City Of Miracles – The Triple Crown

28784121The Quill to Live turned two recently (go us!), and I decided I wanted to do a special review to celebrate our anniversary. I think the best tribute to the site is to review a book we really loved, or maybe talk about something that we have never seen before, or maybe talk about a big upcoming book. Luckily for us, Robert Jackson Bennett was able to provide all three in one package. City of Miracles, the third and final book in The Divine Cities trilogy, comes out later this year (May 2nd in the US) and we were lucky enough to get an advance copy. When we got the ARC in January, I sat on it for about two months (much to the ire to one of the editors) because I was afraid to read it. I had spoken to Bennett and he confirmed that City of Miracles is indeed the end of the line for this story, and I was not ready for it to be over. I wasn’t worried about it being good, I knew it was going to be good, I just didn’t want it to be over. I eventually found the courage to open it up and it was everything I wanted it to be. All good things must come to an end, and this series is most certainly a good thing.

Before I go on, if you have not read City of Stairs or City of Blades – please go do so. There are some mild spoilers ahead and they are two of the best books I have ever reviewed (or read, for that matter). Read them and come back!

City of Miracles picks up our story a few years after City of Blades left off. Our story this time follows Sigrud, spy and major player in both the previous novels, as he moves from a supporting role to the lead man. The book opens with Sigrud on the run for past crimes, when he finds out that his dear friend and partner, Shara, has passed away. This death comes as a huge shock to Sigrud, who has been waiting on a call from Shara for years to tell him he can come back to society – cleared of his crimes. Sigrud travels to Shara’s last known location, dusts off his rusty spy skills, and gets to work finding out what caused the death of his friend and partner. Every Divine Cities book is as much focused on an overarching mystery as on fantasy, and City of Miracles was my favorite enigma to unravel. The book takes everything you have learned about Bennett’s world in the previous two novels and asks you to apply it to new problems. City of Miracles continues to ask new questions and expand the boundaries of what we know about this universe.

The book nails all my usual metrics (characters, worldbuilding, action, creativity, humor, prose, and overarching themes), but instead of talking about the panoply of standard literary measures that City of Miracles nails, I want to talk about a few things it does that are extremely rare. When Bennett originally released the back of the book plot blurb for City of Blades I was disappointed. The book was going to jump forward years, the setting was going to change a bit, and we were going to get a different cast of characters (though many return). I loved the way City of Stairs’ story came together at the end tying everything together, and I wanted more of that story. City of Blades ended up telling a different, but equally incredible, story that once again blew me away. Learning from my presumptions of book two, when I saw City of Miracles once again was a different setting, cast, and time I said “sure, I know it’s going to be amazing”. It is. However, what I didn’t realize was that Bennett was playing a long con on me. On top of being a beautiful book in its own right, Miracles does a great job weaving all three books into one tapestry and it is one of the best and most emotional journeys I have been on. You get to watch a world, and its people, grow and change – which is a rare thing. It gave me hope in our current literary landscape filled with grimdark novels that toll the bell for the end of humanity, and I loved it.

Speaking of emotional journeys, Miracles continues the trend of being an emotional roller coaster that made me cry for both happy and sad reasons. There is something special about The Divine Cities, in that they don’t really feel like escapism pieces. Despite their fantastical settings, their magic filled cities, and their memorable and lovable characters, their lessons just hit a little too close to home for me to be brushed off as fun reads. These books will show you a great time, but also make you think and introspect a lot. I got to see some of my truly deepest fears play out across Miracles’ pages and I think Bennett made me realize they are as real as I imagined. But the power of Bennett’s writing is that not only did he bring these terrors to life, he showed me how to face them. Sigrud’s story was probably my favorite from the trilogy, and just like the other two will break your heart in half. Miracles had one of the best endings I have read to a series, rivaling those of my other top series (Malazan and The Black Company) which had a lot more time to build up to their fiery conclusions. City of Miracles is perfect from start to finish and will be one of the best books to come out in recent memory.

It should be fairly obvious that I am going to give Miracles a perfect ten at this point, but Bennett has achieved more than a perfect conclusion with his latest novel. I have a lot of series that rival this for “all time favorite”, however all of them usually have a few places where I thought it could be slightly improved. The Divine Cities is the first series I have ever read to get perfect tens straight through, with no areas that I think could have been improved. If you haven’t picked up these books yet, I implore you to correct that mistake. Now please excuse me, I am going to go order the rest of Robert Jackson Bennett’s work.

Rating:

City of Miracles – 10/10
The Divine Cities – 10/10

Wayfarers One and Two – A Delectible Duo

Today we have a double feature with books one and two of the Wayfarer series by Becky Chambers. Up first we have the incredible A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which I will be shortening to SAP as I want to have room in the review to write things other than its name. Once finished I will talk about the sequel (which is more of a spin off), A Closed and Common Orbit. These books are super weird and I ended up loving both of them to pieces, so let’s jump right in.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_As I said, these books are not your ordinary kettle of fish. SAP isn’t really about anything. It is a science fiction slice-of-life novel that follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship called the Wayfarer. The ship isn’t out to save, or doom, the galaxy- it is all simply a job for the crew, working 9-5 while also living as a large family in space. Our story starts with a new member joining the crew with a mysterious past, but while most science fiction novels segue this into world ending events, SAP only uses it to address that specific character’s backstory and slightly drive the overall plot forward. See SAP is all about the characters, and dear god are the characters excellent. We have the captain, pilot, navigator, 2 mechanics, engineer, chef/doctor, and the new clerk. I would tell you about each and every one of them, but for once I actually think I am going to hold off. The characters are all beautifully written and I loved them all. They’re an eclectic group and their personalities and stories have something for everyone, but while I had a favorite my ranking of who I liked most was so close for the entire cast it doesn’t really matter. As I mentioned, SAP follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship, and the plot of the book centers around the crew taking on a huge and challenging job that will keep them in an enclosed space for a long time stopping all over the universe. SAP uses this premise to weave a tapestry of micro stories about each of the individual members of the crew, telling you their life stories over the course of a chapter here and there, as well as showing their interactions as a cohesive crew. It is a book about people, and nothing, and I would read 100 of them.

On top of having one of the best written casts I have ever read, Chambers is a meticulous world builder with an eye for detail and… well… fun. Her universe is a place I badly want to live in as it sounds awesome. The races are interesting and original (mostly), the worlds and technological wonders are astounding, and she has done a great job of writing a window into her worlds for you to see all of them. The settings are extremely immersive, and I found myself wanting to call her and ask her all sorts of questions about how things worked. Due to the incredible setting, and relatable characters, SAP is one of the most relatable books I have read in recent memory. The entire novel is about small problems that everyone has: work, family, love, wanting to make something of yourself, running from your past, bigotry, war, loneliness, and the list goes on. If you can’t find something to relate to in this book you likely don’t have human emotions and should probably seek help.

168125Shifting to the second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit (CCO), you will find a lot of the same with some slight differences. Chambers mixes it up with her sequel, ditching the crew of the wayfarer and instead following two side characters from SAP. CCO alternates chapters between an A.I. who has just been born into the world and the mechanic watching over the A.I.. The A.I. is discovering new surroundings and sensations, and is trying to make sense of a whole new world. The mechanic’s chapters take place in the distant past and show how she once faced similar situations as a child and her struggles with the same problems. CCO is a different, but equally beautiful, book that weaves the stories of one womans past and the A.I.’s present to create a river of self discovery. I liked the duo of CCO less than I liked the crew of Wayfarer, but I still thought the cast of CCO was better than most books I have recently read. I appreciated that Chambers picked up right where she left off on worldbuilding in book two, and CCO continues to flesh out her captivating universe.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this series other than it has cemented a spot in my collection of favorite books in record time. I want more, tons more, and I think that Wayfarers is a series that anyone can enjoy. Do yourself a favor and pick them up now and take a break from reality and live the lives of a lovable crew tunneling through space, and finding their way in a brave new world.

Ratings:
A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet – 9.5/10
A Closed and Common Orbit – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Holver Alley Crew – A Solid Score

Hi everyone, apologies for the sporadic posting recently but things at my job have been a bit nuts. I plan on getting back to my regular posting schedule starting next week. In the meantime, let’s talk about The Holver Alley Crew.

51hc-zmhtgl-_sx304_bo1204203200_The Holver Alley Crew, by Marshall Maresca, is a fantasy heist novel, winning it a boatload of points right off the bat. I am a huge fan of heist novels, and they definitely fall under the umbrella of my guilty pleasures. This first book in a trilogy takes place in the same universe as both of Maresca’s earlier work, following a vigilante and a detective in the same city of Maradaine. For those wondering if you need to have read all his previous work, I have not read either of his previous stories and I had no problem jumping straight into this novel. The title of the book is fairly self explanatory, and follows a group of shopkeepers on Holver Alley as they team up and try to pull off a heist, and more, in order to recover from a tragedy.

The aforementioned tragedy is that Holver Alley burns down, putting many poorer shopkeepers out of work and home, and that is where we start the novel. As in most heist novels, the team is made up of an eclectic group of people with a variety of skills and backgrounds. We have the mechanical expert, the retired spy, the sharpshooter, the muscle, the wheelman, the makeup artist, the locksmith, the chemist, and the understudy. Of the group about half have experience in the crime underworld, and half are taking their first step into the shadier side of life. It makes for a good dynamic and I enjoyed the overall synergy of the crew. What starts as a simple story about planning the heist of a statue to pay the bills morphs into a more complex plotline as the crew finds hints that their alley didn’t burn down by accident. It is fun to watch the crew plan out all of the steps of their various heists and I was fairly invested in most of the story from start to finish.

The world building felt a little sparse for me, but I suspect that is likely due to being heavily developed in earlier novels (and even without that context, the world building wasn’t bad). My one request is that I would have liked to know a little more about the aristocracy that we are intended to hate throughout the novel. The characters varied in terms of how I felt about them. Some felt really fleshed out and interesting, while others felt a little flat and two dimensional. However, I will say that the ratio of interesting to bland was in favor of the interesting. My real major complaint for the books was that it never really got me excited enough. I was invested the entire time, and enjoyed the story plenty, but I never quite felt on the edge of my seat. There was a really detailed planning sequence to the heists (which of course never go according to plan) and I think it stripped away a little bit of that feeling of “how are they going to do this” that is ever present in most heist stories, and is what keeps me coming back. However, The Holver Alley Crew has a lot of charm and spunk that made up for the missing heist elements.

I enjoyed The Holver Alley Crew, but I was a little disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it more as I tend to love books of this genre. I definitely recommend it, especially if you also love heist stories or are a fan of Maresca’s earlier work. However, I will also say I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had a little more worldbuilding, some characters were a little more fleshed out, and the heists a little more exciting. All in all, still a fun read and I will have to check out some of Maresca’s other work.

Rating: The Holver Alley Crew – 7.0/10

Observations About LotR – The Fellowship

lotr11The Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember:

1) Sam is really obviously the hero of the story – I read LotR when I was 12, and am 27 now. When I was about 18 I remember reading a piece by Tolkien talking about how he actually intended Sam to be the hero of the story, and it blew my mind. What a revelation! Who could have guessed that Sam was the true hero all along? Answer – probably everyone. At 12 I thought it was the cool prince, but reading now it is painfully obvious that Sam is the greatest. When everyone is running around being an egotistical douche, Sam is usually making comments like “all I want is love and peace on Middle Earth, and to see elves and tell them I love them”. He is the most wonderful character in the series, gets shit done, and whenever he is asked a question usually has a profoundly wise answer. He is not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need.

2) The famous “Not all who wander are lost” line that is quoted endlessly actually comes from a much larger poem – And the rest is equally kickass. It is from Aragorn’s prophecy and the rest goes like this:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

3) Aragorn is a lot less princely, and a lot more crazy homeless person than I remember – When I read LotR I remember thinking Aragorn was the coolest. That was probably some projection on my part, because Aragorn feels like a crazy person who lives in the woods (which he is!) in the books. He’s a lot less romantic and a lot more “can’t have a normal conversation with another person” than I remember. The movie Aragorn with his lush hair, perfect smile, and princely charisma has definitely warped my memory of this crazy ranger who lives in the trees

4) Tolkien has some pretty ridiculous “TL:DR” writing occasionally – For those unfamiliar, TL:DR stands for “too long, didn’t read” and is usually a one line summary of a long piece of writing. Here are some of the major events that Tolkien sums up in a single line: Aragorn randomly reforging his sword, the entire fellowship dealing with the death of Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli going from hating one another to being BFFs, and Gandalf escaping from the death trap atop Saruman’s tower. I would have liked to see all these scenes in more detail, but I also found a lot of humor at their suddenness.

5) Tolkien is actually really funny – It can be hard to realize that Tolkien is actually hilarious, because his prose is usually so complex and occasionally archaic. But after reading a few scenes I took a step back and thought about them and found myself laughing out loud. An example; when the hobbits and Aragorn are being chased by the Ringwraiths, Frodo turns to Aragorn and asks him what is following them and here is a close approximation of how the conversation goes:

Frodo: Hey Aragorn, you are wise and worldly – can you tell us what this scary mystery force is chasing us? I am quite terrified and anything you can tell me about them will make me feel better.

Aragorn: Oh no, you are much better with me not telling you. Like, what is chasing us is so pants-shittingly terrifying that if I told you even a little about what they are and the 11 million ways they will murder and torture you when they catch you, you would be so scared you would LITERALLY die.

Frodo: HOW? HOW WAS THAT HELPFUL? IN WHAT WAY WAS THAT USEFUL INFORMATION, YOU COULDN’T HAVE JUST LIED TO ME? ALSO WHATEVER THEY ARE CANNOT BE SCARIER THAN THAT HORRIFIC DESCRIPTION YOU JUST GAVE.

Rereading the Lord of the Rings has been a lot more fun than we realized, and we recommend you all reread it (or read it for the first time!) when you get a chance. The movies had corrupted my memory of the actual books a lot, and I was surprised to realize how much better many aspects of the story are in their pure original version. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien continues to impress with every read of his masterpiece.

Waking Gods – More Of The Same

30134847Last year saw a large break-out success in the science fiction genre in the form of Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. For a spoiler free summary: the book told the story of a young girl who falls through the earth onto a giant’s hand. This young girl grows up to assemble a team of scientists, military, and government officials who set about digging out the giant – tracking down the missing pieces – and assembling them. This is arguably a huge achievement for science, and an incredibly bad/good idea depending on your point of view. Our second book picks up ten years after the first with a new threat looming on the horizon – other giants have arrived on earth.

The main sell of Sleeping Giants was its innovative (yes I know it has been done before, but it still felt fresh) style of using only dialogue to tell the story. The chapters are interviews, conversations, phone calls, radio broadcasts etc. and they keep the book moving at a very fast pace. Dialogue is a lot of fun, and often my favorite part of stories. With the entire story told through talking you can expect lots of great one liners left and right. However, as we move into Waking Gods, the second book in Neuval’s trilogy, the appeal of only dialogue is starting to grow old for me. There are some inherent issues that arise with only dialogue storytelling in the second novel. For starters, the first book lent itself to mostly research, explorations, and discussion – something that dialogue does really well. Book two on the other hand, has a lot of combat and action. And frankly action scenes told only through dialogue, are pretty bad. The idea of two giant colossi duking it out in downtown London gets me hot and bothered, but when it happens in Waking Gods the scene only lasts a few seconds and you can barely tell what is happening. However, that is not to say the book isn’t exciting.

The conflict is successfully elevated from book one, and follows an escalating mystery with the answer preventing human extinction – so the stakes feel high the entire time. The puzzle feels both captivating and well planned, and kept me burning through the book straight until the end. The answer to the mystery was not the greatest reveal of all time, but nor was it disappointing – falling somewhere in the middle of the two. If I had one request it wouild be that I wished the escalation through the book was a little more gradual, as we went from mild concern to pants-soiling terror in a very short period – something I usually like more slowly build up. In addition, the characters range from lovable, to getting on your nerves. The best characters still tend to be the two who we know nothing about, the shadowy government worker conducting all the interviews and the mysterious Mr. Burns. While we know little about them, they have huge personalities and brighten up Waking Gods (which is severely needed as it is not a particularly happy book).

In the end I don’t have that much more to say about Waking Gods, other than if you liked the first book you will likely enjoy the second. I am starting to tire a little of the style, but Waking Gods definitely delivers more of that punchy dialogue I liked in Sleeping Giants with some new mysteries to solve. I would recommend Neuval avoid combat though, unless he comes up with a more interesting way to talk about it. If you enjoyed Sleeping Giants, I recommend you continue on with the series with the next installment, Waking gods.

Rating: Waking Gods – 6.5/10

The Liberation – A Stong End To The Alchemy Wars

tregillis_liberation-tp1The Alchemy Wars series, by Ian Tregillis, has consistently surpassed my expectations over the last three years. The Mechanical, The Rising, and The Liberation have all been great, and each sequel improves on the previous in small ways. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can find reviews of books one and two here. The story is about an ongoing conflict between the Dutch, the global superpower, and the French, the only holdouts of Dutch world conquest. The Dutch have an army of mechanical servants, soldiers, and marvels that have made them basically untouchable – and the French have invented a range of chemical weapons to try and counter them.

The final book in the series follows the same pattern as the previous, with two POVs belonging to Jax (a Dutch mechanical), Berenice (a French spy), and a third new perspective. Our new POV for The Liberation is finally from the Dutch side, giving us an insightful POV into the final conflict from all angles. It is always hard to talk about a final book in a series without giving spoilers, but the final books does everything I could want from the end of a series. The characters in The Alchemy Wars are fascinating, Berenice in particular. Tregillis is really good at character growth, and it is a joy to watch his creations change as the books go on. They are shaped by tragedy and success, and some of them become stronger, and some of them break. The entire cast feels so organic and real that I might have to admit Tregillis is one of the strongest character writers I have ever read.

In addition, the tech throughout the series only gets cooler. It feels like Tregillis has some awesome new piece of machinery or science to show you every few chapters in all three books, making the entire series exciting and thrilling to read constantly. One thing I really appreciate is that steampunk often feels like a polarizing genre, with some people absolutely hating it. However, The Alchemy Wars does a great job being appealing to everyone by moving the steampunk awesomeness to the background and focusing on a thrilling historical fiction plot with incredible characters.

Tregillis is also great at writing emotionally intense scenes, particularly in The Liberation. The combat is ridiculous and Tregillis’ descriptions of humans fighting mechanical haymakers on legs that will mulch you for one misstep is awesome. The books also do not give plot armor to anyone or anything, something that is much more common in historical fictions (unsurprisingly in real wars A LOT of people die). There are some truly grisly and upsetting deaths, though I would never describe them as gratuitous or there for shock value. Tregillis continuously wants you to remember that wars are terrible, people die, and that this is not an adventure (a lesson Berenice has to learn in the earlier books). The Liberation sees the stakes, combat, and horrors of war reach new heights making it easily the most intense book of the three.

In summary, I honestly did not expect a lot from The Alchemy Wars when I picked it up. I was intrigued by the Dutch vs. French premise, and was hoping for some cool combat at most. What I found was one of the most thoughtful and exciting series I have read over the last few years, with some of the best characters I have ever read. The series is definitely worth your time and I will be purchasing the rest of Tregillis’ catalog, past and future, when I get a chance. For the third and final time, The Quill to Live recommends The Alchemy Wars, do yourself a favor and pick all of it up.

Rating:

The Liberation – 9.0/10
The Alchemy Wars – 8.5/10