Automatic Reload – Bad Romance

51lwv2qz04lAutomatic Reload, by Ferrett Steinmetz, is an interesting book with a lot of potential. The premise fascinated me: a sci-fi cyberpunk rom-com about two highly dysfunctional people finding love on the battlefield. It’s written with a cinematic focus and a lot of the book reads like watching a movie. It’s quick, it’s funny, it’s exciting, and as I breezed through it in a single sitting I was really looking forward to giving it a glowing recommendation. And then I actually got to the romance part of this comedy romance – problems.

However, let me sing Reload’s praises before I shoot it in the foot. The premise of the book is original and clever. Mat is one of our two leads and he is a giant cyborg. He has voluntarily replaced his limbs with cybernetic weapons and works as a one-man army for rent. Mat was initially aa drone operator and got PTSD from the missions he fulfilled behind a screen. Now he has fitted himself for war and takes on missions no one else can and works his hardest to keep casualties to zero. The second lead, Silvia, is a genetically-altered bioweapon (who was changed against her will) who has little control of her body. A shadowy organization used her as a test subject for a super-soldier serum of sorts and she has become one of the deadliest people on the planet. However, she also suffers from a massive disabling panic disorder that she is struggling to overcome. When Mat is recruited for a job that ends up freeing her, they must run, hide, and overcome their fears to beat back this shadow organization that threatens the world.

So the good: Automatic Reload is full of exciting action sequences, neat worldbuilding, likable characters, and great themes. In particular, Mat’s slow reveal of how he came to replace most of his body with machines and the mental damage that has been done to him is enthralling. Steinmetz has done a great job creating a modern commentary on the armed forces and explores the new challenges they face every day. Both Mat and Silvia have memorable and relatable struggles that resonated with me as a reader. The only problem is I felt like they had no chemistry whatsoever.

What was painful to me is this book has fun quippy dialogue that feels like it throws itself into the sea when the two leads team-up. Normally with a book like this, I hope that the elements of action, humor, and romance will complement and enhance one another. Instead, the three cornerstones of Reload feel like they are all competing for the same space and stepping on each other’s toes – with the romance, in particular, getting curb-stomped. It just felt awkward to jump from pulse-pounding explosions and funny one-liners to an awkward teenage romance between two very damaged individuals. The tone and nature of their growing relationship feel very at odds with the rest of the book and I felt it detracted from the overall story instead of adding to it.

It is highly possible that my issues with Automatic Reload’s romance were personal hangups that won’t bother most readers. However, I feel like the book would have been a lot stronger with more focus on action and humor. At the same time, there is a lot else to like about Reload and it certainly is one of the more original pieces that I have read this year. It’s short and fun, and If the premise intrigues you I would recommend you go check it out and come back and either confirm or reject my harping on the romance.

Rating: Automatic Reload – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

Ashes Of The Sun – Hotter Than Plasma

517sguwkonlDjango Wexler presented me with a conundrum after finishing his newest book, Ashes of the Sun. Ashes is the first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series, and on the one hand, Ashes is really good, and I am frothing at the mouth to get my hands on the next book in the series. On the other hand, Ashes tells a perfected version of a story I have seen in numerous fantasy books and makes me feel like I wasted days of my life reading other lesser books when I could have just read Ashes and saved time. So as you can see, I both love and resent this book for making other authors look like amateurs.

Ashes of the Sun has a number of plot elements that you have likely seen in existing fantasy stories. The world of Ashes is this post-apocalyptic fantasy hellscape. The reader learns early on that there once was a war between the Chosen – (over)zealous elemental magic users with divine power – and the Ghouls – biomancers with a penchant for sculpting flesh and machine into powerful combinations. The war between the Chosen and the Ghouls ravaged the lands and ended up killing both of them by the end of the war. Now, the only surviving semblance of either faction is a group of mages that served the Chosen, called The Twilight Order. The Order consists of humans who have a connection to magic at birth and are gathered from families at a young age by force to be trained as warriors. The Order’s job consists of essentially monitoring old magic and artifacts from the war and policing them so they don’t end up in the hands of regular humans. Part of this monitoring involves the tracking down and removal of Plaguespawn, bioweapons left laying around that eat people if they aren’t dealt with.

The protagonists are siblings that are separated at a young age. The prologue starts with them living on their family farm – Gyre, the older boy, looking after some livestock while Maya, the younger girl, runs around being a cute toddler. This gets interrupted when a member of the Twilight Order comes to scout Maya for initiation. When The Order mage tries to take her from her family by force, Gyre stands up to the caster and gets horribly maimed. While Maya ends up dropped into The Order for the next twelve years, Gyre starts to explore remnants of Ghoul technology left over from the war to enhance his body. The two siblings naturally end up on opposite sides of a very complicated conflict and must sort out the best way to move forward.

The thing about Ashes of the Sun is it has enormous depth. It’s a little difficult to explain, but the book’s power comes from all the small details. Nothing about this book is surface level; everything has been meticulously considered and thought out, breathing a huge amount of life into the world and characters. The world is fascinating and the Ghouls and Chosen have a lot of flavor. The clash of magic and technology is easy and intuitive for the reader to grasp, and neither side is painted as a black and white villain. The post-apocalyptic landscape is original and engaging. Reading about how salvagers dig for relics, or how the surviving humans retrofit the Chosen and Ghoul cities after the war to meet their needs, is enthralling. Every part of this world just aggressively pulls you in and makes you want more – and the worldbuilding isn’t even the best part.

My personal favorite thing about Ashes is our protagonists, Gyre and Maya. Both are complex, relatable POVs that go through an enormous amount of growth, and you can very clearly understand how they were shaped by their different upbringings. Most importantly, their relationship with each other is complicated, interesting, and believable. I have read around five “sibling on other sides of the war” stories in the last few years, and this one makes the rest look like they are bumbling around in the dark. Gyre and Maya have the perfect balance of love, respect, and distrust of one another and it’s like falling into an immersion riptide. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that each protagonist has a colorful and memorable support cast that I hated at first, but would die for by the end of the book. Wexler’s ability to grow characters is impressive.

In addition, the plot of the book is exciting. This is not a slow read, with the pacing resembling an out of control brushfire. The book bounces you from small conflict to small conflict while using the time to slowly expose the reader to the world and how it works. By the time you are able to take a breath, the larger objectives and mysteries start to come into focus and the scope expands to a much larger scale. On top of this, the action is awesome. Maya and the rest of the order fling the elements about in flashy and explosive ways, while Gyre and the Ghouls build these nightmares that stretch the imagination and boggle the mind.

I aggressively recommend Ashes of the Sun as one of the strongest books to come out in 2020 so far. I was a fan of Wexler’s older work, but Ashes is a noticeable step up in worldbuilding, characterization, and general prose. I have earmarked this as one of my most anticipated series in years and I highly recommend that you don’t sleep on this one. Come see what all the buzz is about in this climactic first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series.

Rating: Ashes of the Sun – 10/10
-Andrew

The Best Books Of The First Half Of 2020

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this has been a difficult year for most people. Thus, we wanted to get a jumpstart on getting amazing books into your hands in order to find a little joy. Instead of waiting until November to give you all a list of the best books of 2020, we decided to compile a small list of dynamite novels from the first half of 2020. A book charcuterie board, if you will. So, if 2020 has you down and you need a high-quality read – look no further than these books. In no particular order, here are our top six reads from January to June 2020:

51iik4c-6gl1) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Coming in hot on the heels of Foundryside, Shorefall is a perfect second book to The Founders trilogy. The magic system continues to be one of the most innovative and exciting I have read in years, and Bennett’s flair for action, imagination, and horror are on full display. As a bonus, the themes of the book revolve around connecting people from different POV to make the world a better place and finding hope when all looks lost – a perfect book for current events.

81mny8q7oll2) The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – TJ Klune penned one of the most joyful books I’ve ever read. The House in the Cerulean Sea follows by-the-books caseworker Linus Baker, who audits orphanages that house magical youth. When he’s sent on a particularly difficult assignment, Linus finds himself embraced by an unlikely family of talented magical children and their quirky caretaker. To read this book is to smile through every page, laugh along with the witty humor, and shed an occasional tear. Klune crafts perfectly timed, subtle, emotional, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose. Through it, he creates characters that you truly come to love over the course of the novel. The House in the Cerulean Sea is unquestionably one of the year’s top books, and everyone should read this feel-good adventure as soon as possible.

41spd48rbal3) Network Effect by Martha Wells – I just really didn’t think Network Effect was going to be such a success. I am so used to authors cashing in on popular IPs and writing terrible spin-offs that I was jaded, and Network Effect is anything but that. This novel sequel to the popular Murderbot novellas is the perfect transition between the two mediums. Network Effect takes everything good about the short punchy novellas and expands the world, cast, and plot without losing any of the character depth. On top of everything, Network sets the stage for a big and exciting plot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am4) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – Usually one-sentence ideas like “gender-bent Alexander the Great in outer space” sound cool (and this one sounds amazing) but fall flat beyond initial expectations. Elliott, however, runs a marathon with it and at breakneck speed. The amount of world-building, character development, and political intrigue that goes into this first novel of a series is astounding. Elliott also plays very heavily with her narrative style that makes you hooting and hollering for a form of propaganda. It’s a genuinely fun read that blew away my expectations and should definitely be on your list of to-reads for the year.

91xjptkukl5) The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo – I have read so many Asian inspired fantasies about slighted royals getting even in the last six months. Yet somehow, this novella packed more character and spirit into its short hundred pages than any of the other full-sized novels I read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the perfect balance of familiar and original. It’s a short read with great pacing and sets up a world that Nghi will continue to explore in subsequent novellas. I was so impressed with this novella that it managed to edge out a lot of the other full novels from 2020 – but it isn’t the only one.

50905325._sx0_sy0_6) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – We still need to get around to reviewing this one, much to our shame. Prosper’s Demon has a very specific story to tell, and it tells it flawlessly. Parker has an agenda and an argument to be made, and he utilizes this short story to execute both with a flawless flourish. It isn’t the best or most fun story I have ever read, but holy cow does Parker nail his themes and characters. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s only like 80 pages long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you can read it in an hour.

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds – Nobody Faster

51wgb7eeelI gotta hand it to Alex White, the quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. Today we will be talking about the third and final installment of the trilogy, The Worst of All Possible Worlds. On top of White continuing their trend of extremely verbose but super cool names, they have managed to write an explosive and climactic conclusion the likes of which I have not read for a while. Usually, finale books in trilogies are hard to talk about due to spoilers, but I have so many nice things to say about this book that this review essentially wrote itself.

If you are just hearing about this series for the first time, please go read my reviews of either book one (A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe) or book two (A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy) and get started – you will not regret it. For everyone else, strap the heck in. Our story picks up very soon after the end of Galaxy, and the crew of the Capricious is feeling pretty worn down and wrung out despite their massive success in book two. They’re hurting from their losses, and though they have made noticeable progress against their nebulous foe – the antagonist is still going strong. Unfortunately, the big bad guy of the series has decided the time for stealth is over and launches a full-scale invasion with overwhelming firepower against the known universe. The crew quickly realize that there is no way to currently beat back the rising tide of enemies. So, as usual, the Capricious sets out to find a lost legend – Origin, humanities cradle of life – in the hopes it might have something that can win the battle.

I was actually recently talking about this series when I wrote my guide to Science Fantasy. As I mentioned in that piece, The Salvagers is a beautiful action-packed fusion of a world that combines magic and technology for astoundingly cool results. I also mention in that piece that there is nothing I have read that comes close to my favorite work of science fantasy, Heroes Die,… until now. Worlds has this perfect fusion of both fantasy and sci-fi that work together in concert to build a symphony of awesome. The biggest theme throughout the series is using historical knowledge and research (fantasy) to innovate powerful leaps forward in technology (science-fiction) – and it works to blend the two genres wonderfully. But, the use of this theme is a wonderful element that all three books have – so let’s focus on the two huge things that Worlds’ nails in particular.

The first is blockbuster action. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. I was initially a little worried based on the back blurb that makes the book sound like it’s going to be a McGuffin fetch quest to Deus ex the conflict away. It is nothing close to that, with Worlds containing action sequence after action sequence, set piece after set piece. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse.

The second thing Worlds does right is the emotional pay-off. Now back when I read book one three years ago, one of my major criticisms of White is that their writing felt somewhat overemotional. I love huge emotional scenes, but it felt like White was putting the cart before the horse and trying to get the reader to feel massively connected to these characters that the reader just hadn’t spent enough time with. Yet, that same weakness in book one is now a massive strength in the finale. The emotional payoff in Worlds’ is like winning a lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series.

I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. My only complaint is I felt there were a few too many unanswered questions at the end of Worlds, especially if White doesn’t plan to return to the world any time soon. I can say with confidence and ease that this will be one of the strongest science fiction and fantasy books of 2020. Go read this series right now.

Rating: The Worst of All Possible Worlds – 10/10
-Andrew

Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

Peace Talks – Excited To Be Back, Yet Disappointed To Be Here

51mbjzgnffl._sx329_bo1204203200_I am a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series. I could sit here all day and nitpick the problems I have with Butcher’s prose and characters, but at the end of the day I still really like this 16-book urban fantasy. There are few series that have this much content to sink your teeth into, and while there are a few duds in the series, the average quality of the books is pretty great. There is something about Butcher’s world and its mash-up of lores that is just delightfully fun to step into. Yet, it has been over six years since readers got their last fix. The previous book, Skin Game, came out in May of 2014 and was one of the strongest books in the series. Skin Game was about a crack team trying to rob the god of the underworld, Hades, of the holy grail. What an exciting and thrilling book it was. Now we have Peace Talks, which is about Dresden… talking… a lot?

I am going to get this out right up front: Peace Talks was a simultaneously nostalgic and disappointing experience. There is very little going on in this book – there aren’t many new plot elements, there is very little character growth, and it kinda felt like reading an anime filler arc. The majority of the story focuses on Dresden’s relationships with his half-brother and grandfather, but even in that dimension, there is very little growth and progress. The first 80% of the book focuses on Dresden’s brother committing a crime for which his motivations are never explained, and we follow Dresden trying to keep him out of a metaphorical noose. It’s a whole lot of Dresden saying “we shouldn’t murder my brother” and a whole lot of everyone else saying “please stop inexplicably defending a war criminal that committed a lot of war crimes on video.” The back 20% of the book has some climactic and exciting developments, but they are just set up for the next book with no exploration in Peace Talks itself. Given the fact that the sequel, Battle Ground, comes out in a few months – I think it is safe to say that Butcher wrote one long book that he decided to split in half and Peace Talks got all the setup. This isn’t a good book.

Despite being fairly empty of substance, it’s still fun to be back in the world of Harry Dresden. I was actually curious as a lot has changed in the fantasy landscape since these books were still regularly coming out. Butcher’s treatment of female characters has always been a little problematic, and I was excited to see that he seems to have fixed some of these issues. Female characters have more agency and depth, and while they do still talk about sex A LOT it isn’t the only thing they talk about anymore. At the same time, Dresden’s stance on the opposite gender has not aged well, and I do not think the earlier books in this series would survive a time capsule unscathed. Also, I never really noticed this before but every description that Butcher makes of character seems to comprise two features from a pool of four options. People are either over 6’5” or under 5’, and they are either jacked as a brick wall or so lean you could cut yourself on their bones.

I had fun reading Peace Talks, I enjoy being in this world. However, this was not Butcher’s best work and I enjoyed it in the way one enjoys a trashy romance novel. I am glad Dresden is back, but this belongs at the bottom of the series’ rankings. Hopefully, the follow-up novel in a few months will deliver where Peace Talks fumbled, otherwise I might need to reassess my love for Chicago’s only openly-practicing wizard.

Rating: Peace Talks – 4.0/10
-Andrew

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10
-Alex  

The Obsidian Tower – A Tall Success

50147675._sx0_sy0_The Obsidian Tower, by Melissa Caruso, is the first in a new spinoff series set in the Tethered Mage world. Normally, I am not one for spinoff series; I enjoy jumping into new worlds rather than returning to ones I know for what is often a B-list version of the original series I liked. However, in Caruso’s instance, I made an exception as she continued to expand the scope of her world and story from the original series and left a lot of room for exploration. In addition, her writing quality has improved with each book she has put out, and I was curious to see if this trend continued. So I decided to dig into The Obsidian Tower, and am happy to say it is a delightful book filled with delicious mysteries.

If you are new to Melissa Caruso’s work I recommend you start with her first book The Tethered Mage (reviewed here). But, if you just can’t wait to read The Obsidian Tower, it is a completely standalone series set sometime after Caruso’s initial series. Caruso’s world is one of rampant dangerous magic and antagonistic empires that love political cloak and dagger shenanigans. The protagonist of Obsidian is Ryx, a royal mage whose job is to guard the aforementioned obsidian tower that has been in her family for generations. No one knows what is inside it or what it does, but the family lore is quite clear on what her duties are – don’t let it be opened. Unsurprisingly, Ryx fails at this duty almost immediately at the start of the book, and the tower is breached. But what Ryx finds inside is confusing and puzzling, and sets off an exciting investigation as to what the purpose of the tower was and why was it sealed.

Caruso’s original series was primarily a political drama, with some romance splashed in on the side. The Obsidian Tower is a mystery book first, with a large side of political drama. I really enjoy this genre change-up and actually think that Caruso is a stronger mystery writer than she is a romance writer. The tower is a fun enigma, and I was very much invested in pulling apart its secrets. Caruso is very skillful in how she parcels out information, and the pacing of the book is excellent, constantly sitting at a low burn.

In addition, Ryx is an excellent protagonist who brings a lot to the table. For starters, she is a viviomancer – a magic-user whose power is directly entwined with the land her family controls. It is a unique and interesting magic that was used primarily by the antagonists in Caruso’s first series, and it is definitely fun seeing it used from the POV of the characters you are rooting for in Obsidian. Ryx has the added complication of her magic being “broken.” She had an accident while growing up, and it caused her magic to somehow go wrong. Now she is a magical Midas, siphoning the life energy out of anything near her and killing literally everything she touches. Caruso did a lot more with this premise than I was expecting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the story. Ryx essentially has to live like a combination of a cripple and leper – using specialized tools that she can’t break with her power and never coming near another human for fear of killing them. There is a nice exploration of what this does to her emotionally and I really enjoyed hearing a story from someone in this POV. A+ protagonist, sign me up for more.

However, I was less impressed with the supporting cast in Obsidian, especially compared to Caruso’s first series. The side characters consist of primarily three groups: 1) Ryx’s family members and servants, 2) envoys and ambassadors from various other political powers who are in her home for a summit, and 3) an independent group of mages from different countries who investigate magical disasters like a fantasy United Nations. There were a few interesting individuals from each of the three groups, but I found most of the supporting cast forgettable and wish they had more depth (like the large support cast in Caruso’s first series did). On the other hand, the worldbuilding and prose continue to improve with every book Caruso writes. Obsidian benefits massively from the groundwork that the previous series laid, but does a fantastic job expanding the maps and magic of the world. The prose is slightly better and I am constantly impressed by Caruso’s drive to improve and streamline her writing.

Overall, The Obsidian Tower is a great spinoff and fun for new and old fans of Caruso’s writing. The book is packed with fun mysteries and a highly original protagonist with a unique POV. The pacing and prose are good and I found almost nothing to complain about. The Quill to Live gives a warm recommendation that you check out The Obsidian Tower, and also Caruso’s previous books if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Rating: The Obsidian Tower – 8.5/10
-Andrew