Blood of the Four – The Antagonist Protagonist

y450-293An interesting stand alone found its way into my lap this month, courtesy of the lovely people at Harper Voyager. The Blood of the Four, a joint work by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, tells a story of dark fantasy, people large and small, and a nefarious queen with a secret agenda. The book has a huge multitude of POVs that follow royalty, slaves, priests, and artists – each with a small piece of the story. The weird and interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t really a protagonist in the story – other than the antagonist. The division of narration falls 50% on the antagonist, Phela, and 50% on a number of other bit characters. Spending so much time with a woman that you desperately want another character to murder was a strange experience, but it certainly was memorable.

The book takes place in the kingdom of Quandis, a fantasy city state founded on the bones of four godlike sorcerers. Unfortunately, the magic of the four is no longer around – but the legacy of power and splendor that they established is still going strong. The city is led by a group of royals, pampered aristocrats who have their every whim indulged. Far below the royals and normal folk are the Bajuman. Forced into a slave like existence despite their huge numbers, the people of Quandis are taught at an early age to ignore the Bajuman no matter what. Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. However, Princess Phela’s desire for power and flagrant disregard for others is changing everything as she makes a bid for godlike power.

The characters of the book are its selling point. As I mentioned, the really unique thing about Blood of the Four is that its protagonist is sorta the antagonist. Phela manages to both be extremely dislikable and still captivating to read, which is a very rare combination. She does this through excellent exposition, with the authors revealing just enough of her plan and thoughts to keep you interested in what she will do next. Besides her, there is a litany of other bit pieces that you will come to know. For how little time we get with each, I was surprised how much I quickly got to care about the small characters. A mild spoiler is that a major theme of the book is that, while all the small bit pieces seem unrelated at first, you will quickly begin to realize that they have a lot more overlap than initially realized and that many of them know each other. The fusion of the many small POVs into a larger group POV is seamless and beautifully done.

As a mild warning, the book is extremely graphic in both sex and violence. My other contributors like to claim I am basically a puritan inquisitor when it comes to sex in novels, but I actually didn’t mind the over the top scenes in Blood of the Four as they felt like they fit the intense voice of the novel. I also really appreciate the choice to make Blood of the Four a standalone book, as Christopher and Tim use a number of character narrative tricks and surprises to keep the book exciting – but that wouldn’t work well in a longer series. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate the culture and world building.

I have never actually read a book before and disliked the culture, so this is a weird topic for me. I brought up briefly before that the Bajuman, a slave like race of people, live in the lowest rung of society in Quandis. They play a major role in the story and their cultural standing is a major part of the driving force that moves the plot along (i.e., they are treated terribly and several characters want to stand up to Phela to stop this). My main issue is that Blood of the Four claims that this is a world where the Bajuman are SO looked down on, that it is so ingrained to ignore these people, that many cannot even get their brain to recognize that Bajuman exist. There are multiple scenes where Bajuman are literally invisible because royals have been conditioned to ignore them so much. It is a weird over the top recurring plot point, and I found it pulled me out of the story immediately every time that it happened. This, plus the fact that the plot is not the most original I have read, dampened its otherwise really positive character and narrative qualities.

Blood of the Four is a unique read for both its strengths and its weaknesses. I recommend you check it out just to experience the weird prantagonist. The intense prose and strong characters of Christopher and Tim make me want to check out their additional work, but the offputting worldbuilding in Quandis makes me glad that this is just a stand alone. Overall though, I had a pretty good time with Blood of the Four and think you might too.

Rating: Blood of the Four – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Pornokitsch – End Of A Titan

This week we got some very sad news in the reading world. Pornokitsch, one of the largest reading blog/sites around and site that constantly feels dangerous to have in your google history at work, is shutting down. PK has been a valued resource for readers and other reviewers for years, and is part of the reason I decided to get into reviewing in the first place.

Jared in particular, the PK member who handles most of the fantasy content, is one of the best reviewers out there – bringing tons of insight and wit to all his reviews. I regularly disagree with him on his assessments of books, but think that all of his opinions are well argued and worth listening to because he takes a ton of time and effort to formulate them.

The reasons cited for PK shutting down is that it just wasn’t fun enough to do anymore. I can definitely understand that mentality, we were unable to get a post out this Tuesday just due to how busy we are, and having to deal with that sort of impact on your life for the 10 years that PK ran must have been exhausting. However, while I wish them the best of luck and understand why they are closing shop I will still miss them dearly, and maybe The Quill to Live can make the best of a sad thing and shamelessly steal part of their reader base.

In honor of PK, we wanted to highlight some of their posts from over the years we liked in no particular order. If you haven’t every checked out PK, now is as good a time as any and we hope that people still use the existing content for years to come:

-The QTL Team

Age Of Assassins – A Blade With A Little Too Much Edge

33296298As per usual, I often spend a good chunk of the start of a year catching up on books I missed from the year before (which causes me to miss more books this year, it’s a vicious cycle). Up next in my 2017 cleanup is Age of Assassins, by R. J. Barker. Assassins are a tricky subject to tackle in fantasy. In the past I have gone into assassin novels expecting constant action and murder, but assassination has typically been more of a waiting game than anything else – which can leave me disappointed. So when I realized that this book had all the soul of other classic assassin novels, with great pacing, I was quite excited to dig in. But first, let’s talk plot.

Girton Club-foot, apprentice assassin, still has much to learn from his master (Merela) before he can strike out on his own. However, thanks to a past she can’t outrun, Merela strikes a bargain with a queen to hire Girton as an assassin/bodyguard to kill the other assassins after her son, Aydor. So a sheltered Girton is thrust into knight training and must navigate the perils of friendship, mystery, and political intrigue. If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a coming of age story about Girton. The book primarily follows the first person POV of Girton and follows him as he essentially shifts from assassin homeschool, to knight public school. On top of this, there is the mystery of who is trying to murder prince Aydor, and a lot of political intrigue around the noble families of the world. The three elements of storytelling (coming of age, mystery, and political intrigue) pair with a fast pace for a thrilling read, but there are also some issues.

First let’s talk about Girton. Right off the bat, let me say that I think Girton is an incredibly well written character that does a very good job placing you in his shoes. The problem is sometimes his shoes are terrible and I don’t want to wear them. I would describe Girton as that socially awkward friend that every person has, where nine times out of ten they are wonderful to be around, and one time out of ten they are a cataclysm of awkwardness. I honestly think this is a realistic portrait of a boy who basically never had a friend until the age of 14 and spends most of his time learning the most efficient way to murder people. However, that doesn’t make his extremely awkward or edgy passages fun to read. Generally Girton is a fun and endearing boy to read about as he awkwardly makes his first social steps. However, his secret assassin background enables some internal power fantasy monologues that shattered my empathy for him like throwing a mark through a window. The appeal of the characters in general was very varied. My favorite group of characters was the “suspects”, or the various individuals around the castle that Girton investigated to see if they were behind the attempts on Aylor’s life. This group were varied, well fleshed out, and had a lot of personality that really brought the mystery to life and made you wonder who was behind the assassination attempts. On the other hand, Girton, his master, Aylor, and a few others fell flat for me. Aylor in particular, clearly trying to embody the “jackass prince who will become a spoiled terrible king” trope under delivered. I was initially worried that he would be an over the top asshole, but I instead found I was generally apathetic about him and not invested in him getting his comeuppance.

Along a similar line, the plot also felt like it varied in quality. The pacing was very fast, which was both good and bad. In some chapters I found myself on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. In others, I found myself metaphorically shot from a cannon through world and character development, so that the payoff of story arcs was smaller than it could have been. For example, there were a few small passages that talked about the origin and structure of Girton’s assassin organization, but they are so few and far between that they left me wanting. In addition, it was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the “horses” of Age of Assassins were a cross between elk, tigers, and boars and I am super disappointed the book did not spend more time talking about these rideable death machines. The mystery and political intrigue elements were much more solid, remaining strong almost throughout the book. There were a couple of small twists that a blind man could have seen coming from the horizon, but as a whole the core mystery was extremely well done and I found myself deathly (get it? Because assassins) curious about the identity of the culprit until the final pages. Finally, Barker has a real talent for action writing. The action sequences in Age of Assassins were definitely a highlight, and they satisfied my desire to see a well-trained assassin murder large groups of people.

Overall, Age of Assassins was slightly disappointing. The book felt like a long prologue that could have been a lot better with a little more depth. However, the bones of something excellent are here and I am going to stick with the series and give the second book a shot. If you are in the market for a coming of age story about assassins, and are willing to forgive a little awkwardness, you should give Age of Assassins a shot.

Rating: Age of Assassins – 6.0/10

The Tethered Mage – Restrained Fun

34219880I received a copy of The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This book was sold to me as wizards in Venice, which I honestly don’t think is quite right. Another reviewer I spoke to described it as “YA Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I think is closer to the truth. The Tethered Mage both over and under performed in certain areas, but overall was an enjoyable read. However, let’s first start with the plot.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of a large empire based in the city of Raverra. The primary driver of this peace is that the empire controls the Falcons, powerful magic users that range in ability from warlocks that can control the elements to artificers who can build amazing magical machines. Due to the volatility and danger of the Falcon magical power- children who show marks of power (eyes that gain an extra colored ring) are press ganged into magical service for the empire. It is not as bad as it sounds, the Falcons live lives of opulence and comfort, but they are not free people and must come to terms with that fact. To control the Falcons, each magic user has a corresponding Falconer that can turn their magic on and off – which is where our story begins.

Our protagonist is Amalia, a fairly sheltered aristocrat girl with a penchant for adventure and a taste for artifice. The book begins with Amalia taking a trip to the ghettos of Raverra in search of a rare book. While on said trip, she comes across an extremely rare fire warlock, Zaira, losing control about to burn down the the city. Through a stroke of luck, Amalia is able to put a metaphorical collar on Zaira, and shut down her magic – but this raises problems of a different sort. Raverra is a highly political city, where several aristocratic families vie for power. As such, none of them are allowed to be tied to a Falcon, especially if they are as powerful as a fire warlock. This rockets Amalia to the center of a number of city intrigues, will she be able to navigate them and come out alive?

If the plot seems a little over the top, that’s because it is. The set up for the premise felt like it stretched my suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to give The Tethered Mage a pass due to how fun it is. It is largely a book of political intrigue, and the politics and twists are a blast. The world and culture of Eruvia revolve around powerful city states, and are very fleshed out. The cities all have their own unique feel, and it was fascinating to see how they all interplay. While the cities had a lot of depth, the characters (in particular the leads) left something to be desired. Amalia and Zaria are fairly one dimensional, though the supporting cast was surprisingly not. They did improve in depth as the story progressed (in particular as certain romances progressed), but the start of the book was rather rough. The magic was entertaining though, in particular the take on magical artifice. The various magical tools that the Falcons created added a lot of originality to the books and did a lot to distinguish The Tethered Mage in the current landscape. In addition, I enjoyed the twist on the enslaved magic user trope with collared mages living in opulence.

The Tethered Mage was not perfect, but it did enough right to earn a recommendation. The cast warmed on me while I wandered the captivating city states and I found myself very interested in what happens next. Amalia first halting steps are political intrigue are fun to watch, and I am excited to see how she comes into her own in Raverra’s complicated political landscape.

Rating: The Tethered Mage – 7.5/10

The Murderbot Diaries – Never Stop Murdering

32758901We are wrapping up the pile of short book reviews, and have saved the best for last: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. I had heard of Martha before this for her larger fantasy series, The Cloud Roads, and her Star Wars novels, but had not ever gotten around to checking her out (which is unfortunately true for several authors on my mountain of to-be-read books). However, after reading her short novels All Systems Red, and the sequel Artificial Condition, I will likely be bumping her books up the pile significantly.

In my opinion, the perfect novella has the following things: memorable and lovable characters, a fast plot with a narrow scope, and a clear theme/idea with excellent execution. I am actually less forgiving with a short book than a long one because I feel that when you have less space to work with, you need to maximize the impact of each page more than when you are writing an 800 page epic. And when using these criteria, there was one clear winner of the novellas I have recently read – The Murderbot Diaries. The series follows the titular Murderbot, a security robot who has hacked her governing module. This module suppresses her free will and would normally place her under human control, but after hacking it she controls her own destiny. Wells has written a science fiction setting in the far future where humanity is a galaxy spanning empire where cheap and greedy corporations are still in charge. As mentioned, Murderbot is a security robot who is loaned out to researchers who need protection in the field. Thanks to a mysterious incident, Murderbot finds her… its?… governing module disabled. However, in direct opposition to rogue AIs in most sci-fi novels, Murderbot decides to simply keep doing her job of her own volition, instead of trying to murder all humans. The first book All Systems Red, follows Murderbot doing her regular job of protecting researchers while also showing how she constantly has to hide the fact that she is rogue. She of course does not keep her free will hidden for very long, and finds herself in complicated situations she must navigate her way out of. The second book, Artificial Condition, is about Murderbot fleeing the events of the first novella and trying to discover the origins of the event that gave her free will.

murderbot2I say her because I get the distinct feeling that she is written to be female, but that might just be because I have a massive crush on her. Going back to my three pillars of a good novella, Murderbot is both extremely memorable and utterly lovable. There is something wonderfully charming about a powerful rogue AI just wanting to do her job and watch a lot of TV (which is her #1 favorite thing to do) just like anyone else. The first novella has Murderbot mostly interacting with humans (all of which will endear themselves to you), but the second has her spending some time with other AIs to amazing comedic and poignant effect. The characters in this series are wonderful, and you will find yourself caring deeply about their fates after a few pages – one of the hallmarks of a great novella. On top of this, The Murderbot Diaries nails my second and third pillars perfectly. The plot is simple, book one – find out who is trying to murder Murderbot clients and don’t reveal she is a rogue, book two – find out why she went rogue and don’t get caught. However, just because the plot is simple does not mean it is bad. The pacing and flow of the books are amazing, and I found myself unable to put them down from start to finish. I was heavily invested in the mysteries of both novellas and it resulted in me burning through them in a few hours. Finally, I like novellas to have a clear theme with great delivery. In this case I have already spoken about the series theme, a rogue AI defying typical sci-fi tropes, and the execution is flawless. The idea of an AI who just wants to do her job and watch media makes Murderbot seem incredibly human, while Wells’ descriptions of Murderbot’s emotional responses to basically everything simultaneously make her feel inhuman. These two emotions warred within me throughout both books and resulted in Murderbot coming off as an utterly unique character that I cannot wait to read more about.

I have no criticisms of this series other than I wish the books were longer and that there were more of them. Martha Wells achieves in 200 pages what most books struggle to grasp in 500. Murderbot is relatable, alien, adorable, badass, and wonderful all at the same time, and I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t like her. If you have not checked out All Systems Red yet you are making a mistake, and be sure to grab Artificial Condition when it comes out in May (thank you Tor.com for sending me an advanced copy).

Rating: All Systems Red – 8.5/10
Rating: Artificial Condition – 9.0/10

-Andrew

The Armored Saint – Big Power In A Small Package

armoredsaint_revI have been reading a number of short books this month, and it’s making it fairly easy to compare and contrast their strengths. Among the short novels I read, I found a dark horse that I want to draw some attention towards: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole. Some of you might know Myke from his Control Point series, a story about soldiers with superpowers. I really enjoyed Control Point, and Myke’s writing in general, but the subject of the books was not my forte. So I was thrilled to see that he has gone in a new direction and written a story I would describe as part slice of life, part low fantasy, and part Warhammer 40K.

As mentioned, The Armored Saint is a bit of a genre mash up. The book follows the story of Heloise, a young woman trying to get by in a fairly messed up fantasy world. Like many fantasy landscapes, The Armored Saint’s has been ravaged by demons and sorcerers. Out of control magic has wasted away the landscape, and mages are targeted on sight by everyone to prevent additional damage to the surroundings. To deal with the possibility of rogue magic users, the world has an order of inquisitors who ride around and put down those accused of magic use. The plot revolves around Heloise and an interaction she has with one of these roving bands of inquisitors, and the fallout from this interaction. The plot isn’t the powerhouse of the book. In fact, once or twice the plot could be annoying – like when it drew out the power armor reveal that is both in the cover art and title of the book.

However, while the plot might not be my favorite, the book scores unbelievably high marks in character and atmosphere. Let’s start with the characters. Myke Cole’s prose, and vivid writing, does an incredible job establishing the characters in a very short time and draws you straight into their struggles. Character emotions feel real and raw and create a very tense atmosphere where you are concerned for the fate of all of them. On top of this, the crown jewel of the book might be its atmosphere. Heloise is a fairly young, innocent, and naive girl (at least initially). She is thrust into several situations she does not understand, but is smart enough to sense that something about them is off and to be terrified of them. This emotion is mimicked by the book itself as you read it. As you progress through The Armored Saint, you will get the distinct feeling that something is off. Things seem like they are going ok, but you will have this sinking feeling in your stomach that something is about to go very badly. When these terrible moments reveal themselves they capitalize on the build up brilliantly and make for some truly memorable scenes.

The Armored Saint packs a lot of raw emotion and storytelling in a tiny package. While it falls slightly short on story, it is an experience I would recommend to anyone and is one of the best short books I have read this month. Myke Cole is an extremely talented writer and continues to prove he can knock it out of the park with whatever he sets his mind to write.

Rating: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Dawn of Wonder – Dusk Of My Interest

51ffxlj4tvlHello everyone. I apologize for the missed day this week, but I am changing to a new job (as a researcher for the New York Public Library, which is super exciting) and I found myself a little short on time. Accordingly, I wanted to talk about something I rarely mention in my reviews: a book I did not finish. It is uncommon for me to drop a book, as I usually vet my reading material enough that books I won’t enjoy don’t often slip through. However, every so often I find myself reading a book and dragging my feet so much that I realize I should put it down and read something else. Dawn of Wonder, by Jonathan Renshaw, was one such book.

I actually have a lot of good things to say about Dawn of Wonder. The story tells a coming of age fantasy centring around the young Aedan. Aedan and his friends live in a small farming town, making trouble and being generally boisterous. Their lives are turned around when slave traders try to take the town and upheave Aedan’s life. This event ultimately leads Aedan to start training at an academy for mercenaries, hellbent on revenge against the nation that let his homestead be attacked by slavers.

The story is a bit slow at the start, but picks up significantly once Aedan starts training at the academy. Aedan’s unique and defining personality quirk is an aptitude for strategy and tactics that sees him matching wits with seasoned generals in his ability to plan battles. Additionally, Aedan is struggling with some inner demons left from an abusive father that has emotionally crippled him. Watching Aedan attend the academy and pass various trials and tribulations, overcome his inner demons, and plan his revenge is a joy to watch. In fact, in abstract everything about this book is exciting, fun, and has the markings of a great read. However, there are a couple issues with it in practice.

For starters, the biggest issue I have with Dawn of Wonder is the exposition about Aedan. There are constant passages of written exposition about Aedan’s skill and greatness that are awkward, rip me out of the story, and make Aedan feel like an unrealistic ‘Gary Sue’. In one of the earliest chapters, two retired war vets comment aloud (with no context) that Aedan is one of the smartest, coolest, greatest, strategic minds in any book ever, and he’s only a teenager! (I am hyperbolising but this is what it felt like). These aggrandizements soured me on Aedan really, really quickly and made it hard to get attached to his character in any way. Additionally, the inner demons segments of the book are really heavy handed and handled in a melodramatic way that I thought was over the top, further distancing me from Aeden.

These writing problems dissociated me from Aedan as a character so much that I found myself having no interest in continuing to read a book that was otherwise a lot of fun, With a little more show, and a lot less tell, this could have been a favorite of mine. There was no reason that Renshaw couldn’t have just used the academy and the various trials to show Aedan’s brilliance in a much more natural setting. If you can move past the initial bragging, this book might be a home run for you, but I unfortunately got about 40% through before I put it down.

Rating: Dawn of Wonder – 4.0/10 (DNF)