The Factory Witches of Lowell – Could Have Used More Time In The Loom

71frdjxulIt’s really hard to avoid reading about the conditions that a lot of people are working under today. Before the pandemic it was already questionable, especially with the rise of the gig economy. But the pandemic, particularly in the United States, has brought a lot of those issues into sharp detail. So when I heard of a book about a group of women banding together to strike in the nineteenth century using magic, I was instantly sold. I know it’s not exactly a solution to our current predicaments (I wish it was), but because stories about solidarity are so rare, it’s important to read stories that focus on actually banding together. It’s a nice and (in my opinion) important break from the single good guy/girl protagonist who “wins” through sheer willpower. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is a book about such solidarity that scratches the surface of labor history in the Northeastern United States. It serves as an interesting exploration of these ideas but falls short in delivering a solid story.

Our story follows the exploits of women workers in the milltown of Lowell, Massachusetts, adding a fantastical flair to real life events of 1836. The two main characters are Judith, the ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, one who still practices the forgotten art of witchcraft. There is a budding romance between the two as they navigate the strike, facing opposition from management and helping to keep the other women involved. Magic isn’t a silver bullet in their schemes, so while Hannah practices, she still has to work to find the right spells to counteract the papercraft of capital. How can a young group of women succeed, when there have been several attempts before them? Will the magic be enough?

Promisingly, the book opens in media res, with the women performing magic during a strike planning session. There is a sense of wonder that fills the pages; the reader is introduced to the characters as they submit their hair to the collective spell. This spell would in essence form a magical bond of solidarity, preventing women from crossing the picket line at the promise of individual benefit from management. What I particularly enjoyed about the magic in Witches is how cleverly Malerich interweaved it into the class politics and machinations of capitalism. Setting Hannah up as someone who understood the basic tenets, but had to use her foundations to analyze and build new spells was really fun, and also fairly informative from a material analysis perspective (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Beyond the magic, however, I had a hard time connecting with the story, and I think that is mostly due to its length. Witches relies a lot on the historical aspect as a given, and people’s common understanding that working conditions in the nineteenth century were awful and extremely exploitative. There are tidbits here and there about the specifics of working conditions such as the kiss of death (in which women had to inhale the string through loops, thus inhaling the linens and dust, developing coughs), but I never got a general sense of their lives. While I understand that there probably was not much of a life outside of work in these conditions, I barely got a sense of who the women wanted to be outside work, or if they even saw the work as important. It was a fairly large cast of characters, centered around two particular women, but overall most of the characters barely had any defining traits even though they were often talked about in reverent and defining ways. I get that there is a very fine line to walk before you stray into anachronism, or modern progressive ideals showing up in historical fiction, but I had a hard time caring about the strike beyond my already pro-labor power tendencies. I’m not saying this had to be a “teachable moment” — it is fiction and deserves to be fun, I just mean that purely from a story standpoint I did not buy in. I think I expected historical fiction with a charming fantasy twist, but I just got the charming fantasy twist with historical labor trivia thrown in.

In the end it’s hard to say how much of this could be made more compelling with length, because I do think that’s my major complaint with the book. Witches is 120 pages, and so much is crammed into it. Everything moves so fast, there’s no time to appreciate the characters or their struggles. The texture of their lives feels missing, and while there are plenty of dissections of the book from a political perspective that are enlightening (if you are interested, I definitely recommend looking into them because there is a lot to learn about), I had trouble with it as a story. I wish it was a little less subtle, and had more “oomph” to the narrative. I still liked it and loved the way Malerich used magic in a grounded way to highlight how capitalism as a system functions. However, I wanted more from it, and maybe that’s a personal problem.

Rating: Factory Witches of Lowell – 6.0/10
-Alex

Best Books For Fantasy Newcomers

So you are sitting at home, reading a great fantasy book, and you think to yourself, “man, I wish I could pull every friend, family member, and random child on the street into this amazing hobby… but what are the best books to get someone into the genre?” Look no further random person I am asking extremely specific rhetorical questions to. Below is a list – well, actually three lists – that provide perfect material for converting almost any kind of person (or at least three kinds) into a fantasy reader. This method has a 100% success rate with the three people I tried it on, so have absolutely no doubt it will always work for you. No need to thank me, your enormous donations to the site via using our Bookshop page to purchase books is thanks enough – and it helps support authors and bookstores!

But actually, the following lists are all great examples of extremely accessible books for different ages, life stages, and mentalities. Hopefully, someone will find these helpful in bringing people they care about into the loving and wonderful fantasy family. Books with hyperlinks in their titles lead to their reviews!

Books to Get Teens and Young Adults Into Fantasy at an Early Age (Or BtGTaYAIFaaEA for short): If you want to give someone the lifelong gift of fantasy books, the best way to do that is get to them at a young age when their mind is malleable. Below are a number of books that are good for all ages, but are particularly good at capturing a spark of passion in younger readers. These books are easy to read and digest, showcase some of the best classic ideas in the fantasy genre, and are just fun and imaginative – perfect to show new readers some of the best of what the genre has to offer.

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn has an easy-to-grasp but incredibly layered story, a defined roster of magic and monsters, and fantastic character development. The Mistborn trilogy serves as an excellent fantasy starting point because it’s a taste of what top-notch storytelling and a melting pot of captivating ideas can do. New fantasy readers will likely find Mistborn a great gateway to the genre because it mixes all of these elements with relatable themes and simple, elegant prose. If you’re looking for your first fantasy book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Brandon Sanderson.  

Added bonus–here’s our chat about Mistborn, in which a first-time Sanderson reader takes the plunge.

Spellslinger – Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger has a relatable protagonist, a fun companion animal, witty dialogue, ambiance and style based on card sharks, and a wild west setting. The main character is a perfect self-insert for newer readers and the supporting cast is filled with teachers and mentors that teen (and older) readers tend to love. It’s got a plot with tons of twists that are hard to see coming, but the themes are very accessible and easy to digest without being hamfisted. This six-book series by Sebastian de Castell is an amazing entry point for anyone.

The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, is one of the cornerstones of classic fantasy and practically defined the chosen one trope in modern fantasy. Reading it gives you an enormous appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the story is beloved by thousands of fantasy fans for good reason. But, what makes it great for newer readers is its huge page count and epic storyline. Many newer readers prefer to stick to a single series or story as they get their baring in a genre and The Wheel of Time with its fourteen books has content to spare. In addition, its genuinely epic scope and story will be mindblowing to readers who want their books to be bigger and grander.

Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a solid entry point for fantasy initiates thanks to its incredible world and relatable characters. It has a sweeping narrative that highlights how fun (and dangerous) a journey into the unknown can be. Plus, protagonist Amani’s self-discovery arc carries with it a lot of power, the type literary fiction readers might be used to. But the primary reason I recommend this to fantasy newcomers is the exquisite melding of different genre elements. There’s sharpshooting, djinni, and a desert world all packaged in a story of self-realization and immense growth. 

Every Heart A Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway opens the Wayward Children series. The saga tells stories of children who have returned from magical, fantastical, and brutal worlds and must cope with coming back to our reality. New fantasy initiates will enjoy McGuires deft handling of heavy themes mixed with the whimsical worlds the titular children visit. Wayward Children  as a whole skews toward an older demographic (swearing, thematic elements), resting on the thin line between teen and adult fantasy. Every Heart A Doorway fuses our world with infinite fantasy locales, giving you a deep-dive into the possibilities of the genre. It’s an excellent starting point for newcomers with its short page-length and hard-hitting explorations of the real-world impact of portals to strange lands.

Books to Help Readers Transition From YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy: One of the most powerful moments of my reading experience was when I picked up my first true adult fantasy book. It was The Black Company, which I have spoken a ton about already, and it showed me that fantasy could be so much more than mindless escapism. This book opened the door to heavier concepts, tons of new ideas, and a whole ocean of content that helped me grow and evolve as a person in my early 20s. If you, or someone you know, are looking to move from Harry Potter to something with a little more depth – these are the books for you.

The Black Company – Glen Cook

Hey look, it’s the series I just mentioned in the introduction. I have a lot of things to say about The Black Company, by Glen Cook, much of which you can find here in one of our most popular posts. But, if I had to boil it all down to a single line it’s this: while much of fantasy helps you flee the troubles of reality via escapism – The Black Company instead uses escapism to force you to look closely at the horrors of reality, namely war. This series is a window into what it was like to be a part of a war and it is haunting. It is a powerful piece that will place you in the shoes of a number of people very different to yourself and help you understand what they went through. For me, reading TBC was an inspirational moment that taught me the power of empathy and stories and how fantasy can help us better understand our fellow man and the real world.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

According to posters in my elementary school library, reading is FUNdamental. And no book is as fun or fundamentally funny as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. First, just say that title out loud. Fun, right? You’re gonna feel that way on every single page of Scott Lynch’s humorous fantastical heist. The prose is poetic and breezy. The jokes are constant. The plot resembles an M.C. Escher painting in the best possible way. The setting (essentially fantasy Venice) is breathtaking. And the characters are the chef’s kiss of it all. I’ve never had more fun reading a book than I did with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a daring novel that showcases just how entertaining fantasy can be, but its large size and layered plot do a lot to ease new readers into bigger novels.

The Waking Fire – Anthony Ryan

Have your cake and eat it too. The Waking Fire is one third kick ass protagonists from different walks of life, one third giant dangerous dragons, and one third about how capitalism is a nightmare. This book is the shore between a sea of fun and a hard rocky beach of poignant criticisms of how our world works. One of the best parts about The Waking Fire is that you get out what you put in. If you just want a fun adventure story about people finding lost treasure – it can do that. If you want to explore heavy themes about how our reliance on substances that are destroying the Earth will eventually kill us all – it can do that as well. It’s the pitch hitter of transition adult fantasy.

The Deep – Rivers Solomon

The Deep, by its nature as a novella, is short, sweet and packed to brim with personality and world. Rivers Solomon does a lot of work in this book, introducing you to a world so vastly different than our own, but born of our crimes. Solomon fully immerses the reader in something special, positing a world built by the descendants of women thrown overboard in the slave trade. There is pain, and empathy abound in the story, but glimmers of hope sparkle like impossible rays of light on the dark ocean floor. 

Books to Convince Serious Readers of Other Genres to Give Fantasy a Chance: The fantasy genre is the king of escapism, but it has so much more to offer. Unfortunately, in my years on this planet, I have run into any number of people who dismiss fantasy as elves, magic, and fluffy light adventures. Often the best way to convince people to give fantasy a chance is to ease them in with books that are closer to fiction with fantasy undertones. The following is a list of great bridge books to get people to slide into the fantasy genre sideways.

Tigana – Guy Gavriel Kay

“There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an absolute powerhouse of a book. With absolutely outstanding prose, it sits somewhere between fantasy, historical fiction, and traditional fiction. It’s the story of small people in a big world trying to accomplish great things and find meaning in their lives. It is a hauntingly beautiful story about the human condition, and if you hand it to someone and they come back and say “sorry, I am just not into fantasy” I refuse to believe they even tried to read it. This book can make even the most stonehearted unbeliever cry.

Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone

If there is one thing that serious adults understand it is the soulless crushing weight of a job sucking the joy out of life – so why not explore a slightly more fun fantasy version with corporate necromancy! Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, is a book that serves up adult workplace escapism. It is a part of a series of stories about a modern world much like our own where magic and gods run rampant. It combines the troubles of your current life with an undercurrent of magic and provides a welcome relief in the form of incredible stories of triumph in a world much like our own. It’s also one of the weirder and more unique fantasy reads I regularly recommend and it does a great job showcasing how authors are constantly stretching the boundaries of what the fantasy genre is. I originally came across Three Parts Dead in a book club and every single person loved it – and I am sure you and the readers you give it to will as well.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

I almost feel like I shouldn’t have to qualify this one due to its popularity, but here I go. It’s a love story between two dueling stage magicians who are using actual magic to one up each other as they try to win a competition for their lives. You have to have a cold, dead, unfeeling heart to not like this one. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a monument to the aesthetic power of incredible prose, fulfilling and relatable characters, and wonderful stories. The magic is quiet, subtle, and easy to ignore if the person reading isn’t into spells and magic system. But, the book also is a love letter to the mystery and beauty that magic can birth, making it a great salesman for the genre as a whole.

The House In The Cerulean Sea – T.J. Klune

T.J. Klune’s The House In The Cerulean Sea is one of the best books of 2020. Klune’s charming story features Linus Baker, a by-the-books case worker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. He gets sent on a unique assignment to a house where some extraordinary children are under the care of a mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’ learns a lot about himself even as he investigates the conditions at Parnassus’ unconventional homestead. Cerulean Sea is heartwarming, charming, and a fantastic fit for readers who haven’t taken the fantasy plunge. There’s a reason we gave it a perfect 10. Cerulean Sea has a bevy of literary fiction elements blended nicely with a healthy dose of the whimsical. I’ve shared this book even with vehement lit-fic purists, and each one loved it. 

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best known novel The Shadow of the Wind is, in a word, magical. It follows Daniel, a young man who discovers a book by an elusive author named Julian Carax, and makes it his goal to find his other works, and if he’s lucky, Carax himself. It’s honestly hard to describe what makes this book great without sitting you down in a big mansion library with the fire as the only light and reading it to you. Though it’s translated from Spanish, it reads like a painting. There are so many moments that still run chills up my spine. If you’re worried about it being about a kid on the verge of adulthood, don’t. Zafón perfectly bridges the gap between the world weary reality of being an adult with the magical discovery of being a child, igniting a joy I rarely feel when reading such stories. It’s not all lighthearted as the story takes place in post Civil War Spain, and as more of Carax’s life is revealed, the relationship between sadness, trauma and art is explored and Zafon has no easy answers. Ultimately, Shadow of the Wind is about rediscovering the magic of childhood and the ways in which growing up can hamper the creative soul within everyone. 

Legacy Of Steel – Sharper With Practice

legacy-of-steel-large-1Matthew Ward needs to calm down, because this is the second enormous fantasy book of his that I have reviewed this year, and it is becoming a lot. I am going to assume that he had multiple books already written when Orbit acquired this trilogy because otherwise, he is churning out 1000 page epics every 6 months and might be a robot. Legacy of Steel is the second book in Ward’s aptly named Legacy Trilogy, you can find my review of the first book, Legacy of Ash, here.

Legacy of Steel takes the strong foundation that Ash built and improves on it in a number of ways. Steel feels like an immediate and direct continuation of the plot of book one. Ash ends with a temporary ceasefire (of sorts) in a war that takes up a large portion of the story, and Steel picks up as we step out of this eye in the storm back into the dangerous winds of war. Ash primarily focused on the human and political machinations of Ward’s world and how they drive conflict. On the flip side, Steel has a much greater focus on the divine and how a series of gods have been slinking around in the background secretly pulling strings.

One of my biggest annoyances with Ash as a book was that it actually felt like three 300-page books huddled in a trenchcoat. There were a number of fairly distinct plot arcs in the first novel that each could have been their own story, and I didn’t like them all equally. Steel does a much better job at having a clear, unified, driving story that runs through the entirety of the book. This makes it a much quicker, and more compelling, read, so I had a harder time setting it down. Steel doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. The many interesting themes, such as character identity, the nature of free will, and the morality of choices, are carried through into book two and Steel very much feels like the continuation of a conversation started in book one.

Another thing that Steel really nails is drastically expanding the scope of the world. In book one, we really only get to know two regions of a single country in Ward’s world and only catch glimpses of his gods. Steel fully fleshes out multiple other regions in our protagonist’s country, introduces us to a number of bordering nations, and provides a much more comprehensive look at the gods and their active meddling with mortals.

Our character roster has also both expanded and improved. Josuri is back from book one, and Ward does an amazing job taking the identity crisis he was experiencing and taking it in fun new directions. Viktor, my favorite lead from Ash, is also still around, but he is mostly relegated to the supporting cast. Instead, Ward chose to take a number of support characters from Ash and make them primary POVs in this second book. This rotating cast style really works for me and does a great job getting the reader to key plot moments all around the world in a very natural and organic way. It also keeps you from getting too bored with any one character and manages to make the cast feel both familiar and refreshing at the same time.

Legacy Of Steel is an improvement and escalation of everything that was good about Legacy Of Ash, while also repairing the few issues I had with book one. The two books combined form one of 2020’s largest and most engrossing fantasy stories and they are definitely some of my favorite debuts this year. I know recommending 1800 pages of fantasy books seems like a lot, but if you like epic fantasy you will be doing yourself a disservice by missing these two books.

Rating: Legacy Of Steel – 9.0/10
-Andrew

I Hope This Helps – Non-Escapism As Escapism

Tommy Siegel’s I Hope This Helps: Comics And Cures For 21st Century Panic springs right off the what-is-2020 press, and it couldn’t be more timely. To most, Siegel’s name will be justifiably unfamiliar. But both his comics and his music have impressive followings. Siegel is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for theatrical pop-rock band Jukebox The Ghost, a band I personally love but won’t talk about anymore here beyond telling you to give them a listen. On a separate note, if I had a nickel for every time I reviewed a graphic novel or comic by a popular musician, I my total would now sit at $0.15 (here’s the first, here’s the second). During long road trips in the band’s tour van, Siegel reignited his love for cartooning. He garnered a hefty following after striking up a “500 cartoons in 500 days” project, and much of his playful cartoonery made its way into I Hope This Helps, his debut book. 

The brunt of Siegel’s inaugural collection focuses on millennial life and the subtitular “21st century panic” that has indelibly weaved its way into our collective psyche. The result is a collection of comics and short written segments that feels undeniably “2020” in a way few things can. In fact, the final pages of the book acknowledge the march 2020 onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with a hesitantly hopeful message. The preceding chapters feature written portions in which Siegel rightfully laments the terrifying encroachment of social media into our lives. He does this as he (again rightfully) emphasizes its role in creating an audience for his work. These prose segments serve as a nice framework for the cartoons that comprise the majority of I Hope This Helps, though they’re easily skippable if you’re just here for a laugh. 

And laugh you will. Or at least I hope you will. I certainly did. I Hope This Helps is, as you’ve likely intuited, neither a fantasy nor a sci-fi book. But it feels like escapism nonetheless. A mysterious quality for a book that viciously highlights societal problems like the electoral college, social media addiction, and the fearful juxtaposition of smartphone utility and command over our attention spans. It’s as if Siegel understands that non-escapism can itself be an escape. Holding a mirror up to the worst parts of ourselves can strike up a fit of chuckles and, in some convoluted way, make us forget those are our problems, our struggles. It’s a fun take on laughter-as-medicine that feels as true to our time as anything else I’ve read or consumed this year. 

All that said, the comics about social-media-induced anxiety and excessive phone usage reach a point of diminishing returns. Siegel excels as a cartoonist when he gleefully skewers the needle-point specific aspects of millennial culture. A naked man with a Pringles-mascot head escapes a Pringles can. A dissection of Kombucha playfully tells us there’s “A live mushroom in every bottle.” A caped bloodsucker slogs away in a cubicle underneath a caption that says “Vampire Weekday.” These punchlines, which cast aside the social media and smartphone angle, sparked fits of genuine out-loud laughter as I flipped through them. And I mean laughs, not that exhale through the nose pseudo-laugh we all do when we experience something funny without anyone around. This isn’t to say that the commentaries on the collective millennial obsession with social media aren’t funny or worthwhile. It’s just that the wacky left-field jokes hit me harder. 

After weeks of election-following, pandemic worrying, and The Social Dilemma-watching, Siegel’s cartoons felt like a two-hour detox. This book won’t solve all your problems, but it will shine a bright light on the frivolous torments of 21st century culture. I Hope This Helps is a welcome reprieve from the terrifying normal and a deep dive into the wacky and zany brain of an intensely relatable (and immensely talented) musician and cartoonist. 

Rating: I Hope This Helps – 9.0/10
-Cole

Riot Baby – Anger As Art

71rws3vbplThis year has been full of some genuinely fantastic novellas, and TOR has done an exceptional job of leading the charge. Novellas have such potential to be focused, and a lot of authors have recently showcased that potential in big ways. Novellas can be explosive and monumental and addicting. One that has stuck with me through the year, and I couldn’t help but re-read a couple of times due to the protests this summer and fall, is Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi. I wish I could find a way to distill how I feel about it into a single sentence, or even a review. I’ve attempted below, but this is easily one of the most subjective and gut feeling reviews I’ve written. Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is a laser focused story of anger, pain and revolution, and you should read it.

Riot Baby is the story of Ella and her brother Kev, two kids who grow up while black in an increasingly dystopian America. Ella witnesses her brother’s birth during the LA riots, after the officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted. Ella has a gift; she can see the future of those around her, and it’s filled with pain, suffering and death. She ends up leaving her family as her power grows, and Kev is thrown in jail. As they grow older, Ella is able to use her powers to take Kev mentally somewhere else and show him the world, but he slowly grows impatient, knowing she could level the prison and help him escape. Ella visits Kev while he’s in jail, reminding him she’s still there for him but unable to do anything about his predicament despite her powers. Meanwhile Kev lives day to day, trying to survive without succumbing totally and completely to the system.

There is no dancing around this, I loved Riot Baby. Onyebuchi drives through the story with purpose, using his disjointed structure to maximum effect. The story jumps back and forth between Ella and Kev, showing their individual experiences within America as it grows increasingly bleaker as they get older. Ella’s journey to understand her power, to learn to carry the knowledge she has of the future and shape it, is phenomenal. Kev’s time in prison is equally claustrophobic, pent up and hopeless, lending a sense of desperation and anger. Onyebuchi knows exactly when to switch between them to highlight their mirrored journeys and growing frustration with the tension between them.

While the bare bones of the story itself is a solid foundation, Onyebuchi’s writing style kept me enthralled and heightened the emotional impact of the siblings’ story. There is a brewing anger behind every sentence. An undercurrent of injustice rippled each page as Kev and Ella had to come to grips with the world they lived in. What I found so fascinating about the anger in Riot Baby is how incredibly right it felt. There is a fervor in it that grows in a raging crescendo towards the end of the book that is unavoidable, and it feels like a siren’s call. I initially read this in January, and felt it, and after this summer, it feels even more poignant on re-read after re-read.

The way Onyebuchi interweaves Ella’s powers into the history of Black America is poetic and righteous. It’s a casual reminder of our past, so much as it is a clarion call for a better future. Each scene is painted vividly, focusing on the people and how they are affected. Sure places, and things play an important role, but how these people’s lives are affected by the system are highlighted. Whether it be children or adults, men or women, they can’t escape the ever watchful eyes of the state. It’s an exercise in empathy, an empathy rooted in a passionate rage at the injustice of the system, that I’ve rarely seen and Onyebuchi pulls it off with aplomb.

It’s hard to talk about this book as a book. I could go into the technicals a little more, and maybe dig into whether the characters work or not. But I honestly feel like I’d be doing Onyebuchi and Riot Baby a disservice to break it down so mechanically, when it’s so purposefully full of emotion. There is such a powerful whirlwind in it’s pages, howling to those who read it. I recommend Riot Baby wholeheartedly. You should read it with others and talk about it. Be galvanized by it. It’s a story, sure, but it’s the perfect representation of art speaking a truth most should know by now. Let it speak to you, so you don’t remain silent about it afterwards.

Rating: Riot Baby 10.0/10
-Alex

Nophek Gloss – Whimsical, Prickly, And Keen

51z7qpojazlHow is it already November in this forsaken year? With less than a month left before we put out our best of the year lists, our reviewers are hard at work chugging through all the books we wanted to get to before the year’s end. Part of that effort involves finishing up outstanding Dark Horses, like Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Gloss was the debut I was most excited to check out this year, as its summary made it sound like a bizarre journey through space and time with a lovable crew of rogues on a spaceship that pushed the boundaries of the imagination. The good news is Gloss lived up to my internal hype and is somehow both more and less than what I expected.

Gloss tells the story of Caiden, a recently liberated slave that has lost everything and is looking for revenge. The start of the book is extremely fast-paced, as the reader witnesses Caiden’s picturesque life farming space cows turn into a traumatic nightmare. Caiden was a member of a group of humans who are kept in captivity, and ignorance, so they can raise cattle to feed nophek – giant murder cat things that grow space fuel in their brains. In the vast multiverse of this book’s setting, only a few realities can support nophek biology, so they are worth quite a pretty penny. However, when a virulent plague ends up killing most of the world’s cattle – the overseers of the harvesting project decided to feed the slaves (i.e., Caiden) to the nophek to keep them alive a little longer for harvest. Caiden watches his entire family get brutally torn apart by space lions right in front of him, manages to escape and find a futuristic spaceship, and falls in with a group of five side characters who help him get it off the planet and to safety. Caiden, at about twelve years old, vows to enact a horrific vengeance on the slavers who killed his family and sets out on an epic quest to throw them into the nearest sun.

The plot of Nophek Gloss left me with distinctly mixed feelings, especially because it is absolutely not the focus of the book. Everything feels contrived: Caiden falls into a powerful ship, a friendly and brilliant crew, and a clear plan on how to enact his revenge, in about 10 pages. But, that’s also not really an issue because all of the plot is window-dressing for the ideas, characters, and character growth. If you are looking for a hard science-fiction that has a thrilling and gripping plot that fits thousands of pieces together in an immersive experience, look elsewhere. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes their science fiction couched in the context of the human experience, wants to explore new ideas about how we grow into who we are, and love creative worldbuilding – then look right here.

The characters of Gloss are fantastic, though you should know what you are getting yourself into. The five crewmates that Caiden picks up are delightful, and exploring their individual stories through the chapters was moving and engrossing. On the other hand, Caiden is written, very effectively, to sound like a young boy, and that can make him occasionally extremely annoying. He struggles to learn lessons and often repeats the same mistakes, over and over again. However, through each successive error, we can see that Caiden is truly growing as a person and working through his trauma, which is a big part of the story. Trauma, and how to heal from it, is a cornerstone theme of Gloss. The book is filled with numerous sad stories, from Caiden’s to the crew’s, to any number of other side characters we meet. The trauma is the true antagonist of the story and the reader gets to watch each character they are attached to deal with their horrific pasts in their own way.

But if you aren’t into all of this touchy-feely goodness like I am, the worldbuilding and technology in Gloss are really fun. There are a ton of new ideas for technology – like a fascinating take on forced aging – that I had never read before that kept me thinking long into the night. Gloss also has some really interesting takes on multiverses and spaceships that made the inner child in me heel-click with glee. The prose is also quite vivid and evocative, and there are many instances of stunning imagery that are still sticking with me weeks later.

Interestingly, most of the things I didn’t really like about Gloss were clearly features, not bugs. Hansen has clear and well-realized methods on how she wants to tell her story that took me out of my comfort zone and helped me feel refreshed with the science fiction genre. Nophek Gloss was one of the strongest Dark Horses I have read this year and its weird story and weirder characters have me firmly invested in what happens next. I definitely recommend you use my breakdown of the book to decide if you think it’s for you because those that are drawn to Nophek Gloss are going to love it.

Rating: Nophek Gloss – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Pale Light In The Black – If Only It Were A Little Brighter

81imkkyialSometimes you read a book, and you’re not entirely sure how you feel about it. It’s hard to put into words how you would recommend it. Over time, you realize your gut feelings are just going to be the way you feel about it for a while. And it’s not necessarily the book’s fault; it’s more your expectations and taste that make it feel off. This book is one of those books for me, something I enjoyed, but after it was all said and done, I had questions. A Pale Light In The Black, by K.B. Wagers, is a competent book that focuses on its characters and their personal journeys, sometimes to the detriment of worldbuilding and plot.

The book follows the day-to-day goings-on of the Zuma’s Ghost, a ship within the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G for short). They’re a sort of space coast guard, set up a few hundred years into a future after a great collapse in civilization. Maxine Carmichael is trying to escape the grasp of her powerful Navy family, joins Neo-G, and is assigned to the Zuma’s Ghost after the crew’s well liked lieutenant is promoted to commander in the far reaches of a newly established colony. On top of her newbie status, Carmichael is also a member of the family that controls Life-Ex, a life extension drug that can be most easily obtained through service in one of the branches of the Earth military. Can Carmichael integrate herself within Zuma’s Ghost and help them to keep their reputation?

I enjoyed Pale Light, but I was not enthralled with it. It’s an extremely good cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day. Wagers is good at character dynamics. Wagers’ heartfelt moments feel warm and fuzzy, and they capture the feeling of awkward situations super well. I also enjoyed that while Carmichael had a lot to prove, the rest of the team wasn’t overly hostile to her in the beginning. Sure there was tension, and it ebbed and flowed based on their situation, but everyone was dedicated to making the new team work. Wagers then focused the character’s dynamics on how they could help each other bring out their strengths, and highlight each other’s weaknesses, without having a single overly determined character breakthrough prejudice. Wagers side steps all of the normal “new kid on the block” drama, giving the characters all a chance to grow on equal footing. It was delightful and refreshing.

Where the book fell flat for me, however, is that some of these character moments felt they should have been punctuated by events in the plot, and they just weren’t. They still packed a punch for most of the book because Wagers made their daily routines, day to day drudgery of being on a ship, and anxiety about the future feel important. But it came up short for me in the later sections of the book, when everything the crew had been working for felt as if it had been bypassed. Most of the book is spent training for a competition with the other branches of the military so the Neo-G can show they can hang with the big kids. When the story reaches the big games, though, it’s just a snapshot of all the events the characters participate in. In some ways, I’m okay with this as it feels like Wagers is pulling a Rocky, it doesn’t matter that they won or lost, just that they pulled together and competed in a way that satisfied them. It’s charming, but it also feels stilted because these moments in the games don’t feel big. It just felt unfinished to me.

I also was a bit dissatisfied with the worldbuilding in Pale Light. I like complexity, so take these feelings with a grain of salt. It feels incomplete and I can’t tell if that’s because there is more to come, more reckoning in the future, or if it’s built just enough to make the story work as is. There is a societal collapse, and a few hundred years later, humans are in space. How they got there is a mystery, what caused the collapse is a mystery (though it’s somewhat implied that what we’re doing now is the problem), and why humans decided to create a space navy, army, marine corps instead of just the Neo-G is unanswered. It didn’t really ruin my reading experience that these things were just there, taken for granted. But those questions remained, and still remain.

I want to reiterate, despite the problems I had with the book, I still enjoyed myself. Wagers does an excellent job of ingraining the reader with the day to day life of the crew and their interpersonal tensions. If I were less picky about certain things, I would have loved this book on the characters alone. However, I didn’t fully love it, and if you can put those other issues aside, then you’ll get a warm story about people working together, and dealing with their problems in an ebb and flow. Friendships aren’t built on overcoming huge character differences, or by making grand gestures. It’s the small things, day in and day out. It’s the little frustrations and the tiny bits of attention we give to each other at just the right moment. Wagers captured that beautifully, and made sure it applied to everyone in the book. So if you’re looking for a breezy read that fills you with the warmth of a found family, A Pale Light in the Black is for you.

Rating: A Pale Light in the Black 6.5/10
Alex

Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

The Seventh Perfection – Septacular

49247320This is a weird novella, and I am here for it. The Seventh Perfection, by Daniel Polansky, sits somewhere between a full novel and a novella at just under 200 pages. But what a 200 pages it is. The story’s main gimmick is it is told completely from a second-person point of view, and it makes for a strange and fascinating tale. However, there is a reason that most books AREN’T told from this perspective, so did Daniel Polansky manage to use an original narrative technique while telling a compelling story? Yes, yes he did.

The Seventh Perfection tells the story of Manet, but you won’t know that for a while. Manet is a historian of sorts who has mastered the seven perfections. Each perfection represents a difficult skill, including things like perfect pitch and perfect memory. The perfections get harder as they climb in level, and Manet is one of the few who has mastered all seven. Manet is trying to track down the hidden stories of how the current God-King ascended the throne and overthrew the previous tyrant. When her chase starts to overturn stones that were better left unturned, she finds herself on the run from the law – yet consumed with the need to find out what happened.

While the story feels a little tried-and-true, Polansky’s narrative style breathes fresh life into the tale. Because the book is in the second person, we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. Since the entire book is dialogue, the pace is lightning fast, and I managed to finish the entire story in about two hours – every minute of which I spent glued to the pages. It felt like I was reading the book version of a video game speedrun. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing.

The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.

I can’t say too much more about The Seventh Perfection without giving away some large spoilers. Suffice to say, I very much recommend this book to anyone looking for something short and different. Its tiny page count and lack of bulky descriptives mean you will blast through it in about a day, but what a day you will have. Polansky has created something clever, rich, and fun, and I think everyone should check it out if given the chance.

Rating: The Seventh Perfection – 9.0/10
-Andrew