Fourteen Female Protagonists Worth Your Time

This week a few readers asked us to talk about our favorite female protagonists. We have always wanted to write a post about our favorite women leads in fantasy and sci-fi, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to do it. Four of us sat down and came up with fourteen of our favorite lead characters (we left out anyone from Malazan as we could do an entire post about the female leads in those books). If you are looking for powerful female leads, we promise you that this list will not disappoint. The characters are in no particular order, but we have numbered them to make this huge list easier to read.

vin-by-miranda-meeks-web-703x10891) Vin (Mistborn) Let’s get her out of the way, all of you knew she would be on this list: Vin. I absolutely loved following Vin’s storyline through the Mistborn series. She grew up facing true hardships: beatings, starvation, fighting off unwanted advances, and a harsh older brother who always tried to instill the belief upon her that you can only ever rely on yourself. If there’s one thing Vin learned from her childhood, it’s to be a survivor. But the best part of her story is seeing her evolution. After growing up with people constantly trying to take advantage of her, she falls in with a group of rogues that treat her as a full member of their team. She finally gets to experience trust and friendship and, as part of their exploits, love. In fact, Vin’s love story is one of my favorites across all the novels I’ve read.

Vin suffers from the same imposter syndrome that many of us feel, myself included, and it was extremely life-affirming to see her gain confidence in her own abilities while struggling to accept that she was worthy of the trust and love of the people around her. It’s rarely easy to feel like you fit in with a group of people you admire, and my heart ached sympathetically whenever Vin was down on herself, but that only made me cheer harder when she rises up and lets herself shine.

23548791-_sy540_2) Essun (The Fifth Season) – It’s so hard to talk about why Essun is such a great character without giving away one of my favorite eye-opening moments of The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. Considering the title of the book is the term used to describe a time of apocalyptic change that occurs semi-frequently, and the fact that it’s a three book series, it goes without saying that Essun is resilient. She lives in a harsh world and has suffered more than most in it. At the same time, she’s had moments of joy that most in her world have never matched. It’s a combination, especially when taken in whole at the end of the series, that creates a character whose defining trait is a melancholic sense of moving forward and accepting the hand one has been dealt.

I would never want to be Essun, her life is tragic and her world is harsh. I do, however, want to be like Essun in certain ways. Her sheer determination, her resourcefulness, her willingness to sacrifice for those she loves. Her story is the saddest on this list, but it’s also the most moving and it challenged me the most emotionally. The two of us here at QTL who have read the series have been badgering everyone we know to read this series just so we can have more people to talk about it with. It is worth setting the time and emotional battery power aside to read this difficult, painful, and beautiful series.

259721773) Lizanne Lethridge (The Waking Fire) – In a time where readers are looking for the next badass woman to showcase that women can be tough too, Lizanne stands out from the crowd. Having recently read Legion of Flame, I have gained a new appreciation for Lizanne as a character. Sure, she is a badass super spy with special abilities, but she is also supremely competent and confident in her skills. She prefers nothing more than getting a job done and displays one of the fiercest drives I have experienced in any character. What makes her one of the most interesting female protagonists is her conflicts rarely involve improving her ability to fight. Fighting feels like a roadblock to her, just a thing that must happen in order to achieve her goals. She is incredibly adaptable to any situation, being able to read a room and become the person she needs to be, and Ryan is a good enough writer to make you feel Lizanne trick herself into being that person.

One of my recent favorite character moments involves her, and a man, interested in her romantically, discussing who she is. He mentions that he hates “what the syndicate turned her into”, and with a quiet confidence she responds with something akin to “this had to be inside me from the beginning, otherwise they would have nothing to mold”. It was such a small moment but incredibly cogent moment. And to feel it imbued with her voice in such a succinct defense of who she was while being said to a man who had only an inkling of who she was, was so powerful to me. I only wish I could carry the same confidence that Lizanne has infused within her bones.

22876618-_sy540_4) Ashara Thivani/Komayd (City of Stairs) – Anyone who reads the site regularly will know one of our all-time favorite books is City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. No small part of this love is due to the books incredible protagonist, Shara. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history. When confronted with mysteries and challenges in the novel, she uses this historical knowledge to find answers and solutions that no one else can. She is an agent, a scholar, and a brokenhearted woman with a deep story. The more time you spend with her, the more complex you realize she is, and the more you get to see her grow. She is the niece of a man who threw the world into chaos and disarray, and so has a complex relationship with the people she works to save. She is in love with a man she cannot have, but only loves him the fiercer for it.

Shara stands out among all protagonists, not just female, as a unique and powerful character. Her strengths are a bookish intelligence, an unparalleled wit, a warm and caring heart, and the conviction to always do what is right no matter the cost to herself. She is everything I aspire to be in a person, and if I can live my life with a shadow of a resemblance to how she lives hers – I will die knowing that I have spent my time on this earth wisely.

mulaghesh03-web5) General Turyin Mulagesh (City of Blades) – Have we mentioned we love the Divine Cities Trilogy? The only series to contribute two characters to the list, these books are great for female leads. Our lead lady from book one, Shara, steps down as the leading voice in book two. In her place, a side character from the first novel, Mulagesh, takes over as the primary protagonist. An older woman in a high ranking role in the military, Mulagesh’s story in City of Blades is one of seeking redemptions. She has a brilliant mind for military tactics, is excellent in a fight, and is surprisingly funny given her rather dour disposition. Mulagesh is haunted by the sins of the past, both hers and others. She is a woman who has seen the absolute worst of war and came out realizing that no cause is worth the atrocities she has seen. So, when Mulagesh is dispatched to a city in a state of rebellion she will do anything to keep the simmering conflict from coming to a boil. In this, as with many things, she fails.

Mulagesh is a walking tragedy that shattered my heart into a billion pieces. Her story is one of repeated failure, and the tenacity to stand back up again and keep going. Mulagesh has an inner strength to her that is a wonder to behold. Her refusal to stay down, persistence in the face of failure, wonderful personality, and loving heart make her one of my favorite characters of all time.

bobbie_draper_by_jujufei-d9rnrd76) Bobbie Draper (The Expanse) – If anyone can claim the title of first love in a book, it would be Bobbie Draper. I first read Caliban’s War a few months after it came out, but only can put my admiration for Bobbie into words from a recent re-read. She is the stereotypical tough grunt female marine but brought to life. She is patriotic but pragmatic and willing to see the world as it is, instead of just how she wishes it were. There is something so immediately and organically dynamic about her. Her introduction to The Expanse was explosive and heart wrenching, and her attempts to cope with it humanizing in a way I had not dealt with at the time. The authors saw something in her that went beyond badass female with a penchant for kicking ass and opted to make her a human being with fears and anxieties from her near-death experience. But she also carries every scene she’s in with energy, exhibiting empathy for those around her.

Honestly, I could gush about her for ages, having the best traits of a longtime friend who’s always been there for you. She is admirably tough and tender and knows exactly how much force to apply, physically and emotionally. She will put herself on the line for you, and even knock some sense into you when she feels you need it. I implore you to read the Expanse and experience the thrill of being in her head when she puts on her power suit for yourself.

10510641-_sy540_7) The Lady (The Black Company) Lady, from The Black Company, is probably one of the few female characters I have a complex relationship with. Certainly, it does not hurt that she has 10 books to form that relationship, but she also starts off on the wrong foot with the reader. How can she not be when she is the evil Empress of a dark empire and uses powerful magic to oppress and control the people around her. Not only that, she is in control 10 of the most powerful sorcerers and sorceresses known as The Taken and is rumored to have killed her own twin sister. I do not know about you, but all those facts made her evil and ruthless in my eyes. I do not know if I ever would say Lady is badass. She is too cold, calculating and pragmatic to be awarded such a bombastic descriptor. However, this is where she shines. Rarely are women in her position afforded the characterization she gets. Her focus on the facts, the easily recognizable details and finding whichever ways she can to hold onto her power, with minimal damage was refreshing.

Eventually, the reader gets to see more of what drives her from her POV, and how incredibly detail oriented she is as the series continues, and over time she won me over. She is an excellent example of a humanized villain whose crimes are not forgotten, least of all by Lady herself. Seeing someone with her power, use her skills with such care and introspection to make sure her actions line up with who she wants to be, all while learning to deal with her past make her a light at the end of the tunnel. She is there to show us that it is okay to look towards the future, even if we have hurt people in the past.

threepartsdead_1508) Elayne Kevarian (The Craft Sequence) – Before I wax lyrical about how awesome Elayne Kevarian is, I want to point out that The Craft Sequence has an incredible number and diversity of female leads. Tara Abernathy the young professional craftswoman, Kai Pohala the transgender priestess, Cat the addict cop and avatar for a lost goddess. This entire post could be about the strong women in these books, but I’d like to focus on my personal favorite. Elayne Kevarian is the main reason Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series is in my Tier One category. Starting off in Three Parts Dead (published first but third in chronological order, a confusing decision Gladstone has discussed in the past), Elayne is introduced to us as a studiously professional Craftswoman who is surpassingly competent, intelligent, and cold in more ways than one. By the end of the novel we’re given a few glances past Elayne’s professional exterior and get a peek at who she really is…still surpassingly competent, intelligent, and professional, but far less cold than we’re originally led to believe.

The development of Elayne’s character from demanding boss to trusted colleague in Three Parts Dead is further explored in Last First Snow, a novel that takes place a couple decades before the events in Three Parts. This time acting as one of the main protagonists, a younger and less sure Elayne deals with extensive and detailed urban planning sessions while the city of Dresediel Lex is engulfed in plague, riots, and magical flame. The stress she is put under in this book and how she handles it is unique, interesting, and inspiring. Her reaction to the ramifications of the decisions she made truly humanizes her. I adore competent characters, and Elayne’s ability to thrive under pressure and trust in her own talents to succeed elevate her to one of my absolute favorite characters.

lighbringer2b14-162bkarris2b029) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) Another one of the warrior women on our list, Karris White Oak portrays strength, quick thinking, leadership, creativity, and tenacity. She’s a member of an elite group of bodyguards called the Blackguard, a unit basically like the Secret Service, whose job it is to protect the Prism – a powerful magician and holy symbol in the world of the Lightbringer series. Karris is particularly inspiring due to her ability to overcome hardships. She grew up in a household that left a lot to be desired in terms of familial love and care, and while she struggles with the results of those experiences, she accepts them and moves past them. While certainly not perfect, Karris shows incredible resilience to what life throws at her, and her inner strength is definitely something I admire.

Since a lot of the power of the magic system in this series is based on creativity and speed, it’s also really fantastic to see Karris at work, that is, battling off assassins and warriors to protect the Prism and the people she cares about. She throws together impressive plans, and if (or more often when) they go off the rails, it’s always fun to see how she adapts to the situation. Karris is a foreigner in the Blackguard, the only one of her people to ever be accepted into the elite force. Despite this, she earns the respect of her captain and the other Blackguard through displays of her skill and determination, and I always found myself cheering hard for Karris in almost every situation.

3021251710) Çedamihn Ahyanesh’ala (Twelve Kings in Sharakhai) – If you are looking for a lady who will have your back in a fight, look no further than Çeda. Çeda is many things: a peerless gladiator, a rebel fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful set of foes, and a girl looking for truth. Her combat prowess is exhilarating to read about and she is one of the coolest protagonists on this list. She is overwhelmingly resourceful and spends a large portion of her first novel as a one-woman army fighting against twelve terrible tyrants.

However, as the series moves forward we get to see Çeda grow, learn, and realized that she cannot do everything alone. As she comes to make friends and allies you learn that beneath her hard exterior she has a good heart and a powerful sense of loyalty. Çeda is someone who has been abandoned in a harsh world alone, and yet still somehow can see good in people. She has one of my favorite qualities in a character: a wonderful talent for making friends in unlikely places. Çeda is simply an impressive person, and a character I would be honored to have as a friend.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb11) Tam Hashford (Bloody Rose) – How do you follow up a fantasy romp about the greatest band (read: band of mercenaries) in history getting back together for one last gig? Kings of the Wyld, the first book in The Band series by Nicholas Eames, was one of my favorite books of last year and the prospect of a sequel not focusing on Golden Gabe and Slowhand seemed like folly to me. I was glad to be proven wrong by Bloody Rose, a sequel following the band headed by Gabe’s daughter, Rose. In keeping with the narrative style of the first, the story is told by someone other than the band’s frontman/woman (read: most famous member). In the first book, Clay Cooper was in charge of narration, in Bloody Rose we’re introduced to Tam Hashford. The only daughter of a pair of legendary bandmates, Tam has dreamed her whole life of going on tour and seeing the various areas and cities that make up her world. After her mother’s untimely death, her father quit the band business entirely and raised Tam himself. After some difficulty getting her father to accept her wish to join a band, she does eventually get on the road and travels with Rose and the gang. The story follows the plot of the movie Almost Famous rather closely, and Tam sees what touring is like outside of the cheering crowds and glory.

It would be easy to lose Tam among the massive personalities of the band members, but it is a credit to Eames that he managed to write such a meaningful and warm-hearted coming of age story in the midst of all the action and debauchery. Coming to terms with who she is as a woman in comparison to her mother’s legend, dealing with the fact that her dreams aren’t quite what she imagined them to be, and accepting parts of herself she never imagined are all topics that are dealt with carefully and meaningfully. Tam is a fantastic character and I hope we hear more about her from Eames in the future.

a1zmg0rj1sl12) Aphra Marsh (Winter Tide) – I was struggling for a while with how to describe Aphra Marsh. To those who have already read the story, it would seem strikingly suitable that it was in the frigid wind of the oncoming Chicago winter that it struck me. Aphra Marsh is Nancy Drew, if she were one of the last unchanged members of a race of Lovecraftian “monsters” (the Men of the Water, or Deep Ones) who had survived the genocide of her people by the American government in a WW2 era internment camp and eventually went on to become a bookseller in San Francisco. I know, it sounds like a weird combo, but it all adds up to one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in years.

Fiercely intelligent, loyal, compassionate, selfless, and possessed of an inner drive to understand herself and her stolen history, Aphra Marsh is who I want to be when I grow up. I could go on for pages about how her desire to relearn her people’s old ways of magic and decision to essentially take magical strays into what can best be understood as a combination of her family and a coven inspires me and speaks to me about the strength of humanity’s better nature shining through even when subjected to unfairness and hate. Luckily, a writer whose talent and skill is magnitudes greater than mine (Ruthanna Emrys) already did. Please go read Winter Tide as soon as you finish your current book.

red-sister-low13) Nona Grey (Red Sister) – We like “Magic Schools” quite a great deal here at QTL, so when I found out about a series that follows a group of nuns training young women to be assassins, poisoners, and spies I knew I had to check it out. I didn’t realize I’d also be getting one of my favorite recent protagonists out of the deal. Nona Grey is a troubled young woman saved from execution by the aforementioned order of nuns and brought into the fold to be trained as a Sister. It is there that she meets a diverse group of young women, most of whom she befriends despite her prickly and difficult demeanor.

Unlike a lot of the women on this list, most of whom we meet as mature adults, Nona is a young and impatient adolescent. She can be irrational, arrogant, hot-headed, and rude. Her tendency to charge into situations bullheaded because of her overconfidence in herself or difficulty in controlling her temper can be frustrating at times, but when she manages to pull it off it results in some of the most breathtaking moments in fantasy I’ve read in years. Nona is a flawed protagonist and narrator, but all blades start as rough metal before they’re forged and tempered, and it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to shadow Nona as she works out her kinks and burrs on her journey to becoming the woman she’s meant to be.

2881101614) Lady Vlora Flint (Sins of Empire) – Vlora is a protagonist with a slightly unique circumstance. Introduced in the Powdermage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan, she is initially a side character with nominal depth and not a lot of screen time. However, despite her small presence in the first three books, McClellan thought she had potential and decided to make her the lead voice in a sequel series called Gods of Blood and Powder. If you are interested in reading Vlora’s story, it will take a bit of (enjoyable) work to get to, but she is worth it. She is the general of a mercenary company and as thus, has a degree of hardness and severity that you would expect in a high ranking military officer. She is a brutal strategist and a literal powderkeg in a fight, but my favorite part about Vlora is her problem-solving abilities and flexibility.

I identify with Vlora because, at a high level, she is someone completely out of her depth just trying to stay afloat. Vlora ends up in a supernatural conflict in which she is outgunned by several orders of magnitude. She is someone who is used to being the biggest stick in a fight and intensely dislikes suddenly feeling powerless to what might as well be forces of nature. However, her aforementioned flexibility and adaptability allow her to work with the meager power she has to devastating results. She is one of the best leaders out of any protagonist I have read, female or otherwise.

Charmcaster And Soulbinder – Fun Is King

While updating my Goodreads reading status for Charmcaster and Soulbinder, books three and four of the YA Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell, I noticed an upsetting fact: Spellslinger has a depressingly small number of reviews for its high level of quality. I have already spoken at length about both book one and book two and mentioned how much I enjoyed them. Recently, Orbit publishing was kind enough to send me ARCs of the next two entries in the series (thank you to everyone at Orbit). I am happy to say that the books continue to be amazing and that I read Charmcaster in two days and Soulbinder in a single night. Now that I have spent four books in de Castell’s incredible world, I feel better prepared to talk about what makes this magical series.

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In short, they remind me of Harry Potter. When I make that claim, I do not mean to imply that the books have similar plots, settings, characters, or even magic – although both books do follow a prodigal wizard as he sets about trying to save the world from magic evildoers. When I say the books remind me of Harry Potter, what I actually mean is that Spellslinger has the same emotional urgency and investment that I felt Harry Potter had as a child. Both series have ok writing, a fairly simple plot, and lovable but slightly shallow characters. However, both series are written with some of the best pacings out of any books I have ever read, cannot be put down once they are started, and most importantly – are just a lot of damn fun.

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I was talking with a co-contributor yesterday as I tried to get my thoughts in order about Soulbinder. Essentially, my issue was I didn’t know what kind of rating to give the book. On the one hand, Soulbinder (and Charmcaster) aren’t even in the top five deepest books I have read this month. They don’t demonstrate prose that stands out in the fantasy landscape. They don’t feel like brilliant works of literature. But, they are possibly the books I enjoyed most in the entire last year. These books are simply a good time. The plot may be simple, but I was more invested in it than the various other webs of intrigue I have read this year. The characters might not be extremely deep, but dear god does Kellen resonate with me. I slip effortlessly into his shoes, understand his woes, and revel in his victories. The prose might not be on par with Tolkien in excellence, but the books make me laugh. They are extremely fun, from start to finish. And as my co-contributor so helpfully pointed out, isn’t that the most important thing about reading?

People read for a lot of reasons: fun, prestige, self-improvement, aesthetics, and more. There isn’t a better or worse motivation for picking up a book. However, I personally will take a book that is fun over any other quality any day of the week. Charmcaster and Soulbinder both deliver fun by the truckload, as do the first two books, and I would recommend them to any reader of any age. They aren’t going to astound you with literary brilliance, but you probably have so much fun reading them you won’t realize what time it is until it is 4:00 AM – and here at The Quill to Live, there is no higher standard of excellence than a book that results in irresponsible reading until the early morning hours on a workday.

Rating:
Charmcaster – 9.0/10
Soulbinder – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Monster Baru Cormorant – The New Face Of War

91mf49yikmlThe Monster Baru Cormorant, which I will call Monster for short henceforth, is the kind of book that damages friendships. The reason I say it will damage friendships is Monster is a book that some people will love and others will despise. It is a book that one friend will read, think it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened, and recommend to a second, who will think it’s highly overrated. This is not to say I have mixed feelings about the novel – I feel the book is most definitely excellent. As the second book in The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the book is one of the most anticipated books of the year and a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. However, I can just look at this book, look at the taste of some of my friends, and know that they will not enjoy it.

This review would be easier if I had reviewed the first book (which I didn’t like an idiot). The plot of these books have had so many twists and turns that it is impossible to talk about what happens in book two without ruining it – so let’s talk about the plot of book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Our story follows the prodigy Baru Cormorant, hence the mouthful of a title. She is a young girl from the island nation of Taranoke, and the plot follows the slow fall and incorporation of the Taranoke into The Empire of Masks – a huge empire that is slowly absorbing all the smaller countries around it through cultural warfare. This is particularly distasteful as Taranoke is a society that openly embraces homosexuality (Baru has gay fathers, and is herself a lesbian) and The Empire of Masks sees homosexuality as a deviance that must be rooted out. Thus, Baru is pulled away from her home and taken to a re-education school, where she is taught both how to be a model citizen and to control her “flaws”. This leads to her rising up the ranks of the empire as an imperial accountant – until she eventually begins a rebellion against them.

This is the general structure of the plot, but the focus is on Baru’s journey through a political minefield and the effectiveness of cultural warfare. There is a boatload of political intrigue, scheming, economic manipulations, conflict of ideas, and spycraft in these two books that are a blast to follow. Baru keeps you on the edge of your seat, giving you enough insight into her mind to grow attached to her, but not so much that you can predict her next move. They are chaoticly fun, messy, books that move at a whirlwind pace. In addition, the prose is also fantastic, with Dickinson being excellent at both lavish descriptions and powerful analogies. I found myself laughing out loud fairly regularly at some of the analogies in Monster. The characters are also phenomenal, even though they can be a bit confusing. All the cast feel like deep three dimensional characters you can sink your teeth into, but they can be a bit confusing due to their sheer number and the lack of textual reminders to their identities.

On top of all of this, the world that Dickinson has developed is one of the best in recent years. In order to sell the idea of cultural warfare, he had to do a great job developing the cultural identity of the players in the book – and at this, he succeeded in spades. Each of the various nations have clear identities that feel unique and original and you will find yourself burning to unlock the secrets of each location. The agents of the various countries do their best to ruin each others economy, annex colonies, introduce problematic ideas or fads, start civil wars, and create a slew of other fun disasters for each other that are just fantastic to watch. The conflicts, especially in Monster, make the series stand out in the fantasy landscape as a breath of fresh air.

So why did I say some people will hate it at the start. Well, for better or worse the book is pretty self-involved. In order to sell you on the various cultures, Dickinson goes full ham on his prose and descriptions. Everything is overly dramatic, poetic, and ostentatious. It creates a really nice aesthetic feel to the book if the reader is into it, but there is also a chance a different reader might reject it as being up its own ass. Someone out there is going to read this book, think it is the pinnacle of original excellent fantasy, and hand it to a friend who thinks it is pretentious garbage.

So where do I stand? Definitely more with the former reader. Seth Dickinson started something brilliant with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that he only improved and expanded on with The Monster Baru Cormorant. The level of attention to detail, execution of original ideas, and emotional arcs of the characters make Monster one of the better books I read this year – and one I would recommend to anyone. Although there is a small chance you may hate it, there is a much, much larger chance that it is one of the best books you have read in recent years.

Rating: The Monster Baru Cormorant – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

Port Of Shadows – Nefarious Nethers

port-of-shadows_fullOh boy, oh boy, a new Black Company book. The Quill to Live kinda had a ton of success on a large thought piece on The Black Company, by Glen Cook, so it is a special series to us (which can be found here, and I highly recommend you read our original piece instead if you are unfamiliar with this series). It is the grandfather of grimdark fantasy, a touching piece of fiction based on the Vietnam war, and one of our all-time favorite series. And, it just got a new addition to the series: Port of Shadows. The book takes place chronologically between books one and two in the original series, and details a side mission that The Company was tasked with while working under the Lady. But, before I get too far ahead of myself, let me give a big general rundown of this book to help ground you.

Port of Shadows is a hard book to review because you need a grounding in the full series to understand much of what I have to say about it. Along this line, despite taking place chronologically at the start of the series I would definitely wait until you had finished all 10 other books before you read it. While I enjoyed the book (review spoilers), it is definitely not for someone unfamiliar with the full series story and I think it would make an extremely unsatisfying read for anyone who hadn’t read the other books first. That being said, here is a general rundown of the plot.

The book follows The Black Company, a group of elite mercenaries, as they do a job for The Lady – a legendary tyrant and all around Big BadTM. The job is to camp out in a small city and locate the “Port of Shadows”, a woman who carries the blood of “The Dominator” (an even more ancient and evil tyrant) and to stop her from conceiving a child, as this would allow The Dominator to be reborn – something The Lady is very keen to avoid. The book essentially follows a huge number of the old cast, and many new characters, as they sit in this town, look for the Port, and react to things continually getting weirder. There are two timelines in the book: one that tells the story of a necromancer from many years prior and one that tells the story of the company. Although it is not immediately apparent how they are connected, they are unsurprisingly intertwined by the end. The story has all the hallmarks of the rest of the series: a terse but lovable protagonist, rampant unreliable narration, and extremely gritty violence and humor. However, the book does seem to lack a little more polish and substance than its sibling books.

The thing about Port of Shadows is it was a very enjoyable book for me as a Black Company fanboy but definitely left a lot to be desired as a reviewer. The book essentially exists to answer a number of lingering questions from the series (which I will not list as they are inherently spoilery). These are definitely questions I wanted to be answered, and I loved the deep context and detail that Cook goes into while answering them. However, the book kinda had abysmal pacing, and barely anything happens in its entirety. Most of the book is spent sitting around a table playing cards. While this feels authentic to The Black Company lifestyle, it does make the book feel a bit overlong and slow. Port of Shadows definitely evokes the same feelings of despair and brilliance in its writing that the other books in the series do, but it lacks urgency in its plot and I think that only someone heavily invested in the story as a whole will have the patience to see it through to the end.

In the end, I find it very difficult to give Port of Shadows a “fair” review. I personally loved it, but I only know a single other person who I think will agree with me (and he’s a writer for the site). The book continues to demonstrate Cook’s incredibly flexible, deep, and rich author voice – but also feels a bit like fan fiction written just for the superfans. Port of Shadows is a strange and flawed book, but I am very happy that it exists.

Rating: Port of Shadows – 7.0/10
-Andrew

A Man Of Shadows – Stay In The Dark

Man of ShadowsJeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows practically bursts with promise, from the intriguing cover design to a captivating back-cover summary (despite the latter being plagued by a typo…more on that later). The distinct story elements scream off the page like a paperboy shouting headlines on a 1930s street corner: “It’s got noir! It’s got murder! An original setting! Mystery! Sci-fi and magical realism abound! Read all about it!” Alas, once the sensationalism and initial excitement wear off, the story must fend for itself. A Man of Shadows never stood a chance.

Jeff Noon’s sci-fi/fantasy/noir/crime novel plops the reader right into a fascinating world chock-full of promise. The book’s setting, a city half drenched in permanent darkness and half bathed in eternal daylight (so basically any Scandinavian city), frees its inhabitants from the shackles of time (… also like Scandinavia), allowing them to purchase timelines like any other commodity (so basically it just takes place in Scandinavia). Protagonist John Nyquist, a walking cliché borderline alcoholic, down-on-his-luck private investigator, is hired by a man to find his missing teen daughter, Eleanor. Meanwhile, a seemingly invisible murderer, dubbed Quicksilver, runs rampant, killing victims in broad daylight (or Dayzone, as the permanently lit sector of the city is called). Nyquist’s investigation rapidly evolves into a whirlwind of drug dealers, time sickness (which is mostly just highly dramatized exhaustion), conspiracies, dead ends, booze, and unearned half-answers that lead him to literally zero truths, even as he says to himself “The pieces are coming together.” His escapades also take him to the edge of Dusk: the mysterious, magical, and dark no man’s land between Dayzone and Nocturna (which is the name of the dark side, you get it). The plot rambles through these elements and hundreds more with so little grace that it’s hard to believe it comes to any sort of conclusion. The conclusion that does occur is nowhere near sensible or logical.  

A Man of Shadows wears its problems and inconsistencies proudly, leaning into the inherent ambiguity of the noir/mystery genre. Noon kicks this off with his immediate abandonment of the novel’s main selling point: its setting. Instead, he favors meandering pseudo-explanations of timelines and how they function. In my opinion, this mechanic, riveting as it may sound, sets the stage for the book’s first and largest failure. I picked up A Man of Shadows precisely because I loved the idea of a city split by darkness and daylight. I yearned to discover how citizens might function. Instead, the world is built over the course of just a few stray paragraphs, and Noon opts to discuss at length, but with minimal detail, the workings of commoditized time. While that narrative choice makes some sense as the novel drags along, the story element remains unearned, unjustified, and under-explored until the last word. In other words, it felt like a gargantuan cop-out (editor’s note: get it? *finger guns*).

The issues continue with the characters, which are essentially silhouettes dancing across an already shadowy background. They’re almost exclusively monotone expressions of tired archetypes: A gumshoe P.I. with a likely drinking problem and troubled past? Check. Missing teen who claims she’s just misunderstood but makes no attempt to remedy the matter? Check. Doting father who claims he just wants what’s best, but is obviously hiding a terrible secret? Check. The list could be as long as the book itself, but I’ll spare us all the effort.

Now let’s talk plot. Mild spoilers ahead, so tread lightly. That’s a phrase which here means “Let me list a mere spattering of the myriad narrative problems that infect this book.” Nyquist’s investigation method? Walk around and hope someone approaches him with the answer. Quicksilver, the novel’s supposed antagonist, makes maybe four appearances–nee, mentions–before being used as a panacea at the end to solve quasi-problems no reasonable reader would care about in the first place. Customizable timelines are lauded as a method to keep businesses running 100 percent of the time; apparently, the genius who concocted this plan didn’t realize he could just divide the day into three eight-hour shifts and voila! Eleanor’s overbearing father has a stake in her safekeeping, but it’s way too low to justify his actions and orders that lead to the novel’s big “reveal,” or, more accurately, convoluted mess of semi-relevant information. Dusk, the neutral zone between Dayzone and Nocturna, is somehow magic, I guess? Finally, Nyquist’s internal drive to solve the mystery is about as believable as literally anything a politician says. His desire to figure things out is rooted only in his compulsion to be a P.I. Any semi-intelligent human would’ve just left the city, which, apparently, was always allowed.

Noon’s conclusion spews ambiguity with such reckless abandon that it made me question whether I missed something. It’s the kind of ending that people pretend to understand because they feel like they’re supposed to understand it. To top off my tirade, I counted nearly 20 typos and a handful of straight-up printing errors. If you’re looking for a reader to sell what little stock he owns in your book, typos and printing errors are the way to do it.

A Man of Shadows parades its original and gripping setting from the get-go, making it unique, at the very least. But once author Jeff Noon casts aside what I consider his novel’s best asset, the book has little else to enjoy.

Rating: A Man of Shadows – 4.0/10
-Cole

The Brothers Cabal – Turns Out Horst is Back

51j2c226w2lI’d like to start this one out with an apology. I’m four books into this five book series and I have officially run out of ways to make the “Cabal [method of transportation]” joke. I’ve spent kind of an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with a way to make it work and I just can’t. I’m sure this is a personal failing on my part, and a better (funnier actually funny) writer could do it. I bet you’d still be actually laughing out loud at it. For that, I apologize. I’m the worst and I’m sorry. (Hey, side note, there’s gonna be mild spoilers. Please see the title for an example.)

Moving on to the actual meat and potatoes, we’re reviewing The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, the 4th book out of 5 in the Johannes Cabal series. You can find my reviews of the previous three books here, here, and here. I’m guessing if you’re reading a review of a book this far into a series you’re either already reading it yourself or are still somehow trying to convince yourself to buy the first one by seeing if the series is worth it overall. Well it is. The first two books are fun, the third book is where the series really hits its stride, and this book is a culmination of all of the best elements of the series. I cannot recommend reading the exploits of Johannes Cabal enough.

On the topic of Johannes Cabal, well at least relating to him, is the matter of the title. Readers of the first book will be very familiar with Horst Cabal, Johannes’ brother. Through a set of circumstances that were entirely the fault of Johannes, Horst became a vampire prior to the events of the first book. He was an absolute highlight of the first novel and was immediately elevated to one of my favorite characters in general.

SPOILER ALERT

He also died at the climax of the first book. Believing himself to have condemned Johannes to death and eternal damnation for the sins and general atrocities he’d committed throughout the book, he watched the sun rise and turned to ash, dying permanently.

Or so we thought! I was toying with the idea of just not talking about the title and playing this close to the chest, but the book has been out for four years at this point and I didn’t think being coy was worth it when the first chapter is literally Horst waking up from being resurrected. He obviously plays a huge part in the novel and is as good a POV character as he was a side character in the first book. He is the perfect foil to Johannes and the scenes where they verbally spar are beyond excellent. It’s too bad the series has to end, as I would devour a smaller episodic series featuring the brothers Cabal having misadventures until the end of my days.

SPOILERS DONE

I hope you read that regardless of spoilers because otherwise this next paragraph isn’t going to flow at all. The humor that has been prevalent throughout the series is at its peak in this book. Johannes continues to be drier than the Gobi, the supporting characters are shocked and amused by him in turns, and Howard continues to make almost Pratchett-like commentary on the ways of the world. I could gush for pages on how funny and amusing the book is, but I think this snippet sums up the moment to moment voice and almost insouciant humor in every page:

One of the women was watching the engagement through her own pair of binoculars. She looked up towards the castle, and their gaze met through several sets of lenses and prisms. The sergeant had a faint premonition that this meeting did not bode well. The woman lowered her glasses and looked directly at him. She had a very intense look about her, and she seemed to be mouthing something.

The sergeant was just noting that she was a very handsome woman, from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean he would guess, when his eyes unexpectedly burst into flames. This distressed him, and he staggered around, blood-red fire erupting from the sockets, while he explained the degree of agony he was enduring and how much he would appreciate assistance of an unspecified form from those present. Then his head caught fire and his conversation became very scream orientated.

I don’t really know how else to exhort you to read this series if you aren’t currently. The plot is tight and fun, and the ending of this book sets up the fifth and final book perfectly. The series has grown into itself and Johannes Cabal himself has had an incredibly enjoyable character arc from cold, uncaring, soulless necromancer to…well, cold, mostly uncaring, soul-possessing necromancer with a soft spot for ghouls.

I just really like the series. I really like this book. I’ve never read something that felt so much like it was written for me and my personal taste, but this series really just nails it. If you have a dry, morbid sense of humor and enjoy a good action tale that features a morally dubious but good-hearted-in-the-end character, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading the Johannes Cabal series and The Brothers Cabal.

Rating: The Brothers Cabal 10/10
-Will