The Grace of Kings – There But For The Grace of The Gods, Kings Go

A little while ago I heard about a short story called The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (click here) that was going around and impressing a lot of people that I take seriously. I am not a huge short fiction person myself, but I thought what the hell, it isn’t that long I will just read it over lunch at work. Thus began a day where I had to explain to about 10 coworkers why I was sobbing at my desk like a child whose dog just died. It is a very impressive emotional piece and it put me on the watch for Ken Liu and made his future work a must buy. Thus, when Ken Liu debuted his first major novel, The Grace of Kings, to raving reviews I found myself very excited to pick it up.

The Grace of Kings is a history of a world more than anything else. The book follows a variety of viewpoints ranging from lowly peasant to all powerful deities as they all shape history around them. The story takes place on a large group of islands that are all divided into a series of nations, each with their own patron god with a set of attributes that they represent. The gods are much like the Greek pantheon, each an embodiment of things such as war, agriculture, wisdom, flight, etc. and each squabbling with all their siblings for supremacy. We start at the end of a war where one of the nations, their people, and their patron god, have subjugated the rest of the islands and established themselves as kings of all. As you would expect, the other nations and the rest of the pantheon are not partial to this situation and shortly after the book begins a new war is brewing.

The Grace of Kings is most definitely an epic fantasy, but it brings a lot of new things to the table. As I mentioned before the book reads like a history. There are no real good guys or bad guys in the book. There are certainly favorites, but there are about 15 different “sides” to really choose from. The book often feels like a twisted and perverted version of a game night for the gods. A ritual period of time put aside where the deities test their mettle against one another by using their unseen influence to try and help their people establish dominance. While it sounds like a fun time for the gods, it results in war, oppression, death, and despair for most of the people caught in their machinations. However, not all people are smothered by the play of the gods. For the champions of the gods, the kings of the various factions, fortunes are just as likely to rise to epic proportions as they are to fall. The stories of these various kings, with their rise to and fall from grace (see what I did there), make up the majority of the story.

The setting of these conflicts is well done and refreshing. The style blends a mix of Eastern and Western influences to create something I have heard referred to as “Silk-punk”. There are both elements of Asian settings and a healthy dose of steam-punk technology to create a unique island world. Despite my comparison to the Greek pantheon, the Gods of the islands are a really interesting take on deities and leave you wanting more. The topography of the islands is varied, thoroughly thought out, and gives all of the nations different flavors and personalities. In addition, the islands are apparently only the tip of the world and I really look forward to learning more in future books. The books also take place in an age of invention and change, constantly adding new factors and elements to the conflicts. All of this result in a book that is constantly filling you with senses of wonder, surprise, and curiosity.

On the negative side, while all of the factors I have listed about created an incredible world with a breakneck plot, it left me slightly wanting for a better emotional connection with many of the characters. I was very impressed by Ken Liu’s demonstrated ability to forge strong emotional connections in short periods in The Paper Menagerie, but I felt he came up short on that very factor in The Grace of Kings. It is highly likely that the historical viewpoint from which the book is told is a large factor in this, but it still disappointed me slightly as I was very much looking forward to seeing more of a deeply emotional piece.

Despite those complaints, I really enjoyed the book as a whole and am very curious to see where Ken Liu is going to take the next book in the series. Unlike many epic fantasies I have read, Grace of Kings feels like it reaches a pretty definitive stopping point at the end of the book (where I would have been fairly satisfied if it was a standalone). Either way, The Grace of Kings is a good book that showcases a new set of talents for Ken Liu and I look forward to his next work.

Rating: 8.0/10

Standalone Novels: Small Books With Big Stories

I am a sucker for huge sweeping stories. Two of my all time favorite series are The Black Company and Malazan. At about 10 books each, they are masterpieces of world building, plot intricacies, and character development. But they are not good because they are long; they are good despite being overly long. One of the largest criticisms in Sci-fi and (in particular) Fantasy is that books often are just unnecessarily long and that authors waste too much time filling space when they could have had a much better book had it been shortened to a smaller installment. While there are a large number of fantastic trilogies and series, there are a number of  standalones that show that an incredible story can still be accomplished in a much smaller package. Any of the books below are worth checking out and will take you a fraction of the time of a larger series.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson – There were once divine beings in the city of Elantris, god like entities that could accomplish anything. However, one day the city fell and took its inhabitants with it. Elantris is the story of a paradise turned hell. The glowing divine city suddenly became corrupt and now instead of divine powers it’s inhabitants  are granted cursed immortality. They cannot die, but nor do they heal. Any damage done to the body stays, along with the pain. The citizens of Elantris now slowly go insane due to the unrelenting pain they are forced to endure. Occasionally random outsiders will be “blessed” with ascension into the new city. However, with the city’s fall from glory, the blessing has become a death sentence.

The story of Elantris follows a few different characters, but most importantly it shows the story of a newly risen Elantrian named Raoden and the start of his life in the disgraced city. Raoden’s attempts to survive in, and solve the mysteries of, Elantris are fascinating. In addition, the other characters provide a lovely political backdrop to support Raoden’s story and flesh out the creative world. It is a story of tenacity, mystery, and creativity that will have you hooked from page one.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – The future is crap and we ruined the world, but there is still Facebook and World of Warcraft, so who cares? In a post apocalyptic future, humanity has ruined the world but created the ultimate coping mechanism: Oasis. Oasis is part virtual reality, part social media, and part game. It is a tool designed to help people cope with the wasteland that has become their world and provide an escape. The popularity of Oasis has made its creator the richest man in the world – and on his death he left his entire inheritance to whoever can find it hidden inside Oasis.

The story is about the greatest scavenger hunt of all time and a boy who wants it more than anyone. If you have a sense of adventure, like retro videogames, or are looking for something uplifting then this is a good for you. The book is extremely exciting and fun and has a sense of glee that regardless of age will sweep you along for a ride. The scavenger hunt is also in the form of a variety of retro games, so if you are both a reader and a gamer this book with hit a sweetspot.

The Forever War/Armor by Joe Haldeman/John Steakley – First off I am aware there is a sequel to The Forever War, you can pretend it doesn’t exist. These two books by different authors both speak on the same idea: the horror that is war. Both books are about a humanity who has made it to space and is basking in its newfound intergalactic glory. Both books show a humanity that starts space wars for bad reasons (a commentary on the Vietnam War). While both books cover almost all the same aspects of war, they have slightly different focuses.

The Forever War chooses to focus on the pointlessness of war. In this story the combatants are sent light years away from home to fight a war on distant front lines. The problem is that the travel time takes so long that by the time they arrive, the war has changed. The soldiers sign-up, and leave their homes and families who will be long dead and gone by the time they get back. Both the books do a great job of giving you the helplessness of a soldier. In Forever War, the time skips between war fronts are constantly giving soldiers the feeling that despite the horrors they experienced they have accomplished nothing in the long run.

On the other hand Armor chooses to focus on the psychological destruction of soldiers who are trapped on hellish foreign battlefields. Soldiers in this war are wrapped in powerful war machines called armor to help them survive. The armor keeps the soldiers alive in hostile terrain, boosts their combat ability, and most importantly doesn’t let them quit. Armor shows the wear-and-tear on the emotional state of soldiers as they are forced to repeatedly go into combat that they can tell is wrong on a variety of levels, but never quit. The strain on the mind is vividly described and makes you question the worth of the horrors soldiers experience.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – Disclaimer, this book is about as standalone as the original Lord of the Rings book is (it was originally sold as 1 novel). The book is huge, but it is both technically standalone and fantastic so I feel the need to bring it up.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a historical fiction set in England during the Napoleonic wars. The story follows two English gentlemen in an age where magic is dead. Once long ago, magic was freely practiced as a pastime, but overtime died off until it ceases to exist. Norrell is the world’s last practicing magician and Strange is the first new magician to enter the world in ages. The story follows them as they work both together and individually to return magic to England and to win the war against Napoleon.

This is a weird book to recommend because for some it will be their favorite book, and for others it will be “not their thing”. However, either way the book accomplishes some pretty daring things. For starters the setting, prose, and history is very well done and beautiful to read but the big draw to this book is it is written as an actual history book. By this I mean, the book has footnotes out the wazoo referring to fake other texts, it has citations from fake historical magicians in the world, and it is written in the historical narrative perspective. As someone who just spent a lot of time in graduate school it was incredible to see a book that so well mimicked an academic text in fantasy form and really pumped up my enjoyment of the book. For others, they will read it and have no idea why this style is so appealing to weirdos like me.

Any Standalone by Guy Gavriel Kay – Guy Gavriel Kay has a variety of plots amongst his plethora of standalone novels, but they all have a similar overarching feel: far eastern fantasy with a hard hitting emotional journey. Guy Gavriel Kay wins the author award for getting me to cry in the shortest period of time in a book. I feel like an apt comparison is his books feel like the move Up by Pixer: utterly heartbreaking but incredibly uplifting at the same time. The books take on a slower and more dramatic pace, but the amount they accomplish in their short stories is nothing short of extraordinary.

Monsters of Elsewhere – Giving You Respect For The Monster Under Your Bed

I am on a bit of a self publishing kick for no particular reason. This choice has led me to read some really great unknown gems, and some books that have not made it into posts as they are not worth mentioning. Today I want to talk to you about a new self published book on the great side that you have likely never heard of: Monsters of Elsewhere by Matthew Waldram.

Monsters of Elsewhere is a standalone book about a pair of humans that get pulled into a parallel world to our own in a sort of Chronicles of Narnia/The Magicians fashion. But that is essentially where the comparison ends. The plot follows both of the humans as they try to make their way back to their own world, and a monster as he tries to sort out the problems in Elsewhere. The plot is fairly standard, but is told in a method I found quite refreshing. Matthew opted for more of a straightforward, and less whimsical, approach when describing his fascinating world. Every character feels relatable and human (even the monsters). The magical world, in all its power and beauty, still has the same day-to-day bustle as our own and its inhabitants still have similar problems to us (like a young man having trouble asking out a pretty girl). It creates these incredible senses of both unknown wonder and intense familiarity that I really enjoyed. The book features a race of blue monsters called the Gaetuli that i felt was a tribute to the classic monster under the bed. Matthew then goes on to humanize them in profound and wonderful ways as we learn more about the furry blue people and the journey of one in particular.

Matthew’s writing style has a fun unique tone that I thought was excellent. He has both elements of the satirical hilarity of Terry Pratchett and the biting wit of Scott Lynch that give his writing its own great voice. He is excellent both at prose and at dialogue, and many of the conversations in the book reminded me of how I would talk with my close friends. The character development is great and I felt that the characters all changed in their own way as they dealt with  their own personal problems and journey. In addition, the world building was just phenomenal. As mentioned before, Matthew did a wonderful job blending the real and unreal to create a world that I could readily picture but that was also filled with interesting magic, animals, and sights to behold. While I really enjoyed the book in its standalone form, I would love to revisit the world and continue learning more about it.

On the other hand, one of my major complaints with this book was the pacing. The speed at certain parts of the book felt like a crawl, and at others a mad dash. I felt the book would have benefited from a slightly smoother pace and possibly from a little less time with the characters when they are young. I would have enjoyed diving into the adult lives of the characters first, as the adult sections of the book are much more endearing that the children ones. In addition, I feel that some of the potential of the book is not fulfilled as Matthew did not fully explain or explore a few of the cooler things in the book. A couple great opportunities for action and world building are missed that could have topped off the otherwise stellar book.

However, regardless of my minor complaints, Matthew does a great job creating a new world with a fast paced and smile inducing plot. His writing style defies comparison and does an impressive job painting the monsters of another world as startlingly human. If you are looking for something new that forges its own path, I recommend Monsters of Elsewhere.

Rating: 7.5/10

Knight’s Shadow – A Thick Second Chapter in a Heartfelt Story

I like to think of myself as a fairly harsh critic. I think I have an eye for good world building, character development, plot, etc. and I think I am very fair in how I assess different books perform at these various metrics. That being said, I have noticed an interesting effect when I read a certain kind of book. I find that I am much more forgiving, and much more inclined to give a good review, to books that give me a funny and happier tone. That is not to say that the books are without sadness and suffering, and that is not to say that I prefer books with lighter tones than darker. I just feel that if you are going to tell a story that is really depressing all the time, you have to really nail it or I am going to be harsh. On the other hand, as long as I am laughing and smiling you can pretty much get away with murder.

That being said, allow me to introduce you to Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell. This lovely book comes all the way from Europe, where the author originally published both it, and the previous installment. I believe the US version should be available shortly, but I feel that the UK cover art (on the right below) is worth ordering overseas for (cost me almost nothing extra).

US art                   UK art

Knight’s Shadow is the second installment of the Greatcoats trilogy, a story about a group of magistrates called greatcoats who are tasked with traveling the land, hearing the pleas of the people (great and small) and making sure the law is upheld. They are sort of like duelist lawyers if you will. In Sebastien’s world, the job tends to take the form of telling all powerful dukes to stop oppressing some lowly peasants. So as you might expect, the life of a greatcoat is not easy. What originally drew me to the book is it takes a lot of influence from Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (which you should read if you haven’t). The book follows the travels of three specific greatcoats, and documents their relationship and trials. The books are laugh out loud funny, and the dynamic of the three greatcoats is honestly unmatched for me outside of the gentleman bastards from The Lies of Locke Lamora.

The first book was a fairly straightforward story of the three greatcoats setting off on a quest and trying to complete it. The plot was not the most original, but the hilarity of the dialogue and the genuinely likable characters more than made up for it and helped the book rise to one of my favorite series. I was surprised to see that Knight’s Shadow actually did a lot to make the book less cliche than its predecessor, while also maintaining the clever wit and great dynamic. However, while it made serious headway compared to Traitor’s Blade (book 1), it still is not taking home any awards for most original plot. In addition, the characters are little deeper, have better motivations, have been fleshed out better. On the other hand, this might just be because the book is much longer than Traitor’s Blade, and had more room to work with.

In the end, Knight’s Shadow’s major appeal still comes from the laugh-out-loud funny dialogue and the heartwarming characters that make you smile and cheer. The witty humor is kept fresh and fun throughout this second chapter of the story and helped me move past the few contrived and cliche moments. At the end of the day, the only way to describe these books is that they are simply a good time. If you are looking for something to make you smile, laugh (sometimes cry), and bro out then I recommend this book for you.

Knight’s Shadow Rating: 8.5