What Everyone Can Learn from Agatha Christie

Because I am secretly a 60 year old grandmother, I run a book club. We read mostly fantasy and sci-fi books, but in the spirit of variety we try to throw in books from other genres occasionally. When we were picking our line-up for this year, we decided to look into best selling books that we have never read. To my surprise, there was a book I had never heard of listed in the top selling books of all time – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I had heard of Agatha Christie before, but I know her for her murder mysteries like Murder on the Nile and the Orient Express. After reading the blurb – a book about 10 murderers trapped on an island, where one of the murderers is murdering off the other murderers (basically just a TON of murder) – the book was easily selected into our curriculum and was read this month.

If you do not know Agatha Christie, you should pick up one of her books and give her a try. She writes murder mysteries and is considered both one of the best selling and most talented writers in history. This was my first introduction to her, and I have to say that the praise does not under sell her. I have a firm belief that if a book is overwhelmingly popular with all demographics that there is a pretty strong possibility that it is a great book (with a few exceptions, I am looking at you Twilight). With everyone differing so much in taste it is very impressive that an author could write something that is so universally appealing. To this point, there are a variety of things that everyone can learn from Agatha Christie that made this book so good.

Characterization – Unlike fantasy or sci-fi, Agatha wrote about just regular humans. As such there is a lot less variety to the differences she can ascribe the characters. On top of this, she tends to have a large cast of characters and a fairly short books. Due to this, I expected to get lost in who was who as I shot through the tale. Yet, I had very little trouble in both keeping every character straight and imagining them in all their glory. Agatha was very good at giving characters very identifiable traits and mannerisms that easily distinguished them. I never had any trouble telling my bright-eyed, optimistic, frat boy apart from my weathered, jaded, alcoholic doctor.

Pacing – As the group of murderers on the island shrinks, you would expect it to become harder and harder to maintain a “who did it” environment as the pool of potential suspects would get smaller and smaller. However, Agatha did an incredible job of only revealing facts about the characters at a measured pace so that you can never quite put your thumb on the best suspect. I expected to sit through sections of boring monologuing but it is essentially just a 24 hour murder-fest from start until end.

Hiding in plain sight – I did not guess the murderer correctly. Out of the 10 people on the island
I was not even close. However, something interesting is that of the 10+ people reading the book in the club, no one guessed the correct person. In fact we collectively guessed almost everyone  BUT the murderer. Yet, when we got to the end of the book we realized that there was ample evidence that showed who the murderer was the entire time. Agatha had a way of hiding the truth in plain sight, and letting you overlook the answers  on your own. We spent tons of time with the villain, yet she wrote them in such a way that their inner thoughts seem innocent the entire time.

Terror – Finally, the book is actually scary. That might not seem like a lot, but I find it particularly difficult to build ambiance and terror in a book. For many of us, horror and atmosphere is mostly limited to a visual medium. But Agatha found a way to use little commonplace things to let your imagination scare yourself. And some parts of the book are just unnerving, for example the poem that the book is based on:

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;

One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;

One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;

A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier boys going in for law;

One got into Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;

A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier boys playing with a gun;

One shot the other and then there was One.

One little Soldier boy left all alone;

He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

If I walked into a hotel room and saw this on the wall (each character in the story finds this in their room) I would peace the hell out of that island if I had to swim the English Channel to safety. Agatha’s poetic terror stuck with many in our group well after the story finished.

Agatha Christie feels like an author who transcends genre. Her writing has something that anyone can enjoy and she has created quality work that still easily holds up to this day. Personally, I will be grabbing some of her other well known work to read soon. To any aspiring author, I recommend you give this book a glance to see all of her brilliant technique in action. And to any reader who feels they need a break from their normal book pool, I recommend this book as almost anyone will enjoy it.

Bookclub rating: 7.5

My personal rating: 7.5

The Autumn Republic – Putting the ‘Pow’ in Powder Mage

This Review will be both for The Autumn Republic, and The Powder Mage series as a whole.

The Autumn Republic is the final installment of the Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan, a military fantasy that primarily follows the stories of three main protagonists; Tamas, Taniel, and Adamat. Tamas is the General of an army that just murdered his king in a coup. Taniel is Tamas’s son, and the leading powder mage  in the army. Adamat is a detective trying to protect his family in the chaos of the coup and really just trying to figure out what is even happening around him. The story is well written, exciting, well paced, and has great character development and world building like all great books. However, The Powder Mage is unique and interesting in how it goes about telling its story.

To begin there is the unconventional plot. If I had to describe the plot of The Powder Mage in one sentence, I think it would best be described as ‘putting out a series of increasingly complex fires’. In most stories, you are given an introduction of the cast, told where they stand now (point A), and told where they want to go (point B). The book then proceeds to tell you how that journey is completed or failed. In Promise of Blood, we achieve point B in the first 20 pages. Tamas is tired of his country being under the oppressive thumb of an all powerful king, and organizes a coup to kill the king and save the country. The rest of the series is the characters trying to understand the deep ramifications of what they have done and handle the fallout. Tamas is trying to keep the country from burning to the ground on a high level while Taniel and Adamat investigate where all the fires are coming from. At first events seem random and confusing, but Brian slowly weaves everything into a beautiful tapestry that displays an incredibly cohesive and well planned story.

Pushing that story forward is a group of phenomenal characters that put me in the shoes of people I rarely get to experience. Taniel and Adamat are both interesting, but I want to draw special attention to Tamas. Tamas is one of the few characters I have ever read about that gave me a really unique look at the world as both a father and general. From his perspective I found myself caring for other characters like my children and the fatherly-feel of his tale stuck with me well after I put down the final book. It is also rare for me to read a military book that both paints the military in a good light and does not feel like it was written for readers who were in services. These books are the most immersive I have ever read when it comes to military fiction due to how accessible Tamas and Taniel made it for me.

Then there is the scope. The Powder Mage takes place in a continent with 9 nations, each with their own distinct flavor, history, and story. This story primarily follows the country of Adro, and by The Autumn Republic we have only learned and interacted with about 4 of the other countries in the continent. Despite this, the story is so packed with rich history and culture I did not feel like I was shorted with only the small portion I got to see of Brian’s world. I am usually against additional series in the same worlds (as I feel they often have trouble being fresh and new) but I would happily sign up for several more stories in this place. The Autumn Republic does an incredible job expanding the horizons of the previous two books. However, one of my few complaints about the book is I felt Brian could have kept going even further in The Autumn Republic. I wanted the story to keep going and for there to be more books, if only to learn more about the privileged.

If you are unfamiliar with the books, you might be wondering what powder mages and privileged actually are. The powder mages of Brian’s world are men and women who have a myriad of powers that stem from the use of gunpowder and work primarily for the military. They can control the flight of bullets, detonate powder and control the blast, and even imbibe powder to enhance their physical strength and senses. On the other hand, privileged are elemental mages (Fire, Ice, Earth, etc.) that are mostly tasked with the protection of the kings of each country. These are only two of the schools of magic that Brian introduces in his books, and there are many more. By The Autumn Republic many of these magics are explored and explained to make an world in which there are any number of ways to be a complete and total badass. Speaking of which there is the combat. The combat in these books, in particular The Autumn Republic, is some of the best I have read. Taniel’s nickname is Taniel Two-Shot for his penchant for firing a double loaded musket with horrifying results. Avoiding spoilers, but some of the final fights had me gripping the edge of my seat.

In terms of The Autumn Republic specifically, the book brings the story to a very satisfying end with only a few loose ends. There are a few characters who I would have liked to have more time with and learn a little more about before this story came to an end. However, there is certainly room in the plethora of wonderful novellas that Brian puts out to give their stories the final boosts that I am looking for.

If you have been to my recommendations page, you might have seen I listed The Powder Mage as one of my all time highest ‘must reads’, even when there were only 2 books out. The final installment of the trilogy has succeeded in cementing the series in that list and has made me a lifelong fan of Brian’s work. If you are looking for a one of a kind reading experience, I hope my words have convinced you to go pick up Promise of Blood for the first time or to grab The Autumn Republic and finish this great story.

Rating: The Autumn Republic – 8.5/10
The Powder Mage – 9.0/10

Forging Divinity – Like a Better Dragonlance

Once upon a time, a much younger me decided that it had been far too long since I read a book. I wandered into a Barnes and Noble and perused the shelves until I found a book that sounded cool. I picked up The Black Company with no prior knowledge, took it home and discovered one of the best stories I have ever read in my entire life.

The moral of this story is that you don’t have to read the most popular, the most current, or the greatest books out there to have a magical reading experience. The Black Company is a masterpiece of writing in my opinion, but I have picked up many a lesser book with no prior knowledge and had a lovely experience with them despite them being often unpolished and in need of a little love. This leads me into this review for Forging Divinity, not a perfect book but a book I enjoyed.

Forging Divinity is a high fantasy novel by Andrew Rowe about 3 characters with a variety of motives and talents in a city sized mess. The book follows Taelin, Lydia, and Jonan as they try to figure out a number of different happenings surrounding the city of Orlyn, a mysterious legendary sword, and a local pantheon. The plot is not this book’s strongest point. The motivations and causes of each character are sometimes a little hard to parse and I had a little difficulty keeping track of the various allegiances and agendas.

Where this book shines is with its interesting magic and amusing characters. The book has a well-crafted magic system that piqued my curiosity and kept me engaged. Rowe occasionally goes a tad too deep in his explanations of the workings of his magic. A few times I felt like I was reading a DnD manual on how to use spells, but for the most part I found myself thinking of possible combinations of magic and new spells I would weave in the world. I appreciate that Rowe varied his characters talents so that there is a nice mix of mystical workings on each page.

Also, the characters are genuinely amusing. More than once I found myself laughing out loud at various pieces of dialogue or found myself smiling as someone talked. On the other hand there are a few awkward conversations that could have used a little more polishing, but on the whole I would give Rowe a spot on my small list of authors who make me laugh.

One of my favorite things about the book is the way Rowe wrote his pantheon. Much like Dragonlance, Rowe avoid metaphorical mythical deities in favor of the more “melt your city if you annoy them” variety. As a big mythology buff, this style of story was right up my alley and I really enjoyed the attention and personalities that Rowe gave some of the gods that showed up in the story.

Verdict: I enjoyed the book and I would read the sequel, but it would not be a priority. In future books I would enjoy a slightly clearer plot and a little less textbook explanations of magic. That being said, Rowe definitely has some talent and I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Rating: 5.0/10

Vicious – Setting New Bars for Awesome Super Powers and Terrible College Roommates

Vicious by Victoria Schwab

To begin, this is a good book. You should buy this book and subsequently read this book. But first, let’s talk about what it is and why this is a good book.

Background – Vicious is the story of two brilliant college roommates, Eli and Victor, who go on a quest to discover if super powers are real and if so, how to obtain them. The story takes place in two timelines: one 10 years in the past where the two work together to obtain their powers and the other in the present where Victor has just escaped jail (so you can probably guess how well the past section goes) and is ruthlessly planning the downfall of his once friend, Eli, with the help of his unlikely allies. The book slowly brings the two timelines together until the entire story moves into the present towards the end of the book.

What I love about this book – Vicious does an enormous number of things right. Both Eli and Victor are neither villains nor heroes as much as they are just boys trying to become something greater. Their stories have a gritty realism that takes the comic book style story and pulls it into the real world. Most characters are given love and attention (including the smaller side ones) and you get a really good look into most of the minds of the players in the game. Particular attention is given to Victor Vale, who I found was far from a normal  protagonist. He is certainly an anti-hero but does not seem unnecessarily vehement or unpleasant given his circumstances.

Victor Vale trading card given by V. E. Schwab to reviewers

Victor Vale trading card given by V. E. Schwab to reviewers

The creative choices Schwab makes in the book stretched my imagination and fueled my curiosity to know more about her fantasy world. Most of the powers are unusual for superhero stories and the execution and versatility with which the characters use their powers would have kept me reading all by itself. In addition, the methods behind gaining powers are really well explored. There are some deep implications for how people get their powers and Schwab does an amazing job showing the change, for better or worse, that these people go through with their new found abilities.

Finally, the book as a whole is really well-written. The prose is excellent and the plot is well-paced. While short by fantasy standards, it is very fulfilling and fully written. I appreciated how contained and streamlined Victor and Eli’s story was. There is a ton of room for Schwab to continue the story and world, but Victor and Eli’s stories come to a satisfying close.

What I did not love about this book – Not much. As I said, I give this book a pretty positive recommendation. There were only two problems I had with the story. First, Schwab spends a good deal of time in the book telling us that Eli is a monster in a mask and not enough time showing us. That is not to say, ample evidence of Eli’s inner darkness wasn’t provided, but I would have liked to see a little less “he has something dark inside” and a little more of that darkness surfacing. Second, I would have liked to know slightly more about the reaction of the police in the story who were confronted with super powered humans. I was very curious about their thoughts on two demigods going to town on one another, but there is always room for it in future novels.

The Verdict – My verdict for Vicious is that upon finishing the book, I immediately purchased Victoria Schwab’s other series, A Darker Shade of Magic. She is an incredibly talented writer and I hope you all pick up a copy of this book when you have a chance.

Score: 7.5/10

Maps: A Discussion with Brian Staveley

The Map for The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Written by Brian Staveley. Drawn by Isaac Stewart.

Maps – They are one of the most basic elements of fantasy books and something almost everyone enjoys. I had the extremely good fortune to chat with the incredibly talented Brian Staveley, author of The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire, about what he thinks maps add to fantasy books. We discussed two questions:

  1. What is the goal of a map in fantasy?
  2. Do maps make a promise that the author should do their best to keep?

To begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge both Brian Staveley and Isaac Stewart’s work on the map in The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The map’s level of detail, variety of terrain and accuracy of scale are all impressive and effectively brought this fantasy world to life. When I asked Staveley if his map was something he put a lot of work into, or if he was just a naturally gifted cartographer, he replied:

“I’m a fool for maps. I refused to use the GPS — I have a road atlas instead. Whenever I go somewhere new, I need to look at the map. My sport of choice over the last decade or so has been adventure racing — which involves finding your way from place to place using a map and compass. Given all that, I was pretty invested in the map-making for my own world, and I spent a lot of time as I write actually using that map. I’m constantly calculating things like ship speed and Kettral speed and horse speed over all different sorts of terrain in all different conditions. If the events of the book don’t fit the map, you’re breaking the promise you made to the reader.”

But why is a map so important to get right? In my opinion, it feels like a map’s purpose is first and foremost to anchor the reader’s immersion in the new world. It is the key to understanding locations and quickly grasping fundamentals in a book such as going east is harder than going west. It allows the reader to see for themselves that there is a river to be forded and helps get into the mind of characters. A map is also important because it makes topography permanent. When there is not a map, authors have a lot more liberty with locations because terrains can be changed and altered. However, when you have a map, suddenly landscapes become permanent and cannot change to make journeys easier to write. A map makes a world more real and less able to bend to the writer’s whim.

Turning to Staveley’s point of view on the primary purpose of a map, he commented:

“I think a map does a few important things. The first is the most prosaic: a map makes things easier on both the reader and the writer. The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words seems to dramatically underestimate the worth of maps. I’d put a good map somewhere around ten thousand words. Any book worth its salt can stand without the map, but the map allows a writer to convey a wealth of information very efficiently. More, it puts most of the geographical information in the same place. Instead of asking the reader to stitch together two dozen passages scattered throughout the novel in order to get an accurate sense of the world, the map puts all that information in the same place.

So that’s what a map does literally. Metaphorically, however, the map is a promise to the reader. It’s no coincidence that almost all fantasy maps come at the start, before the text itself, rather than in an appendix or afterword. The fantasy map promises that the book contains a new world (or an interesting version of a familiar world), one that is rich, varied, and fully imagined, and that the world will be explored over the course of the story to follow.”

But, then I ask, does a map promise more than just new world? I would argue that some authors are too aggressive in their scope and map out entire worlds that they have no intention of exploring in their novels. In some cases, I believe that it can leave the reader frustrated and unfulfilled to see large areas of land that are never mentioned and never explained, doomed to fade into descriptions like “that area to the north that we know nothing about.” Should authors feel obligated to shine light on every corner of their map? When I asked Staveley his thoughts on the matter he said:

“In making my map, I wanted to create a world with enough scope to tell this story, and other stories to follow. While we won’t explore the whole thing during the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, we’ll get a good look at almost all this terrain in the next five years or so. I could have waited until I got to those stories to expand the map (and, indeed, I’ve left room for expansion to the south and east, and over the pole), but I wanted even the small references I make in this trilogy (to places like Freeport, for instance) to fit with other tales to come, tales that might actually be set in Freeport. That meant I had to imagine this entire section of the world in one go.”

I think Staveley makes an excellent argument for large sweeping maps with unexplored land. I think he also shows there is a difference between leaving white space for future books and making an overly large map simply to shock and awe. Does that mean that authors cannot expand maps? Of course not. Series like Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Half a King by Joe Abercrombie do a great job expanding their maps as their stories progress, and it works incredibly well for them. However, there is something to be said for an author who shows you their entire atlas at the beginning of their story and gets you excited about every single river, valley, mountain range and kingdom you are going to explore and visit. Regardless, maps are important. As an author, you should give a map the time and attention it needs to be a visual representation of your novel. As a reader, you should pay attention to these beautiful works of art because a good map will make you appreciate every mile on a road.

P.S. I want to give special credit to any author who takes the time to provide mini-maps of cities. Huge sweeping maps of the world are less useful if a novel spends 90% of its time confined behind some walls.