Stiletto – Hard To Pin Down

9781781851241The following contains spoilers for The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, and should only be read if you have completed the first novel. You have been warned.

Earlier this year in book club we read The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, and we loved it. With its unique take on amnesia, humor, great characters, and exciting plot I was excited to find out that the sequel, Stiletto, had a release date right around the corner. The Rook was a great book, despite its flaws, and brought something different to the genre. It was my hope that Stiletto would expand O’Malley’s unique author voice and address some of the cohesion and world building issues that plagued The Rook. But before we get to that, let’s first talk about the plot.

When we left Myfawny in The Rook, the Cheque and the Grafters had decided to join organizations in the most uncomfortable business merger of all time. With a history of systematically taught hatred in both organizations, it looked like the fusion of these two groups of people was going to be a lot of work. O’Malley explores this theme extremely well by providing us with two new perspectives in Stiletto, Pawn Felicity and (something in Belgian) Odette. Each of these two characters is used as a representative of the younger generation of the organizations, and through them we get to see the difficulties of allying with people that are perceived as monsters. In addition to those two, we also do occasionally spend time with Myfawny, though her sections are rare. To begin with, while Felicity and Odette are fine vehicles for the story, they are not as deep or as interesting as Myfawny was in The Rook. While Myfawny felt like a complex and original character, Felicity is made out to be a soldier obsessed with her job and Odette is made out to be a spoiled rich girl who is self absorbed. Both characters are slowly revealed to be more complex and likable, but neither ever had the resonance with me that I felt with Myfawny from page one.

Despite weaker leads the plot is great, the humor is still on point, and the worldbuilding is much more fleshed out…. sometimes. Here is where we get to the massive problem with Stiletto – it is extremely inconsistent. In the first 25% of Stiletto, I had to stop reading it a few times because I was laughing so hard I could not hold the book straight. Then at about the one quarter mark, the book drops almost all attempts at humor and becomes much more serious. I think this was a massive mistake on O’Malley’s part because I would give that first 25% a 10/10, but the last three quarters… less. The world building is all over the place. Certain parts of the book did a great job fleshing out both organizations and adding a lot to the history and tension between them. Others lazily info-dumped an encyclopedias worth of information on me in a 3-page period, which was extremely unsatisfying. Despite that info-dump, I also felt like I was missing lots of small pieces of information. Somehow I still don’t know what power the Lord of the Cheque has, and it is honestly driving me insane.

My opinion of the plot swung like a pendulum throughout the book,and I can’t decided where I landed. Certain sections had me unable to put the book down due to curiosity and excitement. Others left me extremely disappointed with the reuse of older plot points and unsatisfying twists. In the end I think that the prose through which O’Malley told the plot was a lot better than The Rook, but I liked the actual plot of The Rook a lot more. In addition to this, there were like 3-5 subplots in the book that went absolutely nowhere. I can’t tell if O’Malley included them in the book to give red herrings (which if so, well done) or simply forgot to finish writing some of them. These elements all left me extremely frustrated and confused as to my feelings on the book.

In the end, I still enjoyed Stiletto – just less than The Rook. It had the air of a bridge book, spending a lot of time setting up the finale. I am still excited and eager to read the next installment of the story, but I very much hope to see a return in quality matching the Rook and that O’Malley learns from the difficulties of Stiletto. A small caveat I will add to this review: it is possible that Stiletto’s sporadic writing style was a thematic choice rather than an authorial difficulty. If this is true then I would expect many people might love Stiletto, but it is still not the book for me. The Quill to Live recommends Stiletto, but also advises you to go in with reserved expectations.

Rating: Stiletto – 7.0/10

The Drenai Saga – Part 3/4

Part 1
Part 2

Drenai part three, the re-Dre-aning. Welcome back to my semi-journal of my slow and wonderful experience through the Drenai Chronicles. At this point I am pretty confident in saying that this is probably one of the best fantasy series of all time. I may only be about 3/4ths of the way through, but the books would basically have to literally blind me at this point to lower their overall score enough for me not to recommend it. However, these next three books on my journey were definitely the weakest so far (comparatively, they are still excellent) so we will have to see. Up first, The Legend of the Deathwalker!

legend_of_deathwalkerBook 7 – The Legend of the Deathwalker – The third of the four Druss books, this novel picks up the story of Gemmell’s iconic character shortly after the conclusion of book six. This book starts in the middle of Legend and opens with Druss telling a previously unknown story about himself to a fellow footsoldier to calm the younger warrior. The book follows Druss and Sieben as they journey into Nadir lands to defend a people they hate from a crime they know is wrong. It is a story about doing something for people you don’t like because you know it is the right thing to do, and Gemmell handles it masterfully. The book also follows the rise of the Nadir people, prepping for the inevitable uniter that will raise hell in Drenai book one, Legend. This book lost a very small amount of points because it felt like its goal was more to add depth to Legend than stand on its own, but it is still incredible in its own right.

Racism is a big issue that Gemmell tries to tackle and discuss in all his books, and does so very successfully. None of them (at least so far) do it better than The Legend of the Deathwalker, which has probably my all time favorite quote about overcoming bigotry by Sieben (not pasted here because spoilers). The book also has a massive arc of character development for Sieben, and brings him to the forefront of Legend of the Deathwalker as a protagonist instead of a support character. It is a fantastic choice, and Sieben adds more depth and richness to the story than Druss could by himself. The book is also much more magical than any of its predecessors. I am not sure how much I like this turn, as I have grown accustomed to enjoying magic take a back seat to warriors in Gemmell’s stories. However, this Druss novel is still quite enjoyable despite not quite living up to its predecessor.

Rating: The Legend of the Deathwalker – 8.5/10

winter_warriorsBook 8 – Winter Warriors – The eighth Drenai book, and probably my least favorite, is about demons. It is strange to me that this book that breaks out of the Drenai mold more than any other is likely the most unique, and is less enjoyable for it. Our story is set far in the future compared to all the previous Drenai novels, chronicling a team of heroes as they try to survive a coming demon apocalypse. The world is reaching it’s end, demons are passing over from the other side, and starting to ravage the land. This previously mentioned group of heroes must keep an infant king alive from otherworldly terrors in order to prevent the end of times.

If this seems somewhat confusing, then it mimics how I felt reading this book. Winter Warriors comes out of left field and departs from the classic Drenai formula that made all the other books work. Instead we are treated to some great characters struggling helplessly to deal with an otherworldly problem. The character depth and growth in the book are just as good as any other Drenai novel, but the plot felt strangely divorced from the previous seven books, and seems to be telling the end of a story that I missed 50 percent of. It turns out the beginning of the demon’s story is covered in book nine, Hero in the Shadows, and I honestly would recommend reading them in reverse order for the most enjoyment. I admire Gemmell for trying to mix up the story, but I was not in love with the result. Hopefully book nine will be back to the tried and true hero on an impossible quest with lots of political world building.

Rating: Winter Warriors – 7.5/10

n22651Book 9 – Hero in the Shadows – The final Waylander book. It still has a lot of magic, a great plot to go with it, as well as the glorious Waylander. Hero in the Shadows tells the story of Waylander at the very end of his life. An old man, he has seen and done everything, but becomes unsatisfied with life. In the search and preparation for new horizons, he stumbles upon an otherworldly problem, and sets about fixing it with his normal solution – crossbow bolts. Hero in the Shadows contains the same demon theme as Winter Warriors, but it takes a back seat to the final story of Waylander. The magic injected into the story does a much better job being subtle and adding to the world, as opposed to being jarring as it was in Winter Warriors.

Many Gemmell stories deal with an older warrior dealing with passing his prime and moving into old age. It is a particular flavor of story that I believe Gemmell does incredibly well in a fantasy setting, and I look forward to rereading these when I am much older myself. Hero in the Shadows in particular deals with running out of things to do. Waylander has lived a full and challenging life and is finding he is extremely bored in retirement. Immensely wealthy and wanting for nothing, he has begun to risk himself unnecessarily to feel alive again. It might sound cliche, but I found myself empathizing with Waylander immensely and found myself searching for meaning within my own life. The book continues in the Drenai tradition of teaching philosophies on life that are both profound and extremely simply. Hero in the Shadows brings a fitting end to the story of one of my favorite protagonists, and brings me ever closer to the end of my Drenai journey.

Rating: Hero in the Shadows – 8.5/10

An Interview With Joe Zieja, Author Of Mechanical Failure

26850100With the end of 2016 starting to loom overhead, I have turned to all the books I have read this year to start composing my top 10 list (expect it in early November). While reviewing my preliminary candidates, I noticed very few of them were new authors this year. However, I decided to reach out to the author of one of the stand out successes I read this year and see if he would tell me more about what went into his book, Mechanical Failure. The author, Joe Zieja, was kind enough to reply to my questions and give some insight into the humor and futurism of the Epic Failure Trilogy. My original review of Mechanical Failure can be found here, and the interview is below, enjoy!


What made you want to go into writing after all this time as a voice actor?

This question is hilarious! I have been writing far longer than I have been a voice actor. In fact, I only discovered voice acting in 2013, after which, for some bizarre reason, I experienced a lot of success and quit my government job. In fact, Mechanical Failure was written before I switched careers. Publishing is just a bit slower than advertising and other media. To be clear, there’s no “instead of” here, for me. I’ll be doing both as long as both industries will let me.

Do you see yourself writing more serious sci-fi, sticking with comedy, or a combination of both in the future?

This is such a tough question. Prior to MF, I wrote mostly serious fantasy. I would love to do so again, now that my writing chops are a bit better and I’m starting to build a reputation. I’m locked in for at least 3 books in the Epic Failure series, and have some spinoffs in my head, but I’ve never been known to do one thing for very long. It’s likely I’ll branch out again, and it’s also likely I’ll cry when people pigeonhole me into humor for the rest of my career.

Does military life really have as many difficulties as Mechanical Failure implies?

The military is literally the largest, most violent bureaucratic organization in the world. It is bizarrely equal parts “FORGET RULES AND JUST FIGHT THE ENEMY” and “I am going to ruin your career because you failed to wear a reflective belt at sunset while walking along the road.” So, yes. The difficulties that come with a military career are unique, strange, and very often revolve around reflective clothing. But that’s not to say that it’s all bad. The goal of MF was not to paint a bad picture of the military as much as it was to lampoon it a bit.

The depiction of what food was like in the military in your novel was eye opening. How much did your own military experience reflect this?

Well in some ways it depends on what you mean here. Is food sometimes strangely gourmet? Yes, though that’s really not much of the case these days. Is food sometimes protein cardboard? Absolutely. I modeled  the Sewer Rats off of MREs, which are absolutely disgusting most of the time and absolutely delicious when you are in survival school.

In Mechanical Failure, the main character suffers under a seemingly incompetent superior. Was this taken from personal experience, or were you tapping into the “I hate my boss” zeitgeist?

I pulled some of those conversations with Admiral Klein directly from conversations I’d had or overheard with general officers in the air force. The conversation about colors of bars in the intelligence briefing? Oh yeah. That happened to me as a lieutenant. Klein was more of an amalgamation of the bad qualities of several leaders than it was a caricature of a specific person, though.

What was the hardest part about writing Mechanical Failure?

Probably reigning in some of the silliness. I tend to get on a roll and suddenly my humor is a little bit more toddler-esque.

Your next book is Communication Failure, how will it differ from Mechanical Failure or will it be more of the same?

Well it is a continuation of Rogers’ (and the Flagship’s) storyline, so you can accept a similar experience for sure, with a vastly expanded cast of characters and “world.”  Rogers will probably try to fix things. It will probably go wrong. It will hopefully be funny.

What are some of your favorite fantasy and sci-fi books? Are there any you drew inspiration from (other than presumably Starship Troopers and Catch-22)?

My favorite spec-fic books really run the gamut from Robin Hobb to Patrick Rothfuss to Brandon Sanderson and Sofia Samatar, to name a few. As far as inspiration, Catch-22 was definitely in there because it was one of my favorite books that I didn’t read until I was in the military. It so firmly reflected some of my thoughts on the military that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. One of the strangest things I get though is that people compare my work to Pratchett. Confession? I’ve never read one of his books.

Which character in Mechanical Failure do you identify with most other than Rogers?

Probably Deet! I mean who doesn’t identify with a obscenity-repressed, walking kitchen-aid droid who is hated by all of his peers?

A Night Without Stars – Predictably Excellent

9780230769496night20without20starsIn some ways there is very little point in reviewing a Peter Hamilton book. When it comes to his novels, people fall into three groups: those who have read him and love him, those who have read him and hate him, and those who have never read him. As there is little point in talking to the first two groups about his newest novel, A Night Without Stars, I will be addressing this to the last group.

Where do I even start with Peter Hamilton? I guess a good place is to tell you he is one of my tier 1 authors; someone who everyone should read at some point. His books are extremely polarizing, but if you are lucky enough to find that you like one of his books, you will have opened a door into a plethora of novels that will rapidly rise to the top of your favorite book lists. Hamilton writes hard sci-fi novels, and I mean diamond hard. These are some of the most dense, most technical laden, slowest moving, books that you could easily beat someone to death with due to their size. I am completely serious when I say they make Malazan look like light reading. These tomes are not for a light reader and are not a book you can casually read at the beach.

They are, however, completely worth every single second you put into them. Hamilton’s novels are dense because they are packed to the brim with imagination, insight, philosophy, characters, creativity, and world building the likes of which you have never seen. You will need to either know some physics, or have a desire to learn some, because he does not skip the science. Hamilton is a modern Asimov, using current technology and his imagination to create a future for humanity that both feels grounded in reality and defying imagination. His books take things like perpetual motion, wormholes, genetics, aliens, space travel, and a plethora of other classic sci-fi concepts and use them to flesh out the rise of humanity as a space faring race. These books are first and foremost about the evolution of civilization through scientific advancement. The density of the books come not from overly descriptive passages you might find in Jules Verne, but from Hamilton exploring every single minute ripple of impact a new invention would have in human society. The result is often a book that feel more like a history text from the future instead of a sci-fi novel.

Then there are the books themselves. This piece is technically about A Night Without Stars, the second book in the Chronicle of the Fallers and the seventh book in The Commonwealth Saga. The saga is comprised of three series (one trilogy and two duologies) that all take place in the same universe with the same tech, though the sub series are placed hundreds of years apart. Each subseries handles very different crises in the story of human civilization in space and each shows that Hamilton’s imagination is without par. The Chronicle of the Fallers in particular is the story of a group of scientifically advanced humans who get trapped in a somewhat parallel world where their technology no longer works, but they are granted telekinesis instead. Trapped alongside them is a horrific race of aliens that consumes humans and takes their place, making life a little hard for our humans. It is a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the best I can do without devoting four paragraphs to it. The Chronicle of the Fallers can be read without the first two series, but I would not recommend it as you will appreciate the most recent books more.

Without going into spoilers, A Night Without Stars (and the previous novel The Abyss Beyond Dreams) was impressive despite my high expectations for the book. For example, the novels contain some of the most genuinely unsettling situations I have ever encountered in sci-fi. Crafting upsetting challenges for his protagonist that will make the staunchest of reader shudder. Another key draw of Stars is the mystery of what is happening. One of my favorite qualities of Hamilton’s writing is that instead of just creating a mystery and solving it for you, he slowly gives you the tools to solve it yourself. It makes the final reveal much more satisfying, and increases your immersion greatly. A Night Without Stars has complex and strange characters that are also quite relatable. It will result in you questioning why you have so much in common with a psychic communist dictator who is trying to save his people from an external menace. Star’s  technology is mind blowingly cool as is usual for Hamilton, with some incredible poignant scenes that I would do illegal things to get on a big screen. Finally, the last Chronicle of the Fallers book ties up a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions from the previous series (The Dreaming Void), which was appreciated.

However, with all the good I have outlined there is also some less good. As with most 800 page monstrosities, I felt that the book could have paired down some of its text. Not every scene was pivotal to character or plotline development, and I felt like some characters were only introduced only to prove that not everyone is important. This is the second series that Hamilton has placed in “the void”, an event in the commonwealth storyline, and while he has certainly created a fresh and fantastic story that defied expectations, I also was getting a little tired of hearing about the void by the end.

In the end, despite the book feeling like it could lose 50 pages or so, I don’t regret a single minute I spent in this book and will definitely read it again some day. It is astounding that Hamilton continues to pump out high quality books like A Night Without Stars regularly, and he has firmly cemented himself at the tops of my lists. Chronicle of the Fallers is an excellent duology for any sci-fi fan, and A Night Without Stars is a welcome addition to The Commonwealth Saga. The Quill to Live unconditionally recommends anything by Peter Hamilton.

Rating: The Abyss Beyond Dreams – 9.0/10
A Night Without Stars – 9.0/10

A City Dreaming – Not Quite A Book

29348069Daniel Polansky has been on my to-read list forever. Famous for his Straight Razor Cure/Low Town series, I was excited when NetGalley gave me a chance to read the ARC of his new book, A City Dreaming. However, a book might not be the right descriptor for A City Dreaming. Polansky’s new piece feels more like a collection of short stories than anything else; not that there is a problem with that, but first let’s talk about the plot and the mysterious protagonist M.

M is a magician. What a magician is in A City Dreaming is definitely a break from what I would call traditional magic. Magicians essentially are individuals who have the ability to warp reality around them, intentionally and unintentionally, and bend it to their will. The reality bending mostly falls into the unintentional category and functions similar to getting really lucky all the time. In one of the earlier sequences we see M wondering about where he is going to live, only to have people on the street trip over each other in their haste to give M their homes. It is an interesting take on magic, and lends this very surreal and strange tone to the novel as a whole that I rather liked. There is also some classic magic involving fire throwing and magical shields etc., but it mostly sticks to the subtler category.

The plot follows M as he gets tired of Paris and returns to New York City for the first time in a long while. Once there, he is drawn into a conflict between the ruling magicians of New York, or so the back of the book would have you believe. In my opinion, this isn’t really the case as the book actually follows M on a series of short stories/adventures as various things happen to him in NYC. The storytelling is fairly disjointed and will likely be unsatisfying for those looking for a long cohesive story about a war between magicians. That being said, the short stories certainly aren’t bad. In fact, I enjoyed almost all of them. While I wouldn’t consider myself completely satisfied with the story, I definitely know a lot of people who would enjoy it and its unique storytelling method makes it stand out for better or worse from the books I have read this year. The character development varies heavily throughout the book, making it hard to make a judgement. M is developed nicely with a decent amount of depth and with a fairly interesting personality. However, the side cast varies from mysterious and enchanting to instantly forgettable. On the other hand, the prose was very solid all the way through the book and the short stories were often funny and captivating.

I am having a hard time coming up with more to say for this review, because whether or not you will like A City Dreaming comes down to two factors – the magic and the storytelling. The magic is unique and fun and was a really interesting take on magicians, but I can see others disliking its passive style. The short vignette style of storytelling will definitely turn off those looking for a robust and full story, but I think it served the book well in the end. Polansky’s writing was strong, and I will definitely be picking up Straight Razor Cure/Low Town to see what he can do with a full story. In the meantime, if you are looking for some fun jaunts you might consider looking into A City Dreaming.

Rating: A City Dreaming – 6.5/10

Wish Fulfillment – Living Vicariously Through Protagonists

cover_ukA short while ago, I wrote about Three Parts Dead, and spoke about its special brand of workplace wish fulfillment. In that piece, I mentioned that I wanted to do a post on wish fulfillment in general, and how the ever popular Kingkiller Chronicle employs it stealthily to great success. Well there’s no time like the present, so let’s talk about one of the most powerful writing techniques for immersion – wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment is one of the easiest way to drive immersion in books. It takes your hidden fantasies and secret desires and projects you into the life of a book character, letting you live out your dreams. One of the most common types of wish fulfillment in fantasy is the farm boy with a destiny trope. A seemingly ordinary farm boy discovers inner greatness and goes on to become the most important person in the land. It is not a stretch to say that most people have felt they were ordinary, and desired to go on to do something great. These books allow you to fulfill that fantasy, and that projection is what makes them so immersive and beloved. One of my favorite things in stories are magical schools. When I was a child I never could get enough of academics (I was one of those), and I love taking trips back to campus in fantasy books that let me relive those glory years. No matter how old I get, a magic school never seems to cease to enchant me.

However, many argue that wish fulfillment is a cheap trick used in the place of actual writing. By tapping into the secret base desires of everyone, readers are often much more forgiving of book’s flaws in their read through. This causes many critics and fans to claim books with wish fulfillment are of a lower quality than others. I believe that is pure nonsense. To demonstrate my point, let’s talk about The Name of the Wind, a book many regard as incredibly well written, and talk about how it’s one of the most clever forms of wish fulfillment I have seen.

There is a really interesting effect in psychology when you ask people to rate themselves on a variety of skills. We all like to believe we are talented, though most people are semi-realistic and understand that they aren’t the best at everything they try. However, there is an interesting effect where people almost always tend to rate themselves as “above average” at everything. No one likes to be in the bottom 50% in life, and while it is hard for people to lie to themselves that they are great at everything, it is easy to believe you are at least decent at most things.

Kvothe, the protagonist of NotW, is a representation of this is the mentality . Kvothe is not the best at anything, constantly coming up in second and fading behind the leaders. However, there is nothing he ever seems to be bad at. Anything that Kvothe picks up he is good enough at to dazzle and wonder, but never so good that he draws an inordinate amount of attention to himself and spoiling the illusion. In this way, Kvothe is relatable to the reader, fulfilling that deep held belief of accomplishment the reader has, when in fact he is alarmingly skilled in a way none of us are.

Now this in no way means I think that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad writer. Kvothe’s ability to tap into a primal form of wish fulfillment without the reader realizing is incredible. It is a smoke and mirrors trick I have never seen before, and it took a truly talented writer to pull it off. It shows you the absolute power of building in wish fulfillment into a book and hopefully helps explain why I was so impressed with Three Parts Dead, and its own form of workplace wish fulfillment.