Oryx and Crake – Youthful Angst In An Old World

51vltcyoxklI have been meaning to check out Margaret Atwood for a long time, and finally got the chance this week with my book club book, Oryx and Crake. I had high expectations going in based on all the good things I have heard about Atwood over the years, yet the book I found was not what I expected. Atwood is an extremely talented writer in the vein of Virginia Woolf, with deep flowing prose that is quite impactful. If Oryx and Crake’s writing is an indication of her skill, than her praise is definitely deserved.

Oryx and Crake, the first in a trilogy of books, sets itself up from the blurb on the back as a standard post-apocalypse book – boy trying to survive in the ruins of civilization as he slowly reminisces and reveals what destroyed the Earth. However, the book immediately steps away from that setting and goes deep into the background of our lead, Snowman. The book in many ways doesn’t even feel like a post apocalypse story, focusing much more on the character driven drama of Snowman’s upbringing and his angst filled youth. It reminds me a little of Catcher in the Rye in that it captures what it is to be young, but unlike Catcher isn’t so infuriating and arrogant that you want to throw the book out a window. I got this weird impression all throughout the book that Atwood gets the youth of today and understands their worries and plights. She writes like a smart cool mom, who is actually cool.

As I mentioned the book focuses mostly on Snowman’s upbringing on a research campus in a resource scarce world. Atwood does a great job extrapolating changes in society and imagining a truly bleak future that hits a little too close to home/reality making it feel extra unsettling. The book jumps around time line wise constantly, but is never hard to follow. However, all the jumping can occasionally make it feel directionless and lose some of the momentum of the story. Snowman is important as he essentially acts as an impartial observer to the rebirth of humanity. Oryx and Crake are childhood acquaintances of his that serve in many ways (literal and metaphorical) as the new Adam and Eve. The book does a great job of experimenting with the creation ethos that I found refreshing and unique. As I mentioned before, the prose is also phenomenal and I would probably be willing to read the book without anything else going for it. The science in the book is also really good, talking deeply about biology and chemistry. You can tell an enormous amount of research went into writing the story.

However, Oryx and Crake was not perfect. In the story, I found Crake fascinating in both past and present, but for some reason Oryx’s story seemed to just drag on. I know this sounds strange, but there are only so many pages I want to read about terrible things happening to very young girls. Atwood is a talented enough writer that, even though she left some atrocities visited upon Oryx intentionally vague, in her talented hands it somehow makes the crimes more disturbing. The pacing was not amazing. I found myself sometimes tearing through large portions of the book at a time, and others finding it hard to read more than a few pages before drifting off. The story feel very compelling in the end though, and I will be reading the sequels.

In the end, I can see why people think so highly of Margaret Atwood. She is a truly talented writer who feels like she has an understanding of human psychology that is much better than your average writer. She achieved shock and outrage without ever going over the top, and wrote an impressive post-apocalypse dystopian novel that is mostly about a teenager finding his place in the world. While this book in theory shouldn’t appeal to me, I really enjoyed it, which is an impressive feat. The Quill to Live definitely recommends Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Rating: Oryx and Crake – 8.5/10

Fantasy (In Mediums Other Than Books) You Should Check Out

Fantasy books are the best, but sometimes I like to give my weary eyes a rest and go do something else for a short while. However, I still love my fantasy genre and often look for fantasy stories in the other mediums that I go to. As such, I thought it might be nice to compile a list of great fantasy works outside books that some of you haven’t checked out yet. Please keep in mind that this isn’t a best-of list, I just am trying to draw attention to some fantasy outlets that you have likely heard of and not tried, or haven’t heard of at all. I am skipping things like the Lord of the Rings, Miyazaki, and Harry Potter movies because you have likely already seen them.

Non-Book Reading Material

Saga – At this point I am pretty sure Saga is at 100% comic reader market saturation and I am just wasting my time preaching to the choir. If you have somehow not read Saga yet, please for your own good do. The comics follow the story of a couple from warring races as they try to survive the hatred of their people in a sci-fi/fantasy world that wants them dead. The humor is incredible, the story is beautiful, the characters fantastic, the art gorgeous, and it’s like 10 dollars per volume which is insanely cheap for a comic. Please read it.

One Piece – Yes the extremely popular shonen manga One Piece is on my list. If you are unfamiliar with One Piece, it follows the story of a pirate crew through a fantasy world where eating magical fruit can give you god like powers in exchange for the loss of the ability to swim. It’s a ridiculous concept done extremely well, which is a nice succinct summary of the show. I love One Piece because it can never fail to innovate on its fantasy elements and find new and inventive ways to make rubber cool. The world is fascinating despite its ridiculous manner, and while reading it I want to know more about everything always (a good sign of very solid worldbuilding). On top of this it makes me laugh constantly which is always a plus.

Movies

Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea – The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea are two movies by an Irish animation studio that to begin with are gorgeous. The Secret of Kells tells a fantasy version of the creation of Ireland’s great treasure, the Book of Kells, and Song of the Sea tells the story of a Selkie (sort of like an Irish mermaid?) trying to get home. They both are gorgeous, heartwarming, and fun movies that tell a great fantasy narrative. After watching both films I am prepared to recommend anything this guys make for the foreseeable future.

Snowpiercer – A science fiction pick, but still wholly worth your time. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi action movie about a train that circles the Earth keeping the last humans alive in the frozen wasteland that is the planet. It is also about class struggles as the main character, played by Chris Evans, leads a revolt of the poor against the rich. This movie sounds ridiculous but the acting is on point, the concepts are fantastic despite being outlandish, and the set pieces are awesome and memorable. It is really worth a few hours of your time to give this a shot.

Video Games

Golden Sun – With the current pokemon craze, someone recently asked me if I consider pokemon fantasy. I told them no, but only because Golden Sun exists and makes pokemon seems like something else. Golden Sun is an older fantasy rpg for the game boy advance that tells the story of four adepts of the four elements, and their attempt to restore balance to the world. Whilst doing so, the adepts collect various elemental sprites (like pokemon) to give themselves strength. It is kinda like Avatar: The Last Airbender meets pokemon with incredible storytelling. While “elemental mages save the world” is not the most original of plots, it is written extremely well in game and I found myself not only enjoying the game play but needing to know what happened next.

Divinity: Original Sin – this is a game I stumbled across purely by accident and I cannot sing its praises loudly enough. The story again follows typical video game plot fanfare, two source hunters (warriors), must save the world from a universe eating dragon (that is currently imprisoned) and a mad witch who wants to set it free. However, with Divinity the devil is in the details. Each pixel of the game is bursting with dialogue, interaction, humor, wit, and fantasy storytelling to the point where it is probably the single most immersive fantasy experience I have had. I highly recommend you check it out, if you are a fan of fantasy you will not be disappointed.

The Drenai Saga – Part 2/4

Sorry for just the one post this week, I have been out playing Pokemon Go. However, I assume none of you noticed there was only one post as you were also too busy out playing Pokemon go. Anyway here is part 2 of the Drenai read along, if you missed part one you can find it here.

 

2131-1Book 4 – The Quest for Lost HeroesMan what a terrible cover. This book took a distinct tonal shift compared to the previous three. While each novel in this series is tragic and heartbreaking, this novel was a touch more despair inducing. The Quest for Lost Heroes once again takes a huge chronological jump, this time forward, and takes place a short while after the second book, The King Beyond the Gate. This is the first novel to feature some recurring characters, but still introduces us to a large cast. The book follows a group of heroes (unknown to us) who became famous in a minor battle at the end of book two. While in retirement, the heroes play witness to a kidnapping of innocent villagers and decide to set out on one final quest to save them from slavers.

Nothing good happens to anyone in this novel, but it embodies the ideology of “bent but not broken.” The cast of this tale shows what it means to experience trauma and disaster and then to get up and keep going; it is quite moving. On his 4th set of distinct and memorable characters, I was still incredibly impressed at Gemmell’s ability to craft a deep and interesting cast. I can identify and talk about each of the 20+ protagonists I have encountered so far as they were so memorable. It was also at this point where I changed my mind on Gemmell’s worldbuilding in The Drenai Saga. As I mentioned in Legend, the worldbuilding felt incomplete and haphazard in book one and I thought it could have been better done. However, in book four I began to realize that Gemmell was simply thinking on a larger scale and timeframe. Each book fits like a puzzle piece into your overall understanding of the Drenai world, giving you more context and understanding of the various countries and their cultures. In addition, while the books do not function as sequels, they have plenty of overlap and foreshadowing that enriches books in both directions (prequels and sequels). The Quest for Lost Heroes adds another piece to the puzzle while also treating you to a fantastic cast that prove you are more than the tragedies you have experienced.

Rating: The Quest for Lost Heroes – 8.5/10

870808Book 5 – In the Realm of the Wolf: Waylander 2 – Waylander is back! These Drenai books have a strange effect on me. When I am not currently reading one I don’t feel that much desire to start one, but when I am reading one all I can think is “why did I wait so long to start this”. I think the reason for this is the books are all so well self contained that you do not feel like I am missing anything when I reach the end of one. That being said I was super pumped to get back into Waylander. When we left our intrepid antihero after book one, he had retired to a quiet life of solitude with his adoptive daughters and wife. This is of course doomed not to last, with a price being placed on Waylander’s head that entices several younger assassins to try their hand at killing him. As you can guess, this goes poorly for the youngsters. The story eventually evolves as Waylander investigates why there’s suddenly a price on his head and the novel expands to a much bigger plot.

In the Realm of the Wolf stands out to me because it stands as a testament to how good Gemmell’s prose is. Gemmell wants you to think of Waylander as the ultimate assassin, all other fantasy books included, and he sold me on it. The writing makes you think you are hearing the story of someone real and manages to both have Waylander do the impossible and make it seem ordinary for him. He is probably a Gary Sue if I think about it, but Gemmell talks about him in a way that keeps that thought from ever even coming close to you head. Gemmell is convincing, he tells you Waylander is the best, and you should be astounded, and you believe him. The second addition to Waylander’s tale is as good as the first and I highly recommend it.

Rating: In the Realm of the Wolf – 9.5/10

526071Book 6 – The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend – This title is way too long to repeatedly use so I am going to abbreviate it to TFC. I was, as usual, slightly hesitant to start the next Drenai book as it was about Druss from book one, Legend, where you read the final stories and fate of Druss. It felt like starting a book where I had already read the ending. In Legend, Druss spends some time reflecting on life and talks about some of the things he did and two other quests that he went on. TFC is the story of one of those quests, following an awkward and youthful Druss as he travels the world attempting to rescue his kidnapped wife. The story is about how Druss was forged into the warrior you see in Legend, and it is phenomenal.

This is probably the best Drenai book so far, which honestly surprised me a lot. I usually don’t like prequels but much like In the Realm of the Wolf, Gemmell is really good at using prose to convince you of a warrior’s skill and ability. Druss feels like a monster of a fighter who could stand strong in a fantasy throwdown with any other protagonist, despite being basically just a fairly squat guy with an axe. The book is also heart wrenching and both incredibly sad and bitter sweet. Druss does not have an easy life and the emotional punches are layered in well to help the story be fun, memorable, and deep. Additionally, we continue to expand the Drenai map, fleshing out another country. I am past the halfway point now in the series and that fills me with a certain dread as I only have five books left. I am curious to see if any of them can top this.

Rating: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend – 9.5/10

Uprooted – Just Go Read It Already

22544764Today I am doing a micro review, but know that I am doing it for your own good. Many of you have probably heard of Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, as it made a ridiculous number of “top book lists” last year; usually at the #1 spot. There is a good reason for this, it is a great book. However, Uprooted is one of those many things in life that it is best to go into knowing as little as possible. The less you know the more you will enjoy the journey the book takes you on, and it is a worthwhile adventure.

What I will tell you is that the story begins in a classic fairy tale setting with a village girl who has nothing special about her. She is given up as a tribute to the dragon who is lord over the village in exchange for protection and the book follows her life as it is completely uprooted. The book’s plot is clever and surprising (hence the need for the hush hush) and there are a lot of subtle things going on. For better and worse, the characters are very unique and memorable and stand out from traditional fantasy archetypes. On top of this, the magic is incredible. The magic of the book feels alive or real in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child reading Harry Potter, and that is truly saying something. I found myself attempting to cast spells in my mind as I read Uprooted and it was a transportive experience.

The one flaw I found with Uprooted was that pacing could at times be a bit jarring; jumping from long stretches of meandering to intense action with little warning. Other than that Uprooted is a stand out book that everyone should read; especially as it is fairly short and a standalone. Naomi Novik has made something truly magical in this book. While I am likely preaching to the choir as I seem to be the last person to get around to reading it, if you haven’t picked up and read Uprooted yet The Quill to Live recommends you do so.

Rating: Uprooted – 9.0/10

Central Station – A Melting Pot Of Science Fiction

9781616962142_custom-db4b7f9d3826eb70ec0e236ff7c660c5de49ca5f-s400-c85I am getting into Science Fiction, and making a larger effort to insert it into my reading list, as I feel I have been neglecting the genre recently. As such, I was given a review copy of Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar, by the wonderful publishers over at Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. The novel focuses on Tel Aviv and the Middle East, and is certainly different from my usual forays into Science Fiction. Central Station is a hybrid between a traditional novel and an anthology. The book follows the stories of several immigrants who have come to make a life at Central Station, a massive space station and elevator in the Heart of Tel Aviv. Some of the POV’s are there to reap the profits of the station, and some are their to break their backs and starve in ghettos while they build it. The book is an eclectic collection of all sorts of people that have their lives impacted by this important portal into space.

The true strength of these stories is in the world building. There is an overflowi of incredible concepts and worlds stuffed into Central Station that will entice anyone who has even a slight bit of imagination. The book has great takes on tons of classic sci-fi topics like virtual reality and cyborgs, but also brings a lot of its own original ideas to the table. Much of it comes from blending Middle Eastern culture with the science fiction genre, which I have not seen before (though I am sure exists). The stories are not very uplifting. The book seems to emulate many literary classics that speak of the terrors immigrants face when fleeing to new and unfamiliar surroundings, but set within a science fiction backdrop. While there is a bitter sweetness to many of the tales, I found it mostly depressing.

While the strength of Central Station is its world, its weakness is the people who inhabit it. The book changes POV often and I got the sense that it was trying to use immersion with a variety of individuals to get you to care about a people as a whole. However, I never spent enough time with one character to build a real emotional connection, and it resulted in my not caring that much about the people as a group. Central Station feels like it is trying, unsuccessfully, to juggle too many things; establishing new worlds, while flying from character to character to flesh out an entire people.

In the end I loved the places that Central Station took me, I just found I didn’t care about the people that inhabited them. With a more centralized cast and more cohesion I feel I would have liked this book a lot more. However, my issues with Central Station stem more from personal taste that issues with the book itself. While I didn’t love it, if books that aren’t character driven interest you I recommend you check out Central Station by Lavie Tidhar.

Rating: Central Station – 6.5/10