A Brightness Long Ago – Cherished Memories And Lessons Learned

Originally I wasn’t going to review this book because it is by Guy Gavriel Kay, and here at The Quill to Live we basically have a blanket recommendation for anything he has ever written. His ability to churn out a powerful novel that is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, and love note to history is well known. However, it is very likely that A Brightness Long Ago will be our book of the year – thus it seemed important that we actually review it. So here you go: as always, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. There you go, review over. What, you want more? Fine, I will actually do my job.

A Brightness Long Ago, according to Kay’s book blurb, “is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy. Unfortunately, because I am an uncultured peasant, I am not familiar enough with European history to have recognized that without his prompting. While some of Kay’s books feel extremely evocative of specific historical times and events, Brightness felt less rooted in real events than some of the other Kay books I have read. As with all Kay books, the story is focused on small individuals who experience moments of something bigger than themselves. In this instance, the larger world events revolve around a long slow conflict between two powerful military leaders: Folco and Teobaldo. They are two proud, brilliant, and unyielding men who are vying to leave their mark on the world. The book follows a continent-sized chess match between these two titanic personalities and explores a number of their attempts to seize power from surrounding powers. Although they are the focus of the plot, the book is much more about the lives that they touch and change in their momentous conflict. In particular, our primary POVs are Danio and Adria – a man of some learning who continuously finds himself at the center of climactic events due to the choices he makes, and a woman who rejects the mantle of aristocracy because she wanted to do something that matters.

This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago are about build a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have read.

I love this book so damn much for so many reasons. Kay’s characters are always perfect, but I haven’t liked a cast this much outside Sailing to Sarantium – Danio and Adria stole my heart and won’t give it back. Kay’s stories usually focus on ordinary people who hear gunshots and run towards the sound. However, Brightness has an interesting mix of characters who seek momentous events out, and those who actively avoid them. For those who have read a number of his other pieces, I feel you will find some interesting fresh personalities in Brightness that defy the expectations of even the most well-read readers.

A Brightness Long Ago was a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and I don’t want to know the person who doesn’t enjoy it. As I said in my first paragraph, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Rating: A Brightness Long Ago – 10/10
-Andrew

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The Last Astronaut – One Small Step Into… Eh, You Should Figure It Out

I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters. 

The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat. 

After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me. 

The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.

The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.

The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself. 

Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10
-Alex

The Wolf’s Call – Blood Song 2.0

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_So, many years ago when I was first starting out the site, I stumbled upon an absolutely incredible self-published book called Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan. The book was, and is, one of my favorite reads, and it rapidly gained a following before being picked up for publication. It became a massive success in the genre and everyone was clamoring for more. However, when Ryan released the second (Tower Lord) and third (Queen of Fire) books in the trilogy they were met with mixed reactions. I talk a lot about the controversy surrounding the books in this ancient (in relative terms) post here. Long story short, some felt the later books suffered because the story POV  moved from one to many and that Queen of Fire ended without a satisfying resolution. Well, I have good news for everyone. If you were a fan of Blood Song and didn’t like the later books, there is a new installment of the series that both returns to a Vaelin centric focus, and answers a ton of lingering questions from Queen of Fire. If you were a fan of all of the books like me, there is now another excellent installment of one of my favorite series by one of my favorite authors. It’s called The Wolf’s Call.

So what is the plot of The Wolf’s Call? Our story picks up several years after the end of the original trilogy and Vaelin has resettled into his role as the Tower Lord in the north of the realm. But, as we all know, conflict tends to follow Vaelin around like a baby duckling. Vaelin learns of trouble brewing to the West, on a new continent that we only hear mentions of in the first series. While initially reluctant to do anything other than sulk in his tower, Vaelin eventually finds the motivation to join the conflict and sails into a new land with only a few of his closest companions from the original trilogy. Vaelin must then use his lifetime of experience in war to stay alive, achieve an objective I won’t spoil, and turn the conflicts that find him in this new land.

The plot of The Wolf’s Call is exactly what I thought it would be, and I am very ok with that. Ryan essentially used a new far off conflict (which he seeded during the original trilogy) to move Vaelin to a new location, strip him of his entourage, and reset his story. It involves a new look at the powers of the Gifted and an antagonist that mirrors Vaelin’s military mind and physical prowess. While there was very little that surprised me about the plot, I still enjoyed it in its entirety. It is mostly just a series of events and situations that Vaelin must react and respond to, which are always fun to read. Vaelin is a weird character, and his unique qualities make him one of my favorites. He is this strange mix of exhaustion and responsibility that paints a picture of a man who is utterly bitter about how much he has given to the world, with a moral compass that refuses to allow him to stop. It creates the perfect personality that you can both deeply identify with (especially as I get older) but also idolize at the same time. I really like his quiet and contemplative personality in a world of charismatic heroes. He is also a complete badass.

You could argue that Vaelin is a Gary Sue, a protagonist that is overpowered and obnoxiously talented – but I would disagree. Even though Vaelin is definitely incredibly strong for a protagonist, his slow built to this point feels earned from his previous books and I feel no guilt reading about him kicking ass after all of the training and experiences he has gone through. Ryan also does a wonderful job of continuing to flesh out his Raven’s Shadow world (though the new series is called The Raven’s Blade) and I like the new setting. It is an interesting hybrid of merchant city-states and Asian culture, with an invigorating new cast. Although we spend 95% of the book in Vaelin’s POV, we do get a few interludes from the sister of the antagonist which do a great job of adding an undercurrent of tension and urgency throughout the book.

My only real issue with The Wolf’s Call is that it suffers from Ryan’s signature problem: if you have not read the previous novels recently, you are going to have a hard time remembering who everyone is. I just wish he added a few more context clues and minor flashbacks when reintroducing characters and names. This lack of context slows down the beginning of the book and it took me a little bit of time to get back up to speed. However, once I was about a fifth into the book I had a clear memory of who most of the cast were and it was fairly smooth sailing until the end.

The Wolf’s Call is a book that everyone will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form. If you haven’t read The Raven’s Shadow trilogy yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out – and if you have, The Wolf’s Call should be at the top of your to-do list.

Rating: The Wolf’s Call – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Neutronium Alchemist – A QTL Discussion

We are back with another audio discussion. This time we are doing book two, The Neutronium Alchemist, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. You can find the spoiler-free written review here: Neutronium Alchemist review. The goal of this discussion is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you check out the written review. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book two:

And if you are looking for the discussion of book one, it can be found here: The Reality Dysfunction 

Gods Of Jade And Shadow – A Walk Through Old Maya

51gxorcir2lWhat an absolutely weird and charming book. Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is equal parts Mayan epic fantasy, Mexican historical fiction, jazz love letter, quest fantasy, and Cinderella fairy tale. I am not sure who the target audience is, but it is such a unique and interesting book that it is sure to find at least a small niche following. The book is another of our dark horse candidates for 2019, so if you are looking for a new debut this might fit the bill. Or, if you ever thought about which Mayan gods would be best dressed as a flapper, then this book might be right up your alley.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Caseopia, a classic Cinderella figure that is being abused by her extended family. One day while cleaning, Caseopia opens a strange chest her grandfather has lying around and discovers a god of death (Hun-Kamé) that her grandfather, and the god’s twin brother (Vucub-Kamé), had imprisoned. Hun-Kamé attaches himself to Caseopia and charges her with recovering a few missing pieces of his person so that he may retake the underworld, called Xibalba. If Caseopia does not recover them quickly, the god will drain her life force and she will die, providing ample motivation. Thus, Caseopia and Hun-Kamé set out on a quest to visit a number of colorful characters and locations across Central America, which culminates in a final showdown in Xibalba between the twins.

I have strong complicated feelings about this book. On the one hand, it felt like what people in the video game industry call “a walking simulator.” Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, or even the antagonist Vucub-Kamé, don’t really do anything until the last 30 pages of the book. The rest of the story is just them showing up at locations and things magically going their way. However, there is a large romance plotline between Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, which is well done despite neither character being individually interesting. In addition, while the book could be described as “characters go to places,” the places they go are incredible. Moreno-Garcia has a real talent for imaginative settings and interesting locations, so it is a shame that I didn’t like the way she described them.

The biggest problem I had with Gods of Jade and Shadow is I really didn’t like the style of the prose. It is told as if you are sitting around a campfire, hearing a story passed down from a beloved older family member who doesn’t really remember all the details but knows the general gist. Given the emphasis on oral history in this part of the world, I highly suspect that this prose style is thematically on point and well executed – I just personally really didn’t like it. It isn’t poorly done, it just really isn’t for me.

Despite this, I did still enjoy the book. The themes are well layered and well executed. The book heavily revolves around complicated relationships, and feelings, with family and redemption. It explores the idea of “can people really change” and I thought Morena-Garcia did a very good job demonstrating her view on these subjects through her characters. In the end, the book is very sweet and heartwarming, and it made for a pretty great beach read despite my issues with the stylistic choices.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is pretty different from a lot of its competitors in the fantasy genre, for better and worse. With wonderful themes and a fantastic setting, the book will pull you in and take you on a journey. However, readers will likely have strong feelings about the distinctive prose. I personally did not enjoy it, but have no trouble imagining that there will be many who find it enchanting. Gods of Jade and Shadow is an interesting experience and if you find yourself even a little bit curious I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Gods of Jade and Shadow 7.0/10
-Andrew

Crowfall – Misery Loves Company

51wz0ii4rhlIt has been a case study in character development for me to read The Raven’s Mark series, by Ed McDonald. Here we are at Crowfall, the final book in the trilogy, and we finally have a protagonist I can get behind. If you haven’t read any of my reviews on the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, you can find them in the links. However, to save you time the jist of my reviews is that I really wanted to love both these books, but a boring protagonist slowed me down. Our leading man, Ryhalt, was like a piece of coal sitting in the center of a beautiful crown in book one, dragging down the worldbuilding and plot noticeably. In book two, there were some signs that a beautiful gem might lay underneath if we just gave him a bath. In book three, Ryhalt finally feels like a shining diamond that improves, rather than detracts from, the beauty of Crowfall.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of this grimdark epic, it roughly goes as follows. The Raven’s Mark tells the story of a land with two sets of gods: The Deep Kings and the Nameless. The Deep Kings want to consume everything around them and remake it in their image. The Nameless want to avoid death, so they consume everything around them in the name of murdering The Deep Kings – but aren’t as effective as they want to be. When faced with two sides of the same “die horribly” coin, the general populace of the world throws in with The Nameless as they stand a single step higher on a morality ladder that is descending straight into hell. Some of these people sign on as captains to The Nameless in order to better be able to fight. One of these individuals is Ryhalt, captain to The Nameless named Crowfoot (yes I see the irony). Our story follows Ryhalt as he tries to stop the world from ending repeatedly. Oh, and the series heavily features a magical wasteland called “The Misery” that is like a magical Chernobyl that is both sentient and malicious.

McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding and plot. His universe is a horrible place to live, with most people living hard lives that often result in brutal deaths. However, there is a clear undercurrent of hope and struggle that runs through all three books that keep you coming back. His gods and villains are capital C ‘Cool’ and their machinations are weird, imaginative, horrifying, and engrossing to read about. As mentioned above, the real Achilles heel for me in the series has been Ryhalt. Despite being Crowfoot’s captain, Ryhalt always seemed out of his class when it came to the villains he struggled against. In the first book, it could definitely feel like the only element he was bringing to the table was ‘plot armor’ and it would pull me out of the story. This issue was partially alleviated in book two but is straight up destroyed in Crowfall.

Without giving too much away, Crowfall’s plot revolves around a bar-none-battle-royale for the world. The Deep Kings, the Nameless, and some independent agents have all spent the last of their power to compete for a magical McGuffin that will place one person at the top of the food chain. The action, subterfuge, and climaxes are edge-of-your-seat captivating, and Ryhalt finally feels like he is bringing the appropriate amount of thunder. I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the strengths of the previous two: epic plot, creative magic, love-to-hate villains, and a world dripping in atmosphere and lore that I didn’t feel ready to leave. But, it has also turned its principal weakness into another ace in the hole: Ryhalt is finally awesome.

Recommending grimdark series can be hard, as they are not to everyone’s taste. However, after reading Crowfall I can honestly say that I think almost all fantasy readers should enjoy The Raven’s Mark if they follow it through all the way. It has flaws, but the end result is a diamond that shines brightly in the fantasy landscape and Crowfall is one of the best series conclusions I have read in a while. Ed McDonald should be lauded for what he has created and I look forward to seeing where his creative imagination takes us next.

Rating: Crowfall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Queenslayer – Captivating But Showing Wear

51kfgvjszblI am running out of inventive and original ways to say I really like almost anything that Sebastien de Castell puts out. This is something like the eighth book of his that I have reviewed and the worst thing I have had to say about any of his works is that you should go read it as soon as possible. However, let it be said that I do my due diligence and review everything of his that I come across. Queenslayer is one such book, the fifth and penultimate installment in de Castell’s YA Spellslinger series. Although I wouldn’t categorize these books as heavy intellectual reading, they have been a welcome romp every time I have read one and I was really looking forward to the fifth installment. Is this the book that finally breaks de Castell’s streak of excellence? No, but I do think that the Spellslinger series is starting to show some signs of strain.

For those of you not familiar with the series, you can find my review of book one here, and the other installments here and here. A gross oversimplification of the plot would be that Spellslinger follows the story of Kellen, a mage with a demonic curse that will eventually kill him and has restricted his ability to use magic. Thanks to his curse, he is exiled from his tribe and hunted like a criminal. Thus Kellen must make use of his wiles, tricks, and friends to survive in a harsh world where magic is worth everything. The books in the series all take a similar structure, and Queenslayer is no exception: Kellen travels to a new location and is confronted with a strange new magical threat and must use the skills and tools he has acquired thus far to figure out what is going on. In Queenslayer, Kellen finds himself in the court of one of the larger kingdoms in de Castell’s world. Through an unfortunate series of events, Kellen is forced into the role of tutor to a young, yet deceptively smart, monarch. Kellen must survive the machinations of the court, discover who is plotting the downfall of his new charge, and survive the usual amounts of death one encounters while being wanted in exile.

I really like Queenslayer’s premise. Court intrigue has always been a favorite book subject of mine and it’s a space that de Castell naturally excels in with his powerful character writing and fun dialogue. The new characters are fun and memorable, and the developments at court captivated my curiosity and kept me invested to the point where I finished the book in a single sitting. In addition, de Castell’s worldbuilding continues the series trend of fleshing out his magical world and gives you a strong and consistent sense of the political landscape both within this new country, and other locations we have visited in the series before. The pace is unsurprisingly excellent, and while it is definitely aimed at a YA audience it is a book that almost any age can enjoy.

Unfortunately, while the positives of Queenslayer are massive, I had a negative thought that I couldn’t banish for a large section of my reading: I have seen a lot of this before. Although de Castell has done an admirable job of giving each book its own unique identity, there is a pattern of sameness that has started to become a little more apparent at book five. Some of the events in Queenslayer seem a little more unlikely than usual. When this is paired with some recurring villains and machinations showing up yet again for the fifth book in a row, Queenslayer started feeling like a weak installment that was showing signs of wear. The book was still a delight to read, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the first four installments did. I am surprised to say this, but it feels like this series is about ready to wrap up and I am excited for what will surely be an exciting conclusion in the sixth and final book.

If you are already reading the Spellslinger series, Queenslayer should be an obvious pickup. Sebastian de Castell’s work has a warmth and a joy that is contagious and ever present in everything he makes. Queenslayer has all the great things its four older siblings have, although it is starting to show a few signs of age. Queenslayer feels like an excellent set up for the final installment of the Spellslinger series and I look forward to closing out this saga with very positive memories.

Rating: Queenslayer – 8.0/10
-Andrew