Passion – NYCC 2016

Once again New York Comic Con has come and gone, and once again all the big publishers in New York came out to play. As usual, I took home entirely too many books – both free and purchased – and now sit in a paper mausoleum that is close to sealing me off from the rest of the world. This year, one of my lovely editors, Sean, accompanied me to the event. We had a ton of events we both wanted to go to, but there was one in particular that Sean was keen on: a Star Wars writer’s round table. See, Sean is the one who wrote the guest post about Star Wars novels a short while back (found here), so he was unsurprisingly very excited about this panel which consisted of a variety of Star Wars writers talking about the future of the book universe. As I do not read Star Wars myself, I was not very interested, but I decided to tag along in the name of camaraderie because what else are friends for? But while we were in that panel of writers I found myself overcome with a strange, previously unknown feeling, I wanted to pick up Star Wars book.

See the round table was actually filled with a variety of authors new and old, and they were extremely passionate about their work. There was everyone from an industry legend, Timothy Zahn, to one of the up and coming Star Wars writers, E. K. Johnston. At this panel each and every writer talked about what happened in their lives that got them into the Star Wars books and why they wrote the stories they did. The thing about authors is, not many of them write their books out of some sort of twisted feeling of obligation. Most of them are extremely passionate about what they do, and when they talk about their books that passion tends to power through. The thing about passion is, its infectious. There are few things I like more than seeing people talk about their passions. Everyone has at least one, but many people hide them for fear of ridicule or embarrassment. This is a shame because passion is amazing, and it can change the lives of the people around you. Someone else’s passion is how I went from feeling completely ambivalent about Star Wars books to nervously clutching a copy of Heir to the Empire as I approached Timothy Zahn to get my book signed. Passion is what got me to finally start this site and keeps me up late every night before work writing these posts.

I just wish we lived in a world that everyone embraced what makes them happy (unless it’s like murder, then you need to keep that under wraps). Which is why NYCC continues to be a source of more and more joy to me every year I go. In addition to the previously mentioned panel, every inch of comic con is filled with either passionate fans displaying their love, or people cautiously curious about what brings so many others out to such a large convention. Every year I see new and creative displays of love for media and nerdom that I spend an entire year getting more pumped to come back. On top of this, every year I see more and more people take a chance, go to the show, and come away more excited and enthralled than they believed they would be. It’s a great time for all and I highly recommend you check it out.

So, in summation, never stifle your passions – for it is a part of what makes you great. Come check out comic con, where your friends and other fans can somehow convince you it’s an amazing idea to start reading an eight bazillion book universe.

Grayshade – 1 Shade of Gray

Back by popular demand (and because I chained him to a desk because I have been busy), our editor Will is here with a post about the new book Grayshade by Gregory A. Wilson

grayshade-digital-coverHaving been an avid reader of fantasy since my days as a child, I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore a wide variety of worlds and stories. From the heavy adventurer-focus of the Forgotten Realms books to the sardonic and dry wit of Discworld, all the way to the unique and unforgettable worlds of Sanderson’s Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series, fantasy fans have a wide breadth of choices for settings, characters, and worlds. It is partially due to this that authors have a choice to make when setting out the goals of their story and characters; do I try to expand the genre and write something never seen before, or do I write in the reader’s comfort zone and give them an enjoyable take on something they’ve seen before? Both of these options have their pros and cons, and we’ve seen fantastic series that follow both schools of thought. I mentioned Sanderson’s collections of stories as being an exemplar of building something completely fresh and new for a reader, and one need only look so far as Sullivan’s Riyria stories for how an author can take well-tread tropes and make them enjoyable without feeling like they’re pandering.

Grayshade and the world it takes place in attempts to fulfill both options. It is the second release in the brand new fantasy setting of Stormtalons, a series of 150 planned novels from a wide variety of writers. I’d like to take a second immediately after mentioning that to say, “Oh. My. God. That is a LOT of books.” Grayshade in particular is the first book in the self-contained The Gray Assassin trilogy. If the respective titles of the book and the trilogy it is contained within didn’t tip you off, let me do the honors. Grayshade is a book about an assassin of the same name. He is an Acolyte of Argoth, the god of justice, and has for his entire life to this point been a member of this order. We begin the book with Grayshade on a mission to assassinate a target, jumping directly into the action and never really stopping from there. Throughout the course of this book we learn more about the city of Cohrelle and the various religious orders that are contained within, as well as getting a look into a formative moment in Grayshade’s life and development as a character.

If this sounds like a well-trod path in other stories…well, it is. Following an assassin, or any character of nefarious profession, as they develop from a morally indifferent character to someone who takes a stand for their values and virtues is a trope that I’m positive everyone reading this blog has encountered at some point. I certainly don’t mean to paint that as a bad thing, necessarily. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and having something immediately familiar to readers as a touchstone into a brand new fantasy world and setting is very helpful in allowing the reader to place their focus on learning how this new world works without having to spend a great deal of mental energy on trying to understand where the main character is coming from. I think that Gregory A. Wilson does a good job in this novel of telling a satisfying, if familiar, story in a brand new world. I enjoyed Grayshade’s inner monologues and the way he went about his work to an impressive extent.

That being said, there were some things that started to get under my skin as the story went on, and kept me from truly losing myself in the reading. While I understand that Grayshade takes place in an entirely new setting, there were a great deal of names for objects and substances that seemed purposefully vague and opaque. At the 20% mark of the book (I read this as a Kindle ARC) there was the following line, “I laughed. ‘It’s rivid gas, first of all, not rethel. Rethel gas wouldn’t dissipate that quickly.’” What does this actually tell me about these substances? That they’re both dangerous and that one dissipates more quickly than the other. What this doesn’t tell me is why these substances are dangerous. Are they flammable? Poisonous? Do they explode? Are they acidic? I would have a much healthier respect for the substance if I actually knew what it did. This is a consistent issue I had with the book, whether it’s describing dangerous gasses, or never really describing what the “darts” that Grayshade uses in his missions look like. I want to know whether he’s talking about throwing knives or stars, whether they have a flat blade or are more like a stiletto. No, this doesn’t ruin the book, and no it isn’t a catastrophic error, but it’s a small thing that would have made it easier for me to fall into the story had it been addressed. It’s also an easy way to flesh out the world and setting that I thought was a missed opportunity.

The other issue, and a bigger one in my opinion, is that the pacing of the second half of the novel just felt off to me. Major events came out of nowhere and were handled in a page or two, while Grayshade’s travels through the districts and inner monologues were given entire chapters. The final showdown between Grayshade and his enemies was, while exciting and fun, over very quickly and without the fanfare it deserved. I was hoping for an epic showdown and was treated to a quick knife in the back. I felt let down at the end, which isn’t a note you want to end on in the first book of a trilogy.

Grayshade is a book that reminds me of so many other fantasy novels I’ve read. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As I said earlier when I mentioned the “assassin with a moral compass” thing, tropes are essentially a gray area (see what I did there?) in storytelling. They’re not good or bad by default, as they’re essentially just references to experiences the reader has had before. What makes or breaks them is how they’re used. Grayshade has both the good and bad. It’s great that the book provides an easy to understand touchstone into this new world with a perfectly functional take on a story we’ve heard before, and bad that it relies on previous experiences for basic things like the gas issue I mentioned earlier. I think this is essentially the chicken noodle soup of fantasy. You’re not going to be blown away, and this isn’t going to be the best you’ve ever had, but you can’t go wrong with Grayshade if what you’re looking for is something familiar and satisfying.

Rating: Grayshade – 7.0/10

The Path Of Flames – Pleasantly Warm

51q4ahbjttlA little while ago, several bloggers started talking about the startling high quality of a new self published fantasy book on the market, The Path of Flames (PoF) by Phil Tucker. People were calling it the next Blood Song, lauding its exciting plot and prose and claiming that it was impressively well-edited for a self published book. I am always excited to be on the first wave of the next big thing, so I decided to check out The Path of Flames for myself so I could weigh in on the discussion. Now having read it, my feelings on this new fantasy are mixed.

Let’s start with the easiest point first, people who are claiming that The Path of Flames is extremely well-edited are reading a different book. The Path of Flames is perfectly readable, and I did not find that the errors detracted too heavily from the experience, but there were a lot of them. Some of them are particularly egregious, such as a chapter near the end having half of an entire page repeated without spacing. However, PoF has a lot of other things going for it that make it easy to power through the small annoyances and enjoy the book as a whole.

The story reads almost like a love child of Game of Thrones and The Way of Kings, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the standard that either of its parents had. PoF is stuffed to the brim with political intrigue, family rivalries, and interesting characters. The story follows five POVs in a group, and one who is off doing his own thing. The group is comprised of two members of a royal family, and three of their staff, and it is nice to have most POV’s together for once. In addition, the setting is a medieval and magic rich world organized around seven cities and races. The driving force in PoF is reincarnation, subservience, and knowing your place. See, the people of PoF believe that there are seven races of people, ranging from the bottom-tier slave race to the top-tier leader race. If you live a good and wonderful life, when you die you will be reincarnated as one race up, or if you live a terrible and disobedient life you will be dropped down a race. This leads to a really interesting take on racism, as all the characters are indoctrinated to just assuming that individuals of lower tier races should just accept their lot and wait to be incarnated higher, and those in the higher tiers are just naturally superior. This system is shaken up when the 2nd to last tier decides that maybe this isn’t the best system for them and rebels, rediscovers magic, and starts melting faces. This is where the story begins, and it blooms into a lightning fast tale that hits hard and often. Tucker has incredible pacing, never quite letting you have a moment to get back on solid ground or take a breath. Solving each life threatening issue begets a new one, and you will be constantly wondering what will happen next.The world is also fascinating, with a lot of detailed lore, culture, and magic. While some of the portal magic was not fully explained, it did a great job rousing my curiosity.

On the other hand, there are some other issues beyond the editing that plague The Path of Flames. The biggest issue the book suffers from is ‘too much tell, not enough show.’ Tucker claims constantly that the lowest tier race lives a life of awful slavery, but we almost never see any examples of this. He also claims that a side character is a sadistic bastard that everyone hates (and much of the plot revolves around everyone’s relation to the character), but only ever gives one very specific example of his wrong doing. I liked Tucker’s ideas throughout the book, but I needed a little more proof to back it up. In addition, I loved the characters – but some of them had strange tonal shifts that I found confusing. It seems like Tucker has a little difficulty maintaining a consistent character voice.

The Path of Flames is a good book, but it could be a great one with a little more work. It is held back by poor editing, needs more show, less tell, and tonal consistency to reach the quality achieved by other stand out self-published books like Blood Song and Riyria. Overall, it was still a very enjoyable book and I definitely plan on reading the sequels. Hopefully the future books will address these issues and achieve greatness.

Rating: The Path of Flames – 7.0/10

The Rising – To The Occasion

51rrwwieqcl-_sx335_bo1204203200_The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis, was one of my top books of 2015, so it should be no surprise that I was excited for the sequel – The Rising. For those of you unfamiliar with the original book, it is a historical fiction that follows multiple points of view, telling the story of a steampunk war between the Dutch and the French. The Dutch have created animatronic slaves called mechanicals, robot warriors bound to their will. The mechanicals are efficient killing machines, and have crushed every army they have come up against with the exception of the French chemists. What most don’t realize is that the mechanicals are intelligent coordinated machines, and they are starting to break free.

Our first book ended with a bang, and the second hits the ground running. One of the previous POV’s has been eliminated, and a familiar face has risen to take their place. Our story revolves around Berenice – an excommunicated spy master, Jax – a rogue mechanical, and our new face – Hugo Longchamp, a French captain of the guard. Much of the quality of the writing, worldbuilding, prose, and character development remains the same (great) from book one, so let’s talk about the differences. One of the major new elements to The Rising is the fact that Tregillis’ creativity was kicked into high gear. The book is a cavalcade of new and interesting inventions from all fronts: French, Dutch, and Mechanical. Tregillis does a truly impressive job of both making the Dutch mechanical army seem like an unstoppable war machine, while also coming up with creative and inventive ways for the French to stall and deter them. On top of this, the character development and growth in the story is phenomenal. The Rising is about change, both in the characters and the world at large. Tregillis has written flawed, interesting, and likable characters that do a great job of feeling like real people. The Rising sees each of the characters exploring their flaws, reminiscing on their mistakes, and questioning their beliefs, but do it in an endearing way that most book characters fail to achieve. Each character must question what they know and think and then must decide the path they want to take. Surprisingly, the characters choices surpassed my expectations in many instances, with some showing major growth and others stagnation.

However, the book did have two problems I wanted to address. The first is that some of the scenes were incredibly hard to follow. There was one scene at a mining town that I had to read about four times before I was able to understand what was happening. In addition, in some instances Tregillis goes into wonderfully explicit detail about how the magic of his world works, and in others he makes vague hand gestures. I expect that more will be revealed in time, but it made some passages of the book difficult to conceptualize. In addition, the ending of The Rising was telegraphed with a bonfire you could see a county away at about the 60% point. It was as if each character said they wanted to figure out how to paint a door, and each character held one item of the equation: door, paint, and brush. I would have enjoyed it more if there had been a little more surprise in the ending, but the ending was pretty great despite the obvious telegraphing.

The Rising continues the excellent quality of writing and story from The Mechanical, while also improving in a number of areas to make an overall very strong book. I am extremely excited about the sequel and the book has cemented Ian Tregillis as one of my favorite historical fiction writers of all time. If you are looking for an imaginative historical fiction with steampunk and Dutch villains, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Mechanical and The Rising by Ian Tregillis.

Rating: The Mechanical – 8.5/10
The Rising – 8.5/10

The Queen of Blood – Something For My Future Daughter… Or Son

25036395You know what type of book I have never enjoyed? One aimed at young women. Why? Probably because I am a man in his late 20’s and books of that nature have never been written in a manner that appeals to me… until now. There is nothing wrong with young adult books, especially those aimed at either gender. I have enjoyed the occasional male-oriented YA novel, as coming of age stories are always fun. However, most female oriented YA’s hold absolutely nothing for me. They tend to usually be dystopian futures, and they all seem to be written in the same manner, something that is so beautifully demonstrated by this webcomic. The issues that these novels confront are not relatable to me, and I wonder why there isn’t more overlap between male and female oriented YA. Then there is The Queen of Blood.

As you might have guessed, The Queen of Blood (QoB), by Sarah Beth Durst, is a female oriented YA book that tells the coming of age story of Daleina. The world of QoB, Renthia, is all about nature and spirits. Humans coexist with nature spirits (fire, air, water, ice, earth, and wood) who help build the world around them, creating food, shelter, and livelihoods for everyone. But this is not a peaceful coexistence, and the spirits want nothing more than to disembowel every human on the planet. The only thing keeping them from doing so are a set of magical women, led by a queen with more magical power than anyone else, each of whom have affinities that allow them to enslave the spirits and make them do their bidding. This control is not perfect, and spirits are constantly breaking loose and wreaking havoc, making the lives of people in QoB wonderful dreams punctuated by moments of intense nightmare. Daleina is a girl who lives through one such nightmare when her entire village is killed when spirits break lose. During the event it is discovered that she has the affinity to control spirits, and is shipped off to the regional magic school (YES) to learn how to hone her skill, serve the people, and potentially one day become queen. The thing about Daleina is that she is weak, embarrassingly so. She is not a traditional Mary Sue, blowing away her professors with her prophesied skills and completing everything with ease. Every day in the magic school is a struggle for her to just pass, and the story is about her surviving by her hard work and clever mind as opposed to natural talent; and for that I love it.

As I mentioned before, I have a lot of trouble identifying with most books written for this audience, but QoB is different. The trials and tribulations of Daleina are something EVERYONE can relate to, not just women. Her story is about the benefit of hard work and dealing with the reality in which there are always tons of people better than you (something that I still deal with to this day). There were many passages that reminded me of personal struggles in my own life, such as when I failed a physics test in college and went to the professor for advice, only to have him tell me that his advice was to quit physics because it was not for me. I chose to leave the field after that conversation (probably for the better) but Daleina makes me wonder if maybe I should have tried harder. While the book may be aimed at girls, it never puts them first and never makes men second class citizens in the story. Despite only women having the affinity, men and women are treated as equals in the society in every way, and many men bring just as much, if not more, to the table in terms of skills and usefulness. I also love that while the story is simplistic and clearly aimed at a younger audience, Durst treats her audience as if they were adults. It impressed me that there is sex, violence, tragedy, and philosophy in the story, and it impressed me even more that are all handled with an even hand and an adult tone. All this makes the story an enjoyable read even if you are older.

The character’s are also great, breaking out for the standard tropes of the genre. Only Daleina and one or two support characters are particularly complex, but I still think that the character depth was above average for this kind of novel and that they were all memorable. Friendship is also a major part of this story, and it was wonderful to see a lead actually develop natural camaraderie with her classmates. The plot was fairly straightforward, with some twists that were clearly visible from miles away, and others that caught me happily by surprise. It has a magic school, which these days is enough to sell me a book in an of itself. The school is fantastic, with lovable teachers, unorthodox tests, interesting classes, and an ambiance that makes me wish I could attend despite the high mortality rate.

The Queen of Blood is a unique book in a field of doppelgangers, distinguishing itself from the YA landscape with its universal appeal and its adult tone. With an interesting plot, a well fleshed out world, and characters I want to hear more about, it is one of the better books I have read this year. The Quill to Live recommends The Queen of Blood to all ages and genders, come see the beauty and horror of Renthia.

Rating: The Queen of Blood – 9.0/10