal, wink wink) backstabbing. Also, Ganelon. We love Ganelon.

Sure, Zelazny crafts excellent characters and pits them against one another. But the ball has to drop somewhere, which brings us to…

Stop 4: Patriarchy Pit Stop – Dealing With Sexism

We’re firm believers that you can read a text (or consume any media) with problematic themes and enjoy it. However, it’s essential to recognize those problems and learn from them. For this reason, we give you this word of caution that there are some clear sexist ideas in Amber, serving as a dark tunnel through which you must drive on this journey. 

This is the ultimate pitfall of Amber, the reason you may turn the car around. Zelazny’s story problematically favors men over women – so overtly that it’s impossible to miss. Multiple times throughout the Corwin Cycle, characters (including the women themselves) offhandedly mention that Oberon’s daughters simply aren’t fit to rule, despite the fact that they…demonstrably are. Nary a reason surfaces for these claims. During our reading of Amber, there were multiple points at which we stopped and thought “Actually, it might be better if Fiona ran things…”

Let’s be ultra-clear, however. There are strong female characters throughout The Great Book of Amber, and many spring to mind as favorites. We won’t say too much here because many of said women feature prominently in the latter half of the story. 

All this is to say that Amber is undeniably a fantasy of a different era, and the widespread sexism that ran rampant during Zelazny’s heyday (and still absolutely poisons our culture today) permeates many of the book’s pages. The problem improves noticeably as the books progress, but it is not wiped away. 

And for what it’s worth, we think most of Amber’s female leads are infinitely more fit to rule than the vast majority of Corwin’s dumb-as-rocks brothers. If you’re prepared to trudge through the problematic themes that ensue, there are still a few more things you should know. Let’s continue.

Stop 5: Big Book, Short Spurts – Handle Amber With Care

The Great Book of Amber feels constructed to be consumed in small pieces. We know, we know, them’s big words for two guys writing a guide about a 1200-page book. BUT (that’s a “but” as big as the book, FYI) Amber lends itself well to short spurts. The prose itself is light. So light, that you may breeze through 30 pages before you even realize how far the story has advanced. 

With that light and breezy effect, though, comes a challenge. Zelazny and, by extension, Corwin, might speed right past you with nary an invitation to eat their dust. Revelations beget new mysteries in Amber, and Corwin will hop from one to the next as if he’s 10 steps ahead of you in a multiverse-spanning game of hopscotch. 

This results in a need for intense focus. Zelazny isn’t overly flowery with his language. Amber is easy to read by most standards. But you could dub one line an easy throwaway, and it could come back to bite you. The Corwin Cycle in particular is a series filled to the brim with details. Page 30 may offer a reveal that only becomes important on page 300. As you’re readying yourself for a journey through Amber, make sure you’re amply fueled to connect the dots. 

Simply put, you need to be on your guard 100% of the time. There’s no napping until the next rest stop on this road trip. Because Amber reads breezily, it’s deceptive in its detail. Come into the story willing to track a vast amount of information and broad-strokes ideas without too intense a focus on one thing in particular. Bring the minivan; the smart car doesn’t have enough cargo space.

You might realize that you stopped for gas when you still had half a tank left, only to find a cheaper option just a few miles up the road. Zelazny seems to delight in sparking these foibles, which brings us to our penultimate stop on our Corwin Cycle road trip. 

Stop 6: The Portal of Imagination – Zelazny’s Catalyzing Text

If you’ve reached this point and are feeling confused…good. That’s exactly how you should feel. Amber has a goal. It’s brimming with ideas. But it requires effort on your part to let Zelazny drive from time to time. You are at times a passenger and at times the driver, and you don’t necessarily get to decide the shifts for yourself.

Corwin’s story is a journey through the mind of Zelazny in a raw unfiltered form. Polish level: low. Guardrails? Few and far between. For the unwitting reader, this means a wild and unstructured ride through imaginative stories and fantastical setpieces. This particular road trip offers some once-in-a-lifetime views and some awe-inspiring pit stops. But you’ll also drive from a cornfield to a mountain range to a deep, dark ocean within a few pages. The Corwin Cycle has underdeveloped plotlines. For every amazing stop-off, there’s an underdeveloped side plot or a painfully slow section. 

Simply put, Zelazny’s Corwin Cycle feels like he wrote it on the fly rather than meticulously planning every single detail. Writing on the fly is by no means a bad thing (Game of Thrones and Kingkiller Chronicle are two good examples of this), but it can result in a disconnected narrative. 

If you’re along for the ride, our advice is to let Zelazny take the wheel. Take note when he changes the tune on the radio or points out a landmark. Listen to the discussions between characters that he recounts to you. Do that, and you’ll feel like you’re riding with the top down on a fantasy highway at 100 mph. 

Stop 7: Center of the World – Corwin’s Last Stop

And here, we slow to a stop and rest for the night, hopefully in some Shadow realm packed with whimsical sights for you to enjoy. Our road trip through The Corwin Cycle showed you the dangers ahead and the wonders you might encounter along the way. Amber’s first five books are equal parts treacherous and jaw-dropping, and now you’re ready to fire up the engines and set out on your own.

As for us, we’re resting to prepare for the second leg of our Amber road trip in Part 2: The Merlin Cycle. 

Buckle up. 

Velocity Weapon — Shooting for the Stars

Friends, folks, however you consider yourselves, I have to admit a wrongdoing of untold selfish proportions. I have read this book twice, once upon its release, once quite recently, and I have yet to praise it’s glory to you. However, with Megan O’Keefe wrapping up her trilogy later this year, I figured I’d revisit the saga for a full read through, and ameliorate my sins. Reading Velocity Weapon is joy synthesized with breakneck thrills, and it’s a drug that does not lose its potency upon repeated use. Its twists and turns still came out blasters a’blazing, even the ones I remembered. So I’m here to tell you, if you missed Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe, you should take another pass at the Ada system and marvel at its fast-paced beauty.

The story takes place in the far future of humanity, centered on a single star system (called Ada) that seems to reside on the borders of a greater human civilization. It has a single jump gate that leads to a wider universe populated by humanity. The planet Ada Prime is ruled by the Keepers, and its neighboring planet, Icarion, is signalling it will fight for greater access to the jump gate heavily regulated by the Primes. Enter the Greeve siblings, Biran and Sanda. Sanda is a member of Ada Prime’s spaceborn navy, while Biran is a newly inducted member of the Keepers. However, Sanda has woken up inside an enemy warship, after spending 230 years in cryo sleep. There is not a single human soul on board, leaving the ship’s AI, Bero (shortened from The Light of Berossus), to explain the situation to her. Ada Prime (Sanda’s world) was destroyed alongside Icarion in the latter’s pursuit for greater Autonomy. Unfortunately, with that knowledge comes Bero’s own complicity in the act, as he is the weapon Icarion used. Meanwhile, 230 years in the past, Biran is the new Speaker for the Keepers. His goal is to maintain a sense of peace and control of the situation after discovering his sister may have been killed in a warning shot from Icarion. How does Sanda cope with the loss, and how can she survive when everything she has ever known has been wiped out? What can Biran do in the face of impending doom, unbeknownst to him, as the two planets hurtle towards oblivion?

Velocity Weapon is a non-stop roller coaster that just never ends. O’Keefe slams the throttle to ludicrous speed from the opening chapter and does not let up. I found myself constantly amazed with O’Keefe’s ability to weave back and forth between the stories. She consistently ramps the tension up in both, while having them interact over the vast timeline. There is no direct interaction, but Sanda slowly coming to the realization that her entire life is gone, and those she loved destroyed, ramps up the ever present threat in Biran’s story. They are both speeding towards the collision, and even after several reveals, O’Keefe never lets up on the gas, finding ways to accelerate the narrative even more. It’s one rip-roaring hell of a good time.

The characters are a hoot and a half. Sanda doesn’t take shit from anyone, even from the ship Bero. If there is a problem, she puts her head down and works to solve it, even when it seems impossible. She is pure grit and action, pushing forward through her muddy circumstances with unwavering tenacity. She often puts herself in harm’s way, even when odds are clearly stacked against her. On the other hand, Biran is more like a bull in a china shop with a law degree who convinces the shop owner it was their fault for letting him in. He has moments where he wreaks havoc unwittingly because he feels it’s the best choice in his heart. Once he sees the trap he’s gotten himself into, though, he’s really good at turning the tables and making it work for him. Over time, he becomes more of a smooth operator, and it’s a pure joy to watch. Bero is a delight, and feels like an overpowered computer that is just growing as a personality. The computer exhibits the calculating nature and instant access to information while being jumbled up with emotional control of a child. Bero’s relationship with Sanda is a treat, and O’Keefe’s ability to write banter truly shines here.

The world presented within Velocity Weapon is also astoundingly realized, especially given the lightning pace that characterizes the book. It is a relatively small story, taking place within a single system that feels very much on the outskirts of a vast network of human colonies. There definitely seems to be a reason that the information dial is set to low for the majority of the characters, and O’Keefe sells it. Some people might find that certain sections of the book feel conveniently written, giving context to a mystery that isn’t present till later in the story, but I personally ate it up. It felt like following gumdrops into the dark forest that is clearly also on fire. O’Keefe littered the pages with these small mysteries nudging the reader forward, forcing me to interrogate the world and the character’s roles within it. It helps that O’Keefe leaves one with the knowledge to understand some things, but the well is much deeper than one can even imagine.

I only have two miniscule complaints about the book that stood out to me more on my second reading. The first is that sometimes the last quarter felt exhausting. O’Keefe shifts the plot into lightspeed, and twists and turns fly at you like asteroids in a Star Wars movie. It’s a rollicking good time that forces you to finish the book, but it’s also a lot of information to handle. I’m very glad I went for the re-read in preparation for the next two books. Second, there is a third POV character involving  a heist that is mostly disconnected from the back and forth between Sanda and Biran. It’s not that it was uninteresting, it just occasionally breaks the flow of the story. When it worked well, it was a good break, other times it just felt like it got in the way. It’s a great set up for the following books, but right now it feels a tad clunky.

Velocity Weapon ranks up there with one of the most aptly named science fiction books I’ve ever read. It blasts off with an extreme amount of force, and accelerates into near oblivion by the end. The first time I read it, I was ecstatic about it, and that really didn’t change on the second go around. It packs a punch and leaves one wanting more from the world and its characters. It’s hard to cover so much good that happens in a single book, but O’Keefe manages to make almost every aspect of the book tantalizing. However, now that I’ve refreshed myself on the details, I’m ready to dive into Chaos Vector just in time for the end of the trilogy later this year. If you’re looking for a fun, fast paced, high octane science fiction story, then Velocity Weapon is the perfect ignition.

Rating: Velocity Weapon 8.5/10

Rotherweird – A Fascinating Mess

Rotherweird, by Andrew Caldecott, is a fascinating book that fights you every inch of the way. The story spans over 400 years, but only a few square miles in location. It does an impressive job building a quaint and homey English village that feels like the perfect place to put your feet up, while also leaving you to drown in the middle of a sea. The book is a master of atmosphere and a fool when it comes to narrative structure. Whether you like it or not is going to come down to how much patience you have and how much you like quiet English towns. Rotherweird is slow. While the page count is around five hundred, the text is small, the pages are large, and the prose is dense. It’s also the first book in a trilogy of the same name, so there is a lot of story to dig into. The problem with this smorgasbord? It’s a buffet that Caldecott put at the top of a tall mountain – you need to work hard to get it. 

Here is the plot of the first book, as I understood it after finishing it, laid out in clear terms: Rotherweird is about a strange isolated town in the English countryside. In the 1500s, a number of children with magical powers were found and it was determined that they should grow up in an isolated setting to keep them pure from negative influences. These kids were shipped to the town of Rotherweird where no one is allowed in, no one is allowed out, and people aren’t supposed to even talk about its existence. Unfortunately, isolating a lot of children with god-like powers and no adult supervision leads very quickly to a Lord of the Flies situation. Things start to go very bad, and then we fast-forward four hundred plus years to see Rotherweird in present day. The town is still standing, despite the ensuing apocalypse you saw approaching, but things don’t seem quite right. We then start to follow the POV of a pair of outsiders, a rare occurrence in Rotherweird, who come to the town with hidden agendas. Both of these characters are trying to dig up the town’s past, hoping to piece together what happened all those years ago.

This is how Rotherweird could have read, but instead, we get a jumbled mess. The pacing of the story is erratic, to say the least. Chapters will jump between three different time periods (the way past, the recent past, and the present) seemingly at random. I never got a strong grasp of why there would be an unexplained chapter that lurched us 400 years into the past for exposition that didn’t seem relevant for what was currently happening in the present. It slows the momentum of the book to a glacial pace and changed a book that should have taken me a few days to read, to a two-week affair. It almost feels like Caldecott heard secondhand that flashbacks make books better, so he just spun a wheel and inserted them. The book is also broken up into “months” as chapters, with each chapter telling the events that happen in one month of the year. It was a novel concept but suffered from an uneven hand. Some months result in chapters that comprise almost a fourth of the book and others have single pages detailing a few key events. By itself, it wouldn’t be that problematic, but when combined with the erratic time jumps, it forges an anchor that weighs the text down.

But, if you can look past the pacing issues and the narrative whiplash, there are some good elements to sink your teeth into. Rotherweird’s greatest strength is its sense of atmosphere. The town that gives the book its namesake feels like a real tangible place that I have been to. The shops are adorable, the neighbors annoying, and the streets can be pictured down to the bricks. While the prose is dense, it does build comfortable layers of immersion over time and makes Rotherweird a place worth exploring because it has secrets worth finding. There is this strange slice-of-life quality to the story where characters are rushing around trying to save the world, but also stopping to compete in a town-wide game of capture the flag. It somehow blends very well and feels extremely British. There is also a nice streak of dry humor that wrung a few laughs out of me. 

One of the other things I really liked about Rotherweird is its strong sense of mystery. The book is pretty brazen early on in indicating that there are things going on under the surface in this strange town. This sense of mystery is further enhanced by the fact that Rotherweird is a place that mixes the ordinary with the occult in order to disguise what is happening. Everyone has secrets,  some people are having affairs while others are immortals chained to the stonework until the end of days. This mixture of the mundane and the magical makes it a lot harder to ferret out answers and makes the puzzles a lot more fun to solve.

If you have patience and tenacity you can squeeze water from the stone that is Rotherweird. The narrative fights you at every turn in a way that is counterproductive to enjoying the book, but there is an interesting story under the pacing issues. The book’s strong sense of place made it one of the more memorable books I have read recently and despite my frustrations, I am still curious to see where the series goes next. If you are wondering if this book is for you, it will likely boil down to how much English period pieces and mysteries are ‘your thing’. But if you are looking for a fast-paced jaunt, I would look elsewhere.

Rating: Rotherweird – 6.5/10

Battle Ground – A Literary Crime

Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files has always been a complicated subject for me. On one hand, Butcher has a special knack for melding lore that is modern, ancient, well-known, and obscure into a giant melting pot of exciting action that gets the blood pumping. On the other hand, the series has a number of issues including the consistently poor treatment of female characters, the inconsistent quality of the books, and the fact that although Butcher does a great job combining all of the lore of the world, there often doesn’t feel like there is a lot of substance that he is adding. However, despite the flaws, I would have still considered myself a fan of The Dresden Files… until I read Battle Ground.

For those who aren’t followers of the series, Dresden is a huge ongoing urban fantasy with seventeen core novels under its belt, seven more planned, and a ton of spinoff content. We used to get a steady stream of content from Butcher, and books would come out almost once a year – until recently. The last Dresden novel I enjoyed, Skin Games, came out in 2014. Afterward, Butcher announced that he needed to take some time to transition the series into its next iteration, and he was going to take some time to create the biggest and best Dresden story yet. A book so awesome, that a single volume couldn’t contain it. So we waited six years, 2020 rolled around, and I read both of Butcher’s masterpieces. If you skim my review of Peace Talks from last year, you will find I was wholly unimpressed with the novel. But, when I finished Battle Ground I turned to my co-reviewers and said, “this is the worst book of the year.”

You might be asking yourself why I am spending so much time explaining the goings-on around this book without actually explaining what is wrong with it. That is because I needed you to have context so I could talk about all the ways this book is bad. It is bad mechanically, thematically, conceptually, logistically, subjectively, objectively, and contextually. The series has always walked a fine line on a cliff face of being too problematic, and this book yeeted itself along with the whole series into the sea.

So let’s stop beating around the bush and actually talk about what’s wrong with Battle Ground. First off, this isn’t actually a book. It is one long drawn-out action scene where all of the action is happening off-screen. I have absolutely no idea why, but Butcher decided the best way to convey a sense of awe and grandeur was to have most major events happen off-page and have Dresden turn to the reader and say, “wow there are some truly indescribable things happening outside right now, I can’t even talk about them, I bet you wish you could hear what is happening, instead I am going to talk to an irrelevant person at this bar.” This is just a terrible narrative choice, and Butcher used “indescribable” so many times in lieu of description that I almost had a stroke. The prose, in general, is terrible. Butcher is not a good action writer, a fact he has managed to hide for a very long time by making this series primarily a mystery with a few action set pieces. The prose feels like watching a trainwreck on repeat until it melts your brain.

The entirety of the book is predicated on the idea of solving questions that were left unanswered in the previous novel, Peace Talks. The singular job that Battle Ground had to accomplish in its 400 pages of ‘content’ is to explain one or two problematically unanswered questions about what motivated a character from Peace Talks. This character made a few seemingly irrational choices and we never found out why. It doesn’t even come close to doing this job, making Peace Talks an even worse book retroactively, which is impressive given my already low score. This book reads like an appendix in both of its connotations, and it should have been ripped out of the body of works like the bloated, poisonous, vestigial list of useless information that it is.

Up next, we have the fact that Butcher completely shatters his magic system and worldbuilding for no clear reason. Dresden’s power level in this story is exactly whatever Butcher needs it to be for the situation he is in, which means it varies wildly to the point of completely obliterating immersion. Sometimes he is strong enough that Odin himself bows to his greatness. Other times Dresden is so weak, because Butcher wants you to always feel like every second of this book is a life or death exchange, that he struggles to fight a metaphorical stray dog. I rapidly gave up trying to understand how strong Dresden was or what his powers were because it is a losing battle from the outset. Part of this issue is the fact that Butcher is trying to transition Dresden into a ‘higher weight class’ of power with these books. Ostensibly, the series is moving from Dresden solving small crimes in Chicago to battling interdimensional horrors that threaten reality. The problem is that Butcher really likes writing about how Dresden is an underdog and is as stubborn metaphorical dog with a bone who can’t drop it. So the fun scrappy underdog premise that sold the previous iteration of the protagonist is getting in the way of him stepping up to the big boy table.

In addition, the very little bit of actual story we get in this book is there to paint Dresden as the ultimate Gary Sue of all time. Not only does the reader have to suffer Dresden whine about how unfair his life is, and how unimportant he is to the cosmos for seven hundred pages, they are subjected to the knowledge that this whole interdimensional war, which involves the deaths of DEITIES, was carried out to make Dresden look bad. It reads like someone was trying extremely hard to empower incels and tell them that “don’t worry, the world really does revolve around you no matter what other people say.” I want to claw the flesh off my face.

But, we still haven’t gotten to the crowning achievement of Battle Ground, and the reason that I absolutely will not be continuing on with the series. Unfortunately, this is a spoiler and you should walk away if you are somehow still interested in this novel. This book takes a female love interest that has been built up for 16 novels and has finally started to move away from “Dresden’s sex hole with feelings” to “likable complicated character,” and kills her for nothing other than shock value and to make Dresden feel bad. Her death is so meaningless, cliche, and unimportant that I honestly refused to believe it happened. I thought it was a “Rey killing Chewy” situation. It is not. It’s done so that Dresden can have some sort of motivation to keep the world from dying, which apparently wasn’t enough for him, and so he can reach inside his own ass and find some deus ex machina power to be even cooler and more self-centered. And to just absolutely salt the wounds, the book ends with Dresden finding out that he is being “forced into marriage with a harem of sex demigods” in the next book, and is really sad about it so the reader should feel okay that Dresden is still a good person. I am still livid thinking about it as I write this review.

This is the worst book I have actively reviewed in the entirety of the time I have been running The Quill to Live – though there have been worse ones I haven’t reviewed. The only reason the score of this book isn’t lower is because it didn’t incite violence against minorities, so it isn’t the literally worst book of all time, though it throws its hat in the ring. There are actually a number of additional sins I haven’t even covered, but I have spent enough time being angry for a single review. Extremely do not recommend.

Rating: Battle Ground – 2.0/10

A Desolation Called Peace — A Sequel Deemed Magnificent

A Memory Called Empire is easily one of my favorite debut novels of the last several years. Not a lot of other books captivated me with the levels of palace intrigue Arkady Martine was able to stuff inside it. Not only that, but the book massaged my big brained ego with its exploration of identity in the face of hegemonic culture. Needless to say, I loved the hell out of it. And when I heard there was going to be a sequel, my heart filled with glee. Well, that sequel is about to be released, and I am excited to say it was just as much a blast. A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is a worthy successor, delivering an excellently paced plot full of character, political intrigue and oh so delicious language.

The book takes place shortly after the events of A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare has returned to Lsel and has been dodging Heritage, who is in charge of her imago machine, as she’s afraid they’ll discover her secret and wipe out her memory line. Nine Hibiscus is the newly appointed yaotlek, sent to the front lines with six fleets to encounter the coming alien menace. She has some other captains questioning her authority, while many of her pilots are dying without any real progress. So she sends for a diplomat from Information, and Three Seagrass answers the call. As Three Seagrass finds her way to the front, she stops by Lsel Station and convinces Mahit to join her and help her translate the messages they received from the aliens in a last ditch hope to prevent all out war. In the capital, Eight Antidote, heir apparent to the throne, is undergoing his imperial education under the tutelage of interim ruler Nineteen Adze and an array of military advisors. However, he plays the child to gather information that may ultimately decide the fate of the Teixcalaanli Empire and the future of his people.

If A Memory Called Empire was a foundation shaking earthquake, Desolation is the much feared tsunami. Martine does an excellent job of digging into the themes of the first book, while avoiding repetition and retreading well-worn paths. Instead, she splits the narrative in a more deliberate manner between four different perspectives, allowing her themes to evolve more organically. Individual identity and its relationship to culture still plays a major part, but it’s more immediate and personal aspects are uncovered. First contact between two incredibly hegemonic powers dives into the nature of communication and the ethics of overwhelming force. Training and cultural memory take the forefront through the eyes of Eight Antidote, the heir to be, as they struggle to understand the purpose of empire. There is a plethora of explorations into the human condition, it would take up the review to just dive into a few of them.

The story is incredibly well paced, opening up with the first salvo of Teixcalaanli’s counter attack against a formless alien menace, and only spiraling upwards from there. Each point of view feels like its own unique story, with its own particular role to play. I experienced so much joy and stress while reading about Eight Antidote learning to be an emperor, while Nine Hibiscus is trying to lead a fleet on the verge of mutiny against an alien they know nothing about. Interlaced with those stories is Mahit navigating who she is with two other people in her head, all while Three Seagrass is getting her to help lead a dialogue with the aliens they just encountered. Yet, even though this is all happening at the same time, Martine has no problem keeping you in tune with every aspect. Martine is a watchmaker of the highest order. She meticulously crafts all of these small spinning gears, and forces the reader to watch them spin on their own. You can see the teeth connecting to other gears and you know it’s turning other hidden gear(s), but you don’t know how big or small they are comparatively. Every now and then she gives you a glimpse of the finished watch, but never quite the entirety of the arrayed network of precisely tuned waltzing cogs, that is until she does. And when every little piece comes together, and I mean literally every little piece, and the clock strikes midnight, it’s truly a sight to behold.

A concern I had leading into Desolation was character. Mahit was such an interesting perspective due to the cultural war raging in her brain and the way everyone views her as a tool. I was afraid that stepping outside her would dampen the magic of Memory, but that was not at all the case. While Mahit and Three Seagrass each feel as vivid as they did in Memory, I found myself equally entranced by the other two main characters. Eight Antidote felt like a child who grew up with the sobering knowledge that they would one day be emperor and the responsibility he would have to his people. His escapades while “playing spy” were a delight, while also filled with a foreshadowing tension. Nine Hibiscus comes off as a confident wild card of a general, who plays to win, but only if she has the absolute correct hand. Martine is excellent at showing characters through their actions, while juxtaposing them with how others view them from worlds away. Palace intrigue is on full display here, and she uses it to her full advantage, allowing the reader to question the actions of the characters and hiding their intent. I loved every second of it.

All in all, if you liked or loved Memory, you’ll likely have similar feelings about Desolation. I didn’t expect to slip into Martine’s use of language like a fish in water after two years, but I did. The plotting feels just as strong, with the end feeling like destiny. The characters are vibrant and their stories feel just as human. The themes don’t feel as blunt as in Memory, but they are still a wonderful shifting kaleidoscope that changes each time you take a deeper look. There aren’t many books that I’d wish my memory erased for a re-read, but these two are definitely on that list.

Rating: A Desolation Called Peace – 9.5/10


Book Talk: Moby Dick And The Black Leviathan

We here at The Quill to Live like to have weird and frankly bizarre conversations about books, and we decided to record one of them. This time Alex and Andrew decided to compare two books that are similar to one another, but have an outrageous time gap between them. Not only that, but they take great liberties in discussing the books’ strengths and weaknesses by comparing their fantasy sensibilities. It should be considered a crime, but since it’s not, we decided to have some fun with it anyway. In this discussion we ask the question: Is Moby Dick better fantasy than fantasy Moby Dick, Black Leviathan? The answer may shock you!

Don’t worry, we left all the smart conversations to be had by people who have studied the book for their entire lives, so you won’t have to sit through high school literature class again. Instead come for the outrageous comparisons and deep dives into why we think you might enjoy Moby Dick as a fantasy reader. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to read it yourself afterwards. Or maybe you’ll read The Black Leviathan, we won’t judge.

If you like weird conversations like this, maybe we’ll find more classics to destroy with our brainy big takes!

Fireheart Tiger – Frigid And Brittle

Having spent the last two years digging into the world of novellas, I feel I am starting to get the hang of consistently identifying stories I am going to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are always going to be wild cards that slip through the cracks and ruin your day, much like Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, did to me. I really wanted to like this novella. As the back cover blurb will tell you, it is billed as – The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle – in a Vietnamese-inspired setting. I have just finished reading an Asian-inspired novella about fire and tigers that I loved (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo), and I thought this was a sure thing. It also has a very alluring and well-illustrated cover that pulled me in, but it was a trap. Fireheart Tiger’s length ultimately is its undoing, as there isn’t enough heat here to light a match, let alone warm a heart.

The entire story of Tiger can be summed up in a few sentences. Princess Thanh has been living a life as a hostage in the Ephteria kingdom for most of her life. When she is young, she is witness to a brutal magical fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. She also falls in love with the Ephterian queen in waiting, which is problematic for an enemy of the state, to say the least. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court and has found herself with a number of issues. First, her mother thinks her useless and tries to box her away from the world. Second, the magical fire that burned down the palace in her youth was caused by a powerful spirit that seems to have followed her home. And third, the magnetic queen in waiting, Eldris of Ephteria, is coming on a diplomatic trip to Thanh’s home that leaves our protagonist in a complicated situation. What will happen?

Fireheart Tiger would have definitely worked better as a larger novel. There is potential here, but it is absolutely not realized. The novella opens with its strongest sections. We find Thanh returning to her mother’s court where she is met with disgust and disapproval. The power dynamics at play feel promising, and though Thanh’s mother is a bit of a shallow character, I bought into their disagreements at first. However, this setup leads to a lot of self-pity and moping that never really goes away. This pity party is interrupted by occasional memories such as the Ephterian palace burning and a burgeoning romance with the Ephterian princess Eldris. The romance is very hard to wrap your head around, as Eldris’ personality is made up of how she looks physically. The romance feels a little sweet in the flashback (relevant for later), but Ephteria is a ruthless nation that is devouring those on its border and Thanh’s country/island/nation is next on the chopping block. I wish I could feel bad about this, but we get zero context or worldbuilding around Thanh’s place of origin, so I had a very hard time feeling bad for it.

Eldris comes to Thanh’s country and their romance picks up almost immediately, which is very jarring and feels unearned. As opposed to feeling sweet like in the flashback, Eldris is now creepy and manipulative for no other reason than to serve the plot. It is very unclear why Thanh even likes Eldris, given neither character has much of a personality. Thanh is purported to be clever and shy, but we see very little of the former. Her motivations supposedly revolve around protecting her country, but the majority of her inner monologue consists of railing against how her mother treats her.

On top of the characters being generally uncompelling, the dialogues were awkward. There was a lot of tonal mismatch and cliché that somehow exhausted me despite the short page length. The romance was utterly unconvincing, and possibly had slightly problematic intentions that I can’t discuss because of spoilers, and didn’t endear me to any of the characters in the slightest. Really the only things I did like were the premise, the inclusivity of the themes, and the ending which has a pretty decent twist. Otherwise, this is definitely a novella that you can skip.

Rating: Fireheart Tiger – 3.0/10

The Black Coast – Right Message, Wrong Words

The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks, is the hardest type of book to read and review. There are a variety of different aspects of this fantasy story that I like greatly, but many of them are hampered by noticeable problems with the writing. The book was compelling enough that I absolutely wanted to finish it, but not engaging enough that it was smooth sailing. I found myself sitting down repeatedly for short twenty-page sessions when I got burned out due to frustrations with the text. But, I kept coming back because I wanted to find out what happened. It’s got some great messages that I agree with, but it delivers them in a hamfisted method that is about as subtle as a brick to the face. The Black Coast, the first book of The God-King Chronicles, is all over the place.

The premise of The Black Coast, at least, is promising and remains captivating from start to finish. What we have here is a good old-fashioned culture clash, with some new twists. The story takes place in a coastal empire that is often plagued by raiders from pirate-infested islands in the sea. These pirates have always been an unorganized pile of backstabbing marauders, but when an undead drauger starts to unite them by force under its banner, one of the pirate clans decides they’re uninterested in slavery with extra steps. They flee their island homeland and head to the only place they can imagine is safe – the shores of their longtime enemies and raiding targets. The reception they receive is anything but warm, but seeing as the raiders’ alternative is to go back and be enslaved – and the coastals (which is what I am referring to the people from the mainland empire going forward) choices are ‘get along or die by raiders’ – they are determined to find a way to make it work. And that IS what this book is primarily about, two long-standing peoples who hate one another committed to working together. The pirate horde led by an undying battle champion is very obviously shelved on a very high ledge with foreshadowingly pointy edges for the second book, and we are left to watch a sort of slice of life fantasy where Vikings and coastal British must find a way to coexist.

There are clear positive and negative elements of this culture clash. Positive: the cultures of the two people are set up in an interesting and dynamic way that feels like it fosters natural animosity that doesn’t paint either as the good or evil party. And the cultures themselves are pretty fascinating. They have some complex ideas about things like honor and purpose that are fun to discover. The entire story is painted in broad streaks of grey and it manages to often be clever in how it kaleidoscopically shifts between who could be right or wrong at any given moment  – but not always. Negative: sometimes the groups have awkward issues that feel way too heavy-handed. For example, one of the two nations is extremely sexist and the other is extremely homophobic. It doesn’t even feel slightly nuanced and it functions as a very lazy fulcrum by which to elevate the idea that ‘all people have problems, and if we just sat down and talked we could fix everything’. The Black Coast is performing best when it is coming up with savvy ways to connect cultural differences. Sweeping these lazy boulder-sized problems just get swept under the rug with minimal effort is problematic to the immersion.

Similarly, the characters are a mixed bag. The leads are all fun and complex enough to keep me interested. Daimon, head of the coastals, is struggling with the fact that he betrayed his adoptive family. When the raiders arrived, he took control of the situation and kept everyone from getting killed. He provides a refreshing perspective from an adoptive child with a great internal struggle, and I enjoyed his practicality and clear-headed thinking greatly. Saana, head of the raiders, is struggling with the fact that her people just want to… well, raid, and she seems to be the only one who can tell that that is not a good long-term strategy. She feels like the only student who did the homework in an unruly class who is trying to keep everyone out of trouble. I didn’t know “Viking Mom” was going to be a trope that I loved, but I am here for it.

However, there are additional POVs that caused a dissonance while reading and didn’t feel as enmeshed in the themes I’ve mentioned. These narratives are told by the sister to a king and a poor thief. The sister’s story feels wildly disconnected from what is happening with the culture clash, and the thief’s story falls off a cliff and isn’t heard from again two-thirds of the way through the book. On top of this, some of the supporting cast, like Saana’s close friends in the clan and Daimon’s brother, are well developed, but others are looking to set records in lack of character depth. Daimon’s father is a fairly pivotal character to the story and has a number of scenes with dialogue. Yet in all of them, all of them, he only says one thing, “my adoptive son has no honor and needs to die.” It is exhausting and really starts to drag on you after a while. Many of these characters simply exist to push the narrative in the direction Brooks needed it to go and it is easy to see the author’s agenda behind the choices thanks to his heavy hand. It absolutely shatters the immersion of a book for me when you can see the author forcing the story to go in certain directions.

The best thing I can say about The Black Coast is that it is different and original enough that it kept me interested from start to finish. The premise is interesting, and the execution is reasonably well done. Yet, the book is held back due to the heavy hand the author has in pushing the story along and would have benefited from a much lighter touch. I still recommend you check it out if the premise appeals to you, but know that you will have to take the good with the bad.

Rating: The Black Coast – 6.5/10

The Echo Wife — Echo, Echooo, Echoooooooooo

Yeah yeah, the subtitle is easy pickings, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the best. It’s very hard to come up with a pun that combines the act of echoing and the myriad themes Sarah Gailey has packed into this book. There are questions about the debate of nature vs nurture, and an extreme muddying of the waters. You have traumas past and present building characters with insatiable levels of drive in one direction or another. So instead of agonizing over the title, I chose to dig into the book itself. The Echo Wife, by the aforementioned Sarah Gailey, is a dark journey through the psyche of a woman that also manages to blur the lines of nature versus nurture in clever ways.

Evelyn, the main protagonist and only perspective, is a renowned scientist in the field of cloning. She has just been presented with a major award for her advances in the field, and yet her husband is too busy having an affair to care about her accomplishments. But it’s not the average run of the mill affair. Martine, her husband’s new girlfriend, is a clone of Evelyn grown and raised in secret by her husband to be everything Evelyn was not. Obedient. Patient. Gentle. Martine oddly wants to form a sort of friendship with Evelyn, and Evelyn obliges by having a meeting over tea, and having Martine over at her place. One night she receives a terrible phone call from Martine: her ex husband is dead, and Martine has killed him. In order to hide the secret of Martine, and the death of her ex husband and keep her standing within her field, Evelyn hatches a plan that will require her particularly useful set of skills.

While the premise sounded promising, I had a hard time getting into this book. Mostly, I think I had trouble with the main character, Evelyn, and her blunt anger and career driven attitude. It’s less that I find these traits distasteful, it’s just her inner monologue became a repetitive jackhammer in my brain, and threatened to become the sole way in which I saw her character. While it serves as a sturdy foundation for further exploration of the book’s themes later on, I had a hard time getting past the upfront and ever present repetition of who Evelyn was to herself. However, while these aspects of Evelyn don’t really soften through the progression of the book, Gailey highlights their omnipresence within Evelyn’s life in interesting ways as the story goes on. Her counterpart, Martine, is a great foil, and really helps dig into Evelyn’s brusque manners in exciting and compelling ways. Martine dilutes some of Evelyn’s more obtuse qualities, not through action but by taking up space within the story. She’s too polite, goes out of her way to make people feel comfortable, but also shows some of the incessant drive that fuels Evelyn. She has her own dreams and desires even if they are mostly programmed by Evelyn’s husband. I admire Gailey’s ability to make two people who are so different feel so similar at the same time, without resorting to superficial contrivances.

The story itself is weirdly fun. Gailey presents a pretty horrific and disturbing scenario with a quirky sensibility. There are points where it feels like they wrote a fifties television show pilot, complete with a “shrewish” woman learning the ropes from her perfect housewife clone. I wouldn’t say I laughed, but there is sinister comedy at play that keeps the story oddly light, while it explores some shadowy territory. That feeling stops, however, during Evelyn’s flashbacks to her upbringing. These chapters are tough pills to swallow, and while they were never a joy to read, they were compelling in their own right. Her relationship with both her parents and the interactions she has with them are haunting in many different ways. Gailey does an excellent job of keeping the information low in these sections, focusing on the memories a child would have developed, instead of viewing them as Evelyn would as an adult. They are free of rumination and judgement, giving you a window into her past with the shades half drawn.

Though it takes some time for the wallpaper to be stripped from the intricate mosaic below the surface, the mosaic is horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Gailey juggles concepts of free will and human programming, while humming a mashup of I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. It’s a strange novel, but Gailey patiently allows the snowball of a reveal to build up. Obviously, nature vs nurture comes up, but they throw a wrench in the gears by confusing the two. What does it mean when the programming is a form of nurture, but meant to create a specific nature? It’s further complicated by the memories that Evelyn has of her childhood as they dive into how she becomes who she is. Gailey plays it well too, not diving too much into cause and effect, instead allowing the reader to parse the memories like they would their own life. They are written as if you’re asking yourself, “why am I the way that I am,” while diving into the packets of neurons that make up your past to find those answers, without really finding specific events. It’s exciting and dreadful at the same time because all it does is bring you to one terrifying answer, you’re unique, but not special.

Gailey has written a fun and dark exploration of what makes us who we are. I am glad I stuck with it, but I will admit it was a tough go for the first fifth of the book. It never really picks up great speed, however, they are patient, and I recommend you be patient too. There are times the book threatens to be a thriller, but it never really follows through, but I think it’s better for it. If you’re looking for a brisk, weird and uncanny dive into the nature of identity through a funhouse mirror, Echo Wife should be on your to TBR.

Rating: The Echo Wife – 7.5/10