Armada – A Great Idea With Not Enough Substance

Ernest Cline is one of my favorite authors. Ever since his release of Ready Player One I have been impressed with his talent for getting a giant and exciting story in such a small package. His next book, Armada, is in a really unfortunate spot in the minds of readers. It is following in the shadow of Ready Player One, one of the best stand alone novels I have ever read, and has a plot reminiscent of Ender’s Game, one of the most iconic sci-fi novels of all time. When being compared to these two book, readers have had a lot of very high expectations of Armada that I think are a little unfair. Armada is its own novel, and for better or worse does a great job of differentiating itself.

The plot of Armada is aliens are invading, and the only people who can stop them are the best gamers in the world. The book is seen through the eyes of Zach lightman a teenager with a natural gift for gaming. While it may sound stupid, the book its actually quite cleverly written with an interesting plot and a rather serious take on how video games could be used to train pilots. Within this simple idea is a book that is a much a nerd love letter as is a sci-fi novel. The book is steeped in pop culture, gaming, and general comic culture to the point where I think it could be accused of pandering. However, as someone who loves to engage in many of those forms of media I actually found it endearing and fun as opposed to offputting. As usual, Ernest Cline is a master of the small details and the inside of the hardback dust cover has beautiful schematics for the main ship of the story. In addition, the back of the book contains a real music play list that is referenced throughout the book. It is the little things that make Ernest Cline one of the most fun writers around and I will forever be excited whenever I hear him announce a new book.

However, even with all of these things going for it, Armada came up short for me. Armada had a really good idea behind it. I was intrigued, impressed, and thought that the ending was superb. The problem is I feel like the only thing in the book is the idea behind the plot. Not a whole lot actually happens in the book. There is entirely too much build up and not enough payoff for the time investing. I think this really hit me when I finished the book, and the ending felt like a really good setup for a sequel with a lot more weight. The book takes place on Earth, so there really isn’t a lot of world building. I enjoyed the main character, and found his quirks refreshing in a world of noble orphans. However, Zach is not especially deep and it felt like too much of the backbone of his character was built on being a generic nerd.  The book was still really fun, but I did not think it was fun enough to make up for the lack of substance in the early to mid parts of the story.

I find myself in a rare spot with this review of Armada. It certainly isn’t bad; it has charm, quirk, fun and spirit, but there simply isn’t enough there. I love how Cline continues to nail the little things in his presentation, and I would certainly buy a sequel if he ever wrote one. Nonetheless, Armada is a near miss for me and I will simply have to eagerly await Ernest Cline’s next book to find what I was looking for.

Rating: 6.0/10.0

12 Kings In Sharakhai – A Raw Diamond In The Desert

In recent years we have been seeing a surge in arabian nights-esque fantasy, which I am 100% down with. With series like The Warded Man, The Golem and Jinni, and Throne of the Crescent Moon, lots of authors have been using desert lore to craft awesome stories. I personally think the world needs more badasses in a Middle Eastern setting and that I hope this new subgenre of fantasy continues to grow at its current rate. There hasn’t been a real contender for an epic fantasy yet, but it looks like 12 Kings in Sharakhai is stepping up to fill that spot.

12 Kings is the story of Ceda, Emre, and a variety of other side characters as they live in the city of Sharakhai – jewel of the desert. Sharakhai is a city founded by 12 kings of 12 tribes after they tired of wandering the desert in a nomadic style, and, instead, decided it would be better to set up shop. A large portion of the 12 tribes do not like this, due to the lack of respect for what they deem the correct method of living, and form a coalition of sorts to bring down the kings. Unfortunately for the coalition, the kings have aces up their sleeves such as multiple sects of fanatical warriors, some sort of undead lich minions, blessings from the gods, and their own unique talents and gifts making them rather hard to kill. In addition, the kings are rather brutal in their tyrannical ways, dealing out incredibly harsh punishments to those who break their strict laws. While I would certainly not call them evil overlords, they also could not really be described as benevolent. The kings are complex and interesting, and I really enjoy them as “villains” in this great book.

On the other side of the coin, we have the aforementioned Ceda and Emre. Both are orphaned street urchins with vendettas against the kings. While they sound like tried and true fantasy tropes, I found both characters to be complex and interesting. Ceda is a pit fighter in Sharakai’s glorious fighting arena, where she battles for money and glory. Emre is a charismatic shopkeeper of sorts, who slowly uses his talents and winning smile to insinuate himself into the major factions at war. Ceda definitely takes the lion’s share of the limelight at the start of the book, but as the book progresses the time spent with various viewpoints balances out. The city itself is well developed and captivating. Each chapter teaches you more and more about customs and areas of the metropolis, and I found myself constantly desiring to see what was around each corner.

However, I did have a major complaint about the story: the beginning felt extremely slow. For the first fifth of the book I felt like I was slogging through a mess of detail and nuances about the lives of Ceda and Emre that didn’t really interest me. There were a few moments of brilliance in the beginning chapters, but the books did not really pick up for me until the reader is introduced to the kings at around 20% in. It felt kind of like reading Harry Potter, but lingering too long at the Dursleys.

That being said, you are still getting a grand Arabian adventure. Once the plot picks up it really hits its stride, teaching you about the kings and providing some truly interesting mysteries. Poetry, which I usually dislike, is heavily featured as a plot point and used in an ingenious manner to further the plot and mystery of the book. Ceda is a great lead character, and provides me with a new example of a great female leads. All in all, despite its slow start this book finishes as one of my favorites of the year and I will certainly pick up the sequel the moment I can get my hands on it.

Rating: 8.0/10

Queen of Fire – An Explosive End To A Great Trilogy

This week I finished up The Raven’s Shadow Trilogy by Anthony Ryan, with Queen of Fire. In preparation for the final book, I also reread the first two books in the series Blood Song and Tower Lord. In doing so I gained some valuable insight into rereading books that I want to share with all of you. The mind-blowing insight is essentially that sometimes rereading a book makes you like it a lot more. I know, your mind is blown. Rereading Tower Lord caused me to increase my rating of the book by a noticeable amount, but first let’s talk about Blood Song.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Blood Song is a fast paced story about a boy taken into a military order as a child.  He is then raised to be a member of an elite group of warriors whose purpose is to protect their country from harm. It is also one of my favorite books ever. The book has the school element that Harry Potter and Name of the Wind do so well combined with a squad of well developed and interesting characters. The first book is completely from the perspective of one character, Vaelin, and details a good portion of his life, often jumping forward many years at a time as the book goes on. The book is exciting and suspenseful, the plot is well written, the world building is excellent, and the book is beloved by numerous fantasy fans young and old. Additionally, it has some of the best fighting and action around. If you have not read Blood Song yet, I recommend you check out this book beloved by almost all who read it.

Then we have Tower Lord. The second book in the Raven’s Shadow trilogy had a much more mixed reaction, with fans usually having very polar reviews of the book. I believe that much of the dislike for the book stems from a dramatic change in narration style; going from one perspective to four. Many fans grew very attached to Vaelin, and were upset to see him share the limelight with three other characters. Which is a damn shame, because the other POVs are all just as amazing. When I initially read Tower Lord, I fell into the disappointed camp. After waiting such a long time to hear more of Vaelin’s story, I found the other POV’s an annoying distraction. In addition, Anthony Ryan does not hold any hands when it comes to remembering who characters are. This becomes particularly important in both Tower Lord and Queen of Fire, as tons of minor characters that I put out of my mind turn out to be important to the plot. These two factors negatively colored my experience with the book, and I ended up thinking it was a subpar sequel to one of my favorite books.

Then I reread Blood Song and Tower Lord. The second time around, without the baggage, I think I would say that Tower Lord is possibly a better book than Blood Song. The sequel has almost everything Blood Song did, with a few bonuses. While the pace is a little slower, the book more than makes up for it with three fantastic new points of view and a complexity that was absent in the first book. Tower Lord opens the story to the more central plot that took a back seat to Vaelin’s journey to adulthood in the first book. Through the eyes of all four characters the world and cast is greatly expanded without losing any of the world building, action, and excitement. I recommend rereading Tower Lord like I did if you did not enjoy it the first time around.

This brings us to the final installment of the Raven’s Shadow, Queen of Fire. To continue pounding this message in, definitely reread the first two books before starting. If you feel like you could use a book summary or glossary as you read it, your memory of the first two books is probably not sharp enough to fully enjoy it. Some of you might not care about this, but I wanted to enjoy the finale to one of my series as much as possible. Queen of Fire is in five point of views, expanding the cast of Tower Lord with one additional voice. I think it would be best if I avoid any spoilers, so I will simply tell you it is good. The book kicks off right from the start with a few great twists and keeps them going all the way through. Queen of Fire shows that Anthony Ryan always had a deep and complex story planned from the start, and that Blood Song was certainly just the opening chapters. The pacing remains fast and the action rises to new heights of intensity. Overall I thought it an excellent end to the trilogy.

That being said, there were a few minor things I didn’t like, but not enough to meaningfully impact my overall experience with the book. There were a few moments of what felt like forced character development for one or two of the POV’s. In those instances, it felt as if Anthony Ryan wanted to get the characters to a specific place before the end of the book but didn’t know how to do it. In addition, the scope of some of the final fights between armies were a little too large for me to fully grasp. I think that Anthony Ryan is a king of combat description when it comes to individual players, but his larger battle field descriptions are not quite on the same level.

However, even with these minor complaints I still loved the book start to finish. I have been seeing a lot of negative reviews for the book pop up and I don’t quite understand how people disliked it so much if they enjoyed the previous two novels. If you have not started Blood Song you should. If you didn’t like Tower Lord the first time, maybe you should give it another shot. If you are about to start Queen of Fire, make sure you have read the first two recently and enjoy the conclusion to a great story.

Rating Blood Song: 9.5/10

Rating Tower Lord: old – 8/10 new – 9.5/10

Rating Queen of Fire: 9.0/10

Memoirs of Lady Trent – Because Sometimes I Just Want To Read About Dragons

There are tons of elements in writing that draw me to a book; from great characters, to an exciting plot, to an incredible world, etc. The Memoirs of Lady Trent have two of my favorite ones, an interesting take on writing style and dragons. Marie Bennen has fused two of my favorite things in fantasy to create a book that is more anthropological journal than novel. At the time of writing this I have only read the first two of the books in the series of four (A Natural History of Dragons, and The Tropic of Serpents), but I already feel strongly enough to recommend the entire series and here is why:

Lets start with a discussion of the more simple of the two elements I mentioned, dragons. Dragons are the poster children of fantasy. Like many, my introduction to the fantasy genre was through The Hobbit where I fell in love with Smaug, and have adored dragons ever since. I do not think it is a requirement of a fantasy fan to like dragons, but I feel confident saying that a dislike of dragons is probably rare among fantasy readers. The Memoirs of Lady Trent are in my opinion the best tribute to dragons I have ever read. The books are quite literally about a woman who is obsessed with dragons in the way that many young girls get obsessed with ponies, and they document her life travelling the world as an adventurer and naturalist as studies them. Marie Brennen has created a living and breathing world of dragons, the most alive one I have ever read. From the different breeds, to the habitats they live in, to the cultures surrounding them, every aspect of the world is well developed and given an impressive amount of detail. It is so clear that the author and the protagonist love dragons, that I could not help but have some of my passion for the creatures stoked as well. These books made me want to go out and explore the world, while also sad that nothing as grand as dragons exist in our own.

The second major draw of this for me is a little more complicated. So a lot of my favorite books take on unique storytelling methods that make reading the book into a special kind of experience. Two examples of this are, The Black Company and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The Black Company is the story of a mercenary company from the historian’s perspective, and as such gives you a very limited view of events. The book is told from a first person perspective and does not show you lots of things that are happening behind the scenes. This creates an immersive experience that sucks you into the book and makes it feel like you are actually there. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book is written like a historical text, complete with footnotes and references to fictional magical sources. This gives the sense that you are actually reading the history of a people, not just a novel. In a similar manner, the Memoirs of Lady Trent are styled as part field journal and part autobiography of Lady Trent. But what does that mean?

By now you have hopefully gotten slightly curious about the sketches throughout this post. These sketches litter the books and help illustrate the findings and travels of Lady Trent as she explores other lands and documents her findings. I found them to add a surprisingly large amount of story telling as almost always when Lady Trent stops to observe something significant, there is a stylized sketch to accompany it. In addition, the story is told from both the first person perspective and with side narration of important background information by Lady Trent. It gives the real sense that someone is telling you the story of her life, and that life was awesome. The narration is less smooth than other books I have read, but gives the very real feeling that these are the scientific journals and lifestory of a real person. I have yet to read fantasy books that gave me a similar experience, and it would be worth checking them out just to see if this style appeals to you.

While I think it should be obvious that I am going to recommend this book by now, there were a few things I did not love about the books. There is a heavy gender role element to the story (primarily a woman breaking the mold of what society deems proper for her) that felt a bit heavy handed to me at first. I will say that it decreases significantly as the books go on, but is always present. In addition, I am doubly thankful for the book sketches because sometimes the descriptive detail is overwhelmingly dense and can overload the mind trying to picture written scenes. However, as I continued the books I found that I grew used to these elements and took them as they came, reducing any significant impact they had on my reading enjoyment.

In sum, if you love dragons or are looking for a different kind of book, I highly recommend the Memoirs of Lady Trent. I would have picked up these books for their gorgeous cover art alone, but found their insides to be as grand as the outside.

Rating: A Natural History of Dragons – 7.0/10

Rating: The Tropic of Serpents – 8.0/10