Observations About LotR – The Return Of The King

071tfThe 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. This is the third and final entry on The Return of the King, our thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers can be found here:

1) RotK is 50% epilogue – Literally. I never realized as a child how early in the book they destroy the ring (spoilers). Frodo casts the ring into the volcano at around 55% in my version of the book, and the rest of the story is showing the happily ever after. It suddenly makes a lot more sense as to why the movie seemed to have so many endings – because there are so many little vignettes that Peter Jackson was trying to cover.

2) I see what Tolkien meant about his series in the prologue – At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states that his series was meant actually as one book but they had to break it up for publication due to size. When reading the first two novels I didn’t think much of this note, but upon reaching Return of the King it becomes a lot more obvious. While the first two books in the trilogy feel like full novels, Return of the King doesn’t really stand on its own. The book breaks down into three sections: the first part is one long protracted battle with the larger party, the middle and smallest section involves Sam finding Frodo and them quickly tossing the ring into the mountain, and the back half of the book is cleanup for the entire series. It very much feels like a continuation of The Two Towers and The Fellowship as opposed to its own entity to me.

3) The book drags a little bit more than its predecessors – This was not a unanimous feeling in our reading group, but a good number of people felt that the middle of Return of the King dragged a lot. There is a section of about 40 pages (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure felt like it to me) where Sam and Frodo are trying to locate the right mountain – and they do this by walking up to about 5 different ones and going “is this it? Nope”. I initially really enjoyed Tolkien spending some time elaborating on Orc culture and fleshing them out as a race more, but I don’t need to be told more than one time that Orc clothing is incredibly uncomfortable and I did not find myself enlightened when Tolkien talked about it the seventh or eighth time.

4) I get it now – My first three thoughts might seem very harsh, because I think LotR has a bunch of writing issues when compared to today’s modern style. However, while I had a bunch of small issues with Return of the King, I also can finally see what everyone sees in it. As you read this series, in particular the finale, you can see a map of thousands of books that it inspired. The landscape of the fantasy genre starts to make more sense, and you can see the source of tons of tropes and philosophies that permeate it. You can see why so many people have tried to emulate these aspects of this trilogy. Lord of the Rings is fun and whimsical, but also serious and philosophical. It is a timeless masterpiece, as I am sure everyone already knew, that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. If you haven’t given it a read recently, I recommend you check it out again.

Kings Of The Wyld – An Interview With Nicholas Eames

30841984If you haven’t gotten your hands on Kings of the Wyld yet, by Nick Eames, then you are missing out (review here). It is definitely going to be one of my top books of 2017 and every other reviewer and blogger I know is talking about how much they love it. On top of Kings being an amazing book, Nick is a great guy who kindly agreed to answer a slew of interview questions we sent him. Some of the questions and responses are mildly spoilery – so I would skip this and come back if you have not read the book yet (which you should, immediately. Seriously go read it). The questions and responses are below!

Compared with those belonging to Clay Cooper, how does your arsenal of shrugs measure up?

Not even close! Clay tends to underestimate his own intelligence, and so relies on shrugs to avoid saying something foolish. I, on the other hand, sound foolish all the time.

The Rot is a major part of the world, and character development in your story. Are you drawing from personal experience or was it more of a thought experiment for you?

The latter, for sure. The Rot—and the arbitrary menace it represents to the mercenaries of Grandual—is vaguely representative of the STD’s (including HIV) that afflicted many ‘Golden Era’ rock stars. It’s not something you are guaranteed to get when you venture into the Heartwyld, but it’s always a risk.

It actually played a lesser role in the original draft of KINGS. Thankfully, I was asked to flesh out the story a bit during revisions. The result was a few very poignant scenes that it’s hard to imagine the book without.

Can dragons swim?

Great question! The answer is yes—about as well as dogs can swim. They cannot, however, breath underwater…

How many band names were inspired by real bands?

Most of them were inspired by songs, since using direct band names (outside of a few exceptions like Neil the ‘Young’) is a little on the nose. Some cool (in my opinion) examples are the Wheat Kings (A Tragically Hip song) and Courtney and the Sparks (named for the Joni Mitchell album The Court and the Spark).

A lot of people think Saga is a reference to the Canadian band of the same name. In fact, it was the name of a sword that belonged to the main character in an unpublished book I worked on for almost a decade. Saga is an homage to that.

Were there any monsters you wanted to include but didn’t? If so can you give us a peek?

Ha! I think I got them all. I can tell you, however, that a major plot point in book two revolved around fighting a dragon. But then I thought: “Nope. The dragon’s been done.” So it’s going to be something quite different—but just as deadly.

You admirably managed the difficult combination of emotional and comedic throughout the book. How did you manage to have such a humorous book still resonate so strongly?

Firstly, thanks for saying so. I think two things contributed to this. One is that I’m a hopeless sap, so even though I tried to make the book humorous and lighthearted the whole way through, I can’t help but try and add poignancy here and there. It’s in my nature—and I think life can be funny and sad and scary all at once, so I’d hoped this book would reflect that.

Ultimately, I owe a great deal to my agent and editor, who suggested which scenes were perhaps so ridiculous that they undermined the more serious aspects of the book. To their credit, they let me keep a few of them anyway (Moog tripping over his robe on the hillside, Moog throwing honeyed hams at his enemies, etc). Alas, because of them you’ll never see Moog eating a urine-soaked carrot from a vegan cannibal’s vegetable garden. It’s all about balance…

Who is your favorite band member?

Clay, for sure. Moog is a very close second. But honestly, I love each of them so much.

Will we ever visit Clay’s inn in future books?

*nods enthusiastically* I’m not at liberty to say, sorry. Another great question, by the way. I really appreciate the interest in the lives of these characters beyond the book.

Did you write Kings simply in order to make a really bad portal reference?

You mean a REALLY AWESOME portal reference? That joke just materialized out of nowhere as I was writing the scene and I am so very grateful it did. I know some of these references take readers out of the book—but a lot of things (waiters, stop lights, falling asleep) take you out of a book. It was important to me that fellow gamers could read this book and think, “This Nick Eames guy…he’s one of us.”

I stayed up unreasonably late on a work night in order to finish the last 30% of your book. What’s the most ill-advised thing you’ve done due to the fact you couldn’t put a book down?

That’s amazing to hear! Thank you for saying so. And an easy question to answer! I was working in a restaurant while reading THE VIRTUES OF WAR by Steven Pressfield, and was starting my shift just as Alexander the Great was pulling off his brilliant ruse at Guagemela. Instead of putting the book away, however, I STOOD THERE READING IT in the middle of the restaurant—which was, in my defense, mostly empty! Boy, did I ever get in in trouble. Totally worth it.

So it seems Clay has a lot of difficulty keeping his weapons for more than a chapter or two. Was this a commentary on an aspect of his character (a rough man who deep down doesn’t really want to fight, and just wants to protect) or was this more of a running gag a la Jain and her band of oddly dressed thieves?

The former. Clay’s whole deal is protecting people, although he does hurt a lot of people with that shield, come to think of it. It was definitely a risk writing a huge final battle in which the protagonist can’t actually use a weapon, but I think it works wonderfully, since you get to see each member of the band—Clay included—do that they do best.

If Saga came out with an album, what do you think the album art would be?

Probably the cover of the book. The artist (Richard Anderson, who is amazing) was given the mandate of making it look like one of those old album photographs where the band is standing around looking as if they didn’t stage the shot at all, and I think he nailed it.

That, or just Blackheart’s scarred and weathered face. That might be cool, too.

Sticking with the band analogy that was ever-so-subtly peppered throughout the book, if Gabe is the frontman/lead singer, what instruments would the rest of the bandmates play?

Subtly? Were we reading the same book!? I kid, I kid! Again: awesome question! It goes like this: Gabriel on vocals/guitar, Ganelon on lead guitar, Clay (the forgettable one) on bass, Matrick on drums, and Moog on keyboards/triangle/cow bell.

Scenes involving certain characters were often influenced by the instrument they represent. While writing Matrick’s fight against Larkspur’s thralls, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick (essentially a 20+ minute drum solo) on repeat. The same goes for Ganelon. There is a very specific live version of the Stairway to Heaven guitar solo that I’ve probably listened to a thousand times and had in mind whenever Ganelon was destroying people.

Kings of the Wyld has an interesting structure as a series. I noticed that the sequel no longer follows the cast from the first book, but their children instead. Was it hard writing a book knowing you would have to say goodbye to the original cast at the end? Do you wish you had more time with them?

Not really. In fact, some people interested in publishing it asked that all three books feature Clay and his bandmates, so I was glad when Orbit didn’t insist on it. The truth is, KINGS OF THE WYLD is about that ‘one last, great adventure’, and to drag it out would seem disingenuous to both the characters and the story I was trying to tell.

A few characters from the first book will show up in the second (and also the third) but in a setting where mercenaries are representative of rock bands…Well, sticking to one band would kind of be like listening to, say, Black Sabbath all the time. In book two, it’s time to meet Guns’n’Roses…

Are there any other music genres you would want to make a fantasy novel around? Country? Smooth Jazz? EDM? Would you consider adding in bands from other music tropes into the current world?

As insinuated above, the second book explores a world where new bands wander into the house after old band kicked the door in. Whereas my writing soundtrack to book one consisted largely of 60’s folk and 70’s rock, book two draws influence from 80’s punk, rock, and pop. So goodbye Floyd, Zeppelin, and Dylan (I’ll miss you, truly) and hello Queen, Van Halen, and Pat Benatar!

Any notable pet peeves? Overstuffed napkin holders? Dogs that act like cats? Smart cars?

Commercials that market cleaning supplies to women and BBQ’s to men. Fuck that noise!

Do you read fantasy yourself? Do you have favorite books or authors you recommend? Was there any other book that inspired you to write Kings of the Wyld?

I read all the time, almost every day. My favourite author—hands down—is Guy Gavriel Kay, and I would start with TIGANA or THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN if you haven’t read him before. His books are slow burns, but impossibly beautiful, and I’ve never, ever read anyone near as good. Also Scott Lynch, Pat Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie—in case you’ve been trapped under a rock and haven’t read everything by each of them yet. Also Lila Bowen’s WAKE OF VULTURES and Seth Dickenson’s THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT are recent favourites.

As for what book inspired me to write mine? READY PLAYER ONE, by Ernest Cline. It was a face-paced, shameless love letter to everything the author loves. So, too, is KINGS OF THE WYLD.

Thanks for the questions!

 

Well I know I am pumped as all hell for book two, Bloody Rose. Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk with us, and for making such a fantastic debut novel.

Senlin Ascends – Climbing To The Top Of The Favorite List

17554595Ever since Mark Lawrence gave a vote of confidence for Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, you can’t swing a dead cat (which is a weird saying might I add) without hitting a positive review of it. As such I figured I ought to check it out, because while you probably don’t need yet another review about this increasingly popular book, I was curious to see if Senlin could live up to all the hype. The short answer is yes, this is a great book. For the long answer you will just have to read yet another review of this great book.

Senlin Ascends is a new take on the Tower of Babel, an endlessly tall tower from the Bible filled with incomprehensible wonders and mystery. There have been a number of Babel stories I have read over the years, from Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower to the manga Get Backers, and it is a subject matter I never get tired of. The running thread through all the stories is that the Tower of Babel is an infinitely tall structure, with something of incalculable worth (usually the means to ascend to godhood or ultimate power) at the top. To get to the top one must navigate through the endless labyrinthian floors of the tower, each with their own unique identity and themes – each floor getting harder to pass through as you ascend. The great thing about The Tower of Babel is that while the stories share this same skeleton, there is an unlimited amount of white space that authors can work with when they design the floors of the tower, and the people who climb them. It means that while there are a lot of tower stories, almost none of them reuse the same tower and the stories always feel fresh and fun. In this particular story, we follow Thomas Senlin, a dour school teacher who has recently married. Senlin and his new wife Marya have wanted to see the wonders of the tower their entire life, and saved up enough money to travel to it and explore the first few floors. Upon arriving at the tower, the two are immediately separated and Senlin soon realizes he must climb the tower to save Marya who has disappeared into the tower’s depths.

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Senlin Ascends hits everything I want in a good Tower of Babel story. First off, Josiah’s tower is impressive. He has managed to intertwine the feeling that the tower is a selfish machine that crushes the lives of those who enter with the wonder and mystery that pervade the entire structure. Each floor has its own unique feel and theme, exhibiting crazy ideas and concepts that run from awe inducing to horrifying, and each present unique obstacles for our protagonist to overcome. Senlin is a different and enjoyable lead from most fantasy. He is a quiet, dour, and naive school teacher who stands out in the tower like a signal flare. His personality means that his trip up is not easy, as he is constantly betrayed, swindled, and stabbed in the back as he moves from floor to floor. He has a pervasive feeling of helplessness that makes him seem a lot weaker and unimpressive that most protagonists of a story like this, but it resulted in me adoring him as I got to watch him grow and evolve through his trial in the tower. One of the central themes to the book is the battle of Senlin’s faith in humanity and the tower’s power to turn every person who enters into a selfish bastard. It means that most of the conflict in the book becomes emotional, and large parts of the story revolve around Senlin figuring out whom he can trust, and whom he can make a better person. It adds a lot of tension to conversations and relationships and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder if Senlin has made a mistake trusting someone, or if he has finally found a friend amidst the bandits that fill the tower to overflowing.

Senlin is a great character, and I would read about him in almost any context. However, while I certainly don’t dislike Marya, I found her a noticeably weaker character than Senlin. I found myself willing her passages to end faster so I could get back to Senlin, which is not a fun feeling. Josiah did a good job putting life into his damsel in distress, but I am not enamored by the idea of Senlin being so driven by his wife of all of a few days. The story quickly grows bigger than simply Senlin trying to find his wife (which is awesome and I can’t wait to find out what is happening in the tower), but I would occasionally find Senlin’s motivations uncompelling.

Senlin Ascends is a fresh new take on The Tower of Babel, and is just as mesmerizing, exciting, and fun as all the reviewers say it is. Based on the quality of this first installment, I’m excited to see where Bancroft can take this concept. What starts as a simple rescue, quickly becomes one of the most captivating mysteries I have ever read and a beautiful journey of self discovery. I highly recommend you check out this new entrant into the fantasy scene, and I don’t see the buzz surrounding it dying down anytime soon.

Rating: Senlin Ascends – 9.0/10

Series Check-In – Vlad Taltos

Today I am trying something a little different. Awhile back I reviewed the first three books in the Vlad Taltos series, starting with Jhereg, by Steven Brust. I enjoyed the books a bunch, so much so that I have continued and read nine of the sequels. It is difficult and repetitive for me to post reviews of each of those sequels, so when reading large series like this I hardly ever do. On the other hand, I have invested a lot of time and energy into nine books to not say anything about them, and I have some thoughts on my journey so far. As such I thought I should do a series check-in and give you some general spoiler free thoughts as to if Vlad Taltos is worth your time. I will let you know that I just finished the ninth (sorta) book in the series, Dragon, and that all of these thoughts are from those nine books.

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If you missed my first review, Vlad Taltos is planned to be a roughly 17 book series (with 14 of the books out so far). The book follows the stories of a human assassin named Vlad working in the Dragaeran (sorta like elves) empire where he is a constant outsider. The empire is broken down into 17 houses and each book in the series both showcases one of the houses, indicated by the titles, and slowly builds the story of Vlad and his companions. The difficulty with big series like this is that they inherently have slower (but usually better) character development as the stories are almost always about the growth and change of a character over a large number of books. This has both benefits, like that you grow very attached and invested in the cast, and drawbacks, such as the initial books in the series often aren’t that engaging. When I finished Jhereg I was lukewarm on Vlad because while I thought his character was amusing and fun, he had some tendencies that made him seem like he was trying to be a badass all the time and constantly falling short. What felt like awkward character writing at the start of the story has revealed itself to be intentional character flaws and long term character development. Speaking of characters, when I initially started this series (and for the first three books really) I assumed that this was a story solely about Vlad. However, the more that I read the more I realize that it is really about his relationships with the people around him and learning to find companionship and love in a world where both are culturally looked down on and where one is an outsider. It is a wonderful theme, and as I have learned more about Vlad’s friends and family, they have steadily moved from fond acquaintances to close friends.

While the characters are certainly the series’ driving force, the plot becomes surprisingly nuanced and captivating as well. Brust published the books out of chronological order, which results in the timelines of the stories being an absolute mess. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in big series because I feel it prevents a meaningful linear storyline from developing. While I still wish that Vlad Taltos was chronological, Brust is a master of information manipulation and has written his series so that even though the books aren’t in the order they happened you have this sense of a growing body of knowledge. An example of this is I just read the third book chronologically, but the ninth in publishing order. While none of the events that happen in this book can effect what is happening in the current timeline (or rather, the furthest point in time chronologically), I am learning information and twists from the third book that greatly alter my understanding of what is happening in the ninth. You realize quickly that the details matter and that the closer you pay attention to the little things in the book the more you will be rewarded. This keeps you on your toes as you read and does a great deal to keep the books feeling fresh.

Speaking of keeping things fresh, when I finished the first few books I was a little worried that the series might fatigue me as they share a lot of similarities. Brust relieves this by beginning to drastically change the style of his narration and storytelling in each book. Each house in the Dragaeran Empire gets its name from different animals they were genetically altered with, and the qualities of that animal they embody. The translations from animal to behavior to cultural values are not always intuitive (especially when some of the animals are original to Brust), but they are all definitely distinct. As such, the story of each book reflects the house it is about. In the last three books I have read one was on self discovery that was deeply philosophical, one that was a murder mystery, and military adventure about a civil war. Each of these books did a great job of teaching me about their respective houses, adding to the collective plot, and changing up Brusts formula to keep me from being even slightly fatigued.

When I read a series that has 10+ books, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish if I like the books or if I am just mentally trying to justify the amount of time that I have sunk into them. With Vlad Taltos I can safely say it is the former, and I have found myself changing up my reading schedule to read ‘just one more Vlad book’. While I was lukewarm about Jhereg, the more time I have spend with Vlad and his friends, the higher my passion for the series has risen. I have definitely started to see why some consider this one of the best fantasy series of all time, and I recommend you dig in and see for yourself.

Starting Places For Various Sub-Genres – Unbound Worlds

I am unfortunately a bit disorganized today, so I do not have a fresh review or thought piece for you to burn through. Instead, I want to draw attention to a great piece from another website – Unbound Worlds.

Unbound Worlds has created a fantastic introduction list to a number of various sci-fi and fantasy sub-genres called So You Want To Read… A Guide To Sci-Fi And Fantasy Subgenres. The list has all your classic mainstream sub-genres like High Fantasy or Military Sci-fi. However, it also has a number of lists for the more obscure genres out there, such as Weird Fiction and Hollow Earth Fiction. It is a great resource for starting the various genres, and while their lists are certainly not exhaustive I find I can’t argue with almost any of their recommendations. If you are feeling genre fatigue, want to diversify your reading, or are just looking for some sub-genre all-stars you might have missed – check it out!

The Legion Of Flame – A Battalion Of Hotness

Let me save you some time. The Legion of Flame, by Anthony Ryan, is great. You should absolutely go pick it up and read it (preferably after reading the initial installment The Waking Fire). Great, now we can get into the actual review.

61u8borhpml-_sx329_bo1204203200_Competition has been harsh this summer. As we pass through June and July, I have seen so many strong releases that it is getting increasingly hard to stand out from the pack. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Anthony Ryan’s next installment of The Draconis Memoria, The Legion of Flame. Continuing the story of Lizanne Lethridge, Clayton Torcreek, and Captain Corrick Hilemore as they attempt to stave off a reptilian apocalypse, Legion picks up almost exactly where The Waking Fire, book one in the series, left off. The White has awoken and is gathering an army of dragons and Spoiled, and doom is coming. Cue our heroes rushing around to a variety of places to try to save the world. The cast has been expanded again, but telling you about the new POV and characters are direct spoilers, so you will have to settle with trusting me that they are excellent additions to an already great group of people.

One of my few complaints with the first book in the series was that while the story and world were inventive and fun, it felt like a lot of the finer details were glossed over in favor of the action. Why do the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Protectorate hate each other so much? Who even is the Blood Cadre? Why didn’t Hilemore get more screen time? Luckily for us, The Legion of Flame explores more of the world and politics, giving us a much better understanding of why these conflicts exist and who the major players involved in them are. Liz is given a mission to go to the Corvantine Empire to attempt to negotiate a treaty between the Empire and the Ironship Protectorate in the face of the impending attack from the White and his legion of flame (see what I did there?). While we don’t spend a lot of time in Corvus proper, the time we do spend there is rich in detail and gives a much better understanding of the empire and its ruling class. While this is going on, Clay and Hilemore begin a voyage to the South Pole, in an attempt to fulfill the vision Clay saw when he got some white dragon blood in his mouth (gross).

Here we come upon another complaint of mine from book one that is remedied. Hilemore felt like an awesome, but unnecessary, addition in The Waking Fire, with Clay and Liz given a significantly larger portion of screen time. While he still has less chapters than the two of them, he is greatly expanded upon in a way that I felt was beneficial and added a measure of naval fun to a story that had mostly revolved around “Magic Indiana Jones” and “Magic Girl James Bond”.

Speaking of “Magic Girl James Bond”, Liz’s mission takes her to Scorazin, a prison city in the Corvantine Empire that “no one ever escapes from”. I loved this. While it did expand upon the unfortunate and unnecessary (in my opinion) romance between Arberus and Liz, the time she spends within its walls was fast-paced, full of intrigue, and action packed. There were twists aplenty and I was constantly waiting for her next chapter so I could continue the excitement. Liz continues to claw her way up the ranks of my favorite characters with her brilliant competence, interesting mix of cold secret agent mentality and strong moral compass, and asskicking prowess. Character growth is something that I have given Ryan a hard time for in the past, but watching Liz change as she is put through trial after trial is one of my favorite parts of this series.

Touching back on the romance, it seemed like it was a little forced, and only existed to add some unnecessary tension to Lizanne’s story line. Additionally, Liz’s motivations and drives become a little cloudy and hard to understand around the two thirds point in the book and I had a bit of trouble following the logic of her actions for a few chapters. However, this lack of clarity only lasts a short while and soon the book returns to the streamlined and exciting plot that pervades this entire series.

While it continues the overall story, and sets up book three with an absolutely tantalizing cliffhanger (the suspense is actually killing me), The Legion of Flame contains a remarkably tight story arc of its own, expanding many of the existing plotlines and spinning a whole tapestry of new ones that captivated and astounded me. I spent a ridiculous amount of my time reading this book having absolutely no idea where it was going. The characters are grasping at straws as they try to come up with ways to combat the White, and the narrative structure mimics this beautifully. I was worried that the reveals and twists at the end of the book would not live up to the build up and I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. I am barely able to contain my excitement for the next installment in the series, and continue to be impressed by Ryan’s growth as an author with each of his novels.

If you’re looking for an end of the world driven by dragons, great characters, and a fast-paced but intricate story look no farther than The Legion of Flame. The Quill to Live heartily recommends this book and series.

Rating: The Legion of Flame – 9.0/10