Radiance – Where do I Start….

18490533Radiance, by Catherynne Valente, is one of the strangest books I have ever read in the best way possible. For starters, I quit this book three times before I finished it. Despite that, I am extremely happy that I ended up sticking it out until the end. The book is one-of-a-kind, and very hard to categorize. Despite this, I am going to do my best to give you a good idea of the book so that you can try and decide if it is for you.

So what is Radiance? Radiance is part biography, part eulogy, part murder mystery, and all parts film. The book explores a world set in the 1900’s where humanity populated the solar system with steampunk-esk technology (called “decopunk” for lack of easy categorization) and started an intergalactic Hollywood. In this Universe of blockbuster films, the book follows the story of a daughter of a famous film maker, Severin, as she breaks away from traditional movies and starts to make the first documentaries. At the start of the book you are told that she very successfully made five documentaries, all on the mysteries in the solar system, and that the final film was a disaster resulting in her death. The book is the story of her life, a eulogy from her family and friends, and slow break down of the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. All of this is contained in a book that is also a gigantic monument to the beauty of film making. If you have even a passing interest in film, this book will be a must read for you. The book revels in the glory of film making, and does an incredibly job of showcasing the power of movies.

In addition to its eclectic subject matter, Radiance uses an impressive number of methods to narrate the story: radio broadcasts, commercials, diaries, interviews, scripts, memoirs, classic dialogues, and of course movies are all used to narrate the story and explore the world. The variety of styles is impressive, even more so due to the fact that each has different visual styles and cues (the book itself is gorgeous). Unfortunately, while impressive this is also the start of some of my problems with the book. While the myriad of styles is fun, there is a lack of consistent quality with them. I found I always liked the movies, commercials, and dialogues more than other narrative styles. This may be due to a difference in quality, or it might just be due to preference, but either way it is very likely that most readers will have a fairly inconsistent experience and opinion of the book as they read through. This fragmented storytelling also kept me from realizing what I was reading for a pretty long time. The summary I gave at the start of this review was not at all clear at the start of the book. It took me a good 40% of the book before I grasped what I broke down previously.

I also quit the book three times. There is a lot of “fluff” in the writing. A lot of time is spent extolling the virtue and beauty of film making, which is not a subject I particularly identify with. I found the pacing to be inconsistent, with the book occasionally lulling about for multiple chapters in a row with little progress. And yet, despite everything I just said I am incredibly thankful that I stuck it out until the end. The mystery the book is built around is superb, and actually felt like it was worth the slow build. The world is extremely interesting and very well built, and the science and technology is so original that they had to invent a new subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy just to categorize it. On top of all of this, we have Severin. The book stands as a tribute to her life and it does a fantastic job. By the end of the book I felt like I really knew her and was crying for the loss. The book did a great job of actually making me care about her, which made the story all the more powerful.

Radiance just missed my top 10 of 2015, but it was definitely the most original and unique book I have read this year. I think this is possibly the hardest review I have ever done because at the end of the day only you can decide if you want to read this one. I hope this review has provided tools or insight into understanding the book better, but I guess I tentatively recommend Radiance, by Catherynne Valente.

Rating: 7.5/10

P.S. – I want to thank my reader who nominated me for a Stabby on Reddit (vote for The Quill to Live here), it is an honor and I am happy for all of you who have found the site through the voting. As always thanks for reading!

Wrapping Up 2015 With A Facelift

With the year coming to a close, and The Quill to Live approaching its first birthday, I decided it was time to give the site a facelift and update.

The banner has been updated with a collage of my favorite books and their covers and the recommendation page has been updated after a year of new books. Two series have moved down out of tier 1 – Raven’s Shadow and The Powdermage. Raven’s shadow has moved down because while I enjoyed Queen of Fire as its own book, the more I thought about it I didn’t really feel satisfied with it as the trilogies end. It is still an amazing read, just not one of my all time favorites. The Powdermage has moved down simply because I feel it has been eclipsed by one of the series that moved up; The Shadow Campaigns. While both amazing flintlock fantasy, The Shadow Campaigns just has the polish that The Powdermage is lacking, and Price of Valor really stood out to me this year. I have also moved The Lightbringer up, because after a reread I realized that I was criminally underrating it.

There have been a ton of additions that I have read throughout the year, and to the dismay of some of you, the must read list will only get longer. Happy holidays everyone

City of Stairs – The Whole Package

th_b_bennett_cityofstairs_ukTerrible books are easy to review. They do a lot wrong, so there is a lot to point out and talk about. On the other hand, the best books are incredibly hard to review. You have to keep a tight grip on your writing so that it doesn’t simply spew into “go read this now” and helps articulate what about a book makes it so great. It is a trial to remain objective, while also trying to encourage everyone else to stop what they are doing and go read a book. This is the challenge I will attempt in reviewing City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Starting with some background, the plot revolves around a spy investigating a death, tensions between two major countries, and dead gods. The story takes place on The Continent, a dead and dying country that has fallen from grace, its people struggling with their identity after seeing their gods killed. The Continent used to be a miraculous place where anything could happen. Under the benevolence of six gods, the land flourished and reigned supreme. The Continent had a small enslaved colony named Saypur that they ruled with an iron fist. Unfortunately for The Continent, Saypur rose up, killed all the gods, and reversed the master and slave roles. Our story starts a century after the death of the gods where The Continent, bereft of their all powerful deities, has become essentially a massive ghetto run by Saypur. In the opening pages of the story we learn a Saypuri official has been killed, and a covert operative named Shara arrives to investigate the death. The plot is in the style of a murder mystery that slowly unravels as you learn more about the world and is told in a teasing and fast paced manner. It had me unable to put it down from start to finish, but is only one of the many things that makes the book good.

The main cast is formed from the protagonist Shara, and three supporting characters – Vohannes Votrov, Governor Turyin Mulagesh, and Sigrud. Every single one of them places on my top characters of all time list and are all utterly delightful. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history that empowers her to solve the mystery surrounding the book. She is witty, smart, interesting, relatable, and something unique in a fantasy landscape of similar characters. Vohannes, or Voh, was my personal favorite. A noble of a conquered people, he lives a hard life in the name of making his country better. I have seldom cared about a character as much as I did Voh, and a few of his speeches still keep me up at night thinking about them. Sigrud and Mulagesh are more trope-ish than the other two, but are no less fantastic. A stoic warrior with a penchant for doing the unbelievable, and a jaded military veteran who just wants to retire into her earned relaxation. The four of them have a dynamic that lights up every page as they explore the world.

And what a world it is. Bennett has crafted a fantastic new realm that is alive and ever changing. His humorous prose and imaginative design creates a place that piques your curiosity and vividly fills your imagination. With entirely original settings, creatures, and creations I felt like I finished the book with my imagination expanded and filled with new ideas. I have been around the block a few times when it comes to fantasy creations and I could not believe how many new things were packed into this one book. I had fun understanding how things worked, why things happened, and figuring out what I was looking at. Despite being a fantasy book, Bennett did a good job of laying the clues of the story out for you to find if you look hard enough in the true tradition of mystery novels. City of Stairs is a really fun book, but that isn’t its best quality.

The best thing about City of Stairs is that it does all the amazing things above AND it does it all while also managing to be astoundingly deep and thought provoking. The emotional impact of the plot line is not small, and the workings of the world got me thinking a lot about how the real world works. My favorite books are always those that tell stories bigger that the pages they are printed on and City of Stairs hits this dead on. I will unfortunately not tell you what it made me think about as that would spoil the fun, but know that it made me reassess how I live my life and wonder if there was more I could be doing to help those around me.

I was told by many people to read City of Stairs when it first came out, and I foolishly ignored their advice. While not published in 2015, this was definitely the best book I have read this year, and probably for awhile. Do not make the mistake I did and hold off on reading this gem. The Quill to Live ecstatically recommends you go out and read City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Rating – 10/10

Rogues – A Few Gems But Mostly Filler

roguesBefore I start this, let me say that I do not often read anthologies so I may not be the best judge. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Rogues, the anthology being advertised under George R. R. Martin’s banner. The title of the post should give you a fairly succinct summary of my thoughts. There are some really good stories in Rogues but they are surrounded in some places by mediocrity and in others by disappointment. There are too many stories to talk about all of them, so I am going to talk about a few of the key pieces that might make the collection worth purchasing, and a few that left a bad taste in my mouth. There is, however, an individual scoring list at the end of this post for those of you who need to know about every story.

Let’s start with Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie. There is not a more “Joe Abercrombie” story on the face of the planet than this one. This short story follows a package that will be the salvation of anyone who can hold onto it. The story follows the package as it makes its way from person to person, each trying to save their lives to little avail. I love Joe Abercrombie, but it has been awhile since I read some of his work and I had forgotten how truly incredible he is at writing people. This story is roughly 40 pages long and has something like 15 characters. Given about 3 pages each, Abercrombie brings every single one of these characters to life and makes you care about them, it is uncanny. This story made me want to start The First Law all over again and reaffirmed my love of him as an author.

Then we have A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch, which can be found for free here. Where do I even start with this. My first thought when I finished this short story was: I would be ok if Scott never wrote another Gentleman Bastards book and just started a new series on this story. If you haven’t read the Gentleman Bastards (which begins with The Lies of Locke Lamora), stop reading this post and go do it. It is easily in my top 5 series of all time, and might possible be #1. This is why it is no small thing for me to make such a claim of this short. The story follows a group of retired thieves in a whimsical and violently magical world. These thieves have purchased immunity for their past crimes on the condition they never steal again. Unfortunately for our band of criminals, events force them out of retirement for one last job and getting caught will result in a fate worse than death. The new world that Scott builds in just a few pages is one I want to visit badly. His writing continues to be the most funny I have ever read, and his author’s voice charms me better than any rogue could. If you couldn’t read the story for free elsewhere, I would say it was worth getting Rogues just for this.

Next up we have How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman. If you scroll down you will see I only gave this story a 4 out of 5, and might wonder why I would choose it as a key selling point for the book? Gaiman’s short story takes place in the world of his novel Neverwhere, a novel I can’t stand. I found it boring, slow, and unejoyable, so I was ready to burn this short to the ground when I saw the setting. Instead, now I am wondering if maybe I was just in a really bad mood when I read Neverwhere. Gaiman’s short really embodies the essence of being a rogue, with his protagonist the Marquis. The story follows our dapper mysterious gentleman in his quest to get his incredible coat back after a mishap. Using a series of favors and negotiations, the Marquis attempts to barter his way back to his coat while also displaying the full powers of a true rogue. It was a great story that got me into the spirit of the anthology’s theme, and is definitely worth finding if you can.

Finally we have The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss. I wanted to hate this story. I am selfishly mad at Patrick Rothfuss (as many of us are) due to the fact that he hasn’t finished The Kingkiller series yet. As I began this short story about Bast in the same world, I was ready to cast him down and shout “he got lucky, this was terrible” to ease my bitter sad heart. Which is why it was really awkward when someone asked me why I was crying while I was reading it and I replied “because it is so damn good”. The Lightning Tree is a short story about Bast, a character in the Kingkiller Chronicles series. For those who are familiar with the series (so I assume all of you), it takes place in the present at the inn. The story follows Bast on a typical day as he goes to town and sits at the lightning tree. Bast spends the day trading secrets and favors for other secrets and favors with the children of the town. The story was incredible, I will say nothing else. Patrick Rothfuss is unbelievably talented and every day he doesn’t give me more to read makes me sad. The story does not further the plot of the original trilogy at all, but is definitely worth your time.

These four stories, and a few other fairly strong ones, made the anthology feel like a wonderful purchase while reading them. Unfortunately, there are about 14 other stories that felt like nothing special, including a few true duds. While not terrible, I wanted to make note of two personal disappointments starting with The Meaning of Love by Daniel Abraham. Daniel Abraham is one of my all time favorite authors due to his tendency to tell stories off the beaten path. He is my paragon of new and fresh ideas, which made his rather bland and uninteresting story, about a young rogue in love, disappointing for me. It was well written and well done, but it felt like something I had seen over and over throughout the anthology.

Then there was GRRM himself, who is certainly being used as the selling point of the collection. His story was the final one out of the group and I found it terribly disappointing, which I guess isn’t surprising given how much hype he has these days. It is a 30 page story about one of the targaryens and their life outside the events of Game of Thrones. I am increasingly starting to think that Martin does not know how to escape his masterpiece and write anything else. With only 30 pages, he provides some nice descriptives but not much else, which left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I closed out of the anthology.

At the end of the day, you are paying a hefty price for 4 gems, a few good reads, and a whole lot of filler. My overall average score of the stories came to a solid 3 out of 5, which isn’t terrible. In fact it is above average. However, given how many authors I love are in the lineup it is lower than I hoped for a group of works. I would recommend skipping on this one and trying to find the four aforementioned stories from other (legal) means.

  1. “Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie – 4.5/5
  2. “What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn – 2.5/5
  3. “The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matthew Hughes – 4/5
  4. “Bent Twig” by Joe R. Lansdale – 1/5
  5. “Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick – 3.5/5
  6. “Provenance” by David Ball – 3/5
  7. “The Roaring Twenties” by Carrie Vaughn – 2/5
  8. “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch – 6/5
  9. “Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton – 2/5
  10. “Heavy Metal” by Cherie Priest – 3.5/5
  11. “The Meaning of Love” by Daniel Abraham – 3.5/5
  12. “A Better Way to Die” by Paul Cornell – 2.5/5
  13. “Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor – 2/5
  14. “A Cargo of Ivories” by Garth Nix – 3.5/5
  15. “Diamonds From Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams – 1/5
  16. “The Caravan to Nowhere” by Phyllis Eisenstein – 2/5
  17. “The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle – 3/5
  18. “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman – 4/5
  19. “Now Showing” by Connie Willis – 2.5/5
  20. “The Lightning Tree” by Patrick Rothfuss – 6/5
  21. “The Rogue Prince, or, the King’s Brother” by George R. R. Martin – 3/5

Overall Rating: 6/10