Gunpowder Moon – Not A Bang, But A Pop

513oyhqa4bl._sx330_bo12c2042c2032c200_I never really intended to read this book. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until Andrew handed it to me in a parking lot, with all the subtlety of a kid’s first drug deal. All I needed was the book’s cover and tag line “the moon’s first murder is just the beginning.” And honestly, if I did not write for this site, I probably would never have picked it up. Luckily for me, I got more out of it than I expected. For a shallow premise, there is a decent amount of potential hidden in this mixed bag of goodies. With Gunpowder Moon, David Pedreira weaves physics and danger into an entertaining read despite its lackluster story, serviceable characters, and uninspired worldbuilding.

Gunpowder Moon follows Caden Dechert, chief of moon mining operations for the United States and former Marine, as he and his small team of engineers and miners uncover a murder mystery. It is the year 2072 and the climate crisis is in full swing. Decades before, a large methane bubble escaped the Pacific Ocean, with the United States feeling most of its effects. The last hope for humanity lies in helium-3, a fuel used in fusion reactors that is found in accessible quantities on the moon. China and the U.S. both attempt to stay out of each other’s way with a tense truce while vying for the precious resource. Unfortunately for Dechert, the first murder on the moon occurs under his watch. The murder has the potential to set off a chain of events that could plunge the nations of Earth into another dark age. Dechert and his team work to solve the mystery before the “forces that be” on Earth find a way to use it an excuse for war.

The aspect of Gunpowder Moon that grabbed me the most was the attention Pedreira pays to physics on the moon. He wastes no time in making sure the reader is aware of how hostile the moon is to human life. From the effects of the lower gravity to the abundance of fine granules that make up the moon’s surface that cause attrition to the complex machinery, Dechert and his crew have a lot to worry about. It really set the stage for me as a reader, highlighting what can and cannot happen if violence breaks out between individuals or separate moonbases. In addition, it spotlights the sheer amount of work that must be done in order to hold the moon at bay while the miners extract the necessary fuel to power Earth. I also appreciated that a lot of the rules were set in the beginning, providing the reader with knowledge that newcomers to the moon may overlook as the story progresses. It also circumvents the problem of breaking down an issue after it has occurred, while allowing the reader to feel engaged when things start to go wrong.

I also enjoyed the setting in terms of the historical context leading to the events of the book. The nations of the world are in recovery after a large and costly war, instigated by the effects of a rapidly changing climate and reduced access to cheap energy. While this setup was interesting, it did not feel fleshed out. Pedreira seemed to rely on projecting current international politics into the future, expecting the reader to fill in the blanks. Readers are treated to a greatly-diminished U. S. that is all too willing to instantly go to war in the Middle East. Their adversary feels more like a bogeyman than a nation with goals and aspirations. I do not doubt that these could be very realistic scenarios, but considering the book takes places fifty years from now, it was hard to accept that government and international relations would not experience the upheaval that the general populace did, especially when it seemed like the United States suffered catastrophic population loss. If there had been a clearer setup, or at least more exposition time on Earth highlighting the problems, it would have felt more dire and volatile. Instead, it seemed a tacked-on reason to place a story on the moon.

When it comes to exploring the characters, Pedreira does a decent job of placing the reader in Dechert’s shoes through a noir-style narration. It is easy to tell what he is thinking, and how he makes the decisions he does. While he is your typical gruff commander type, Dechert comes off as someone who cares deeply for his crew, while remaining uninvested in the Earth itself. His mild misanthropy was easy to relate to because of his devotion to making sure everyone on the moon station was constantly aware of the risks they posed to themselves and each other. My biggest problems with Dechert stemmed from his flashbacks from his time in the war. They were not necessarily bad, but they did not add anything, like showing him rethinking a decision or forcing him to confront something he had hidden deep down. The flashbacks mostly were there to remind you that Dechert was a Marine, he cared for his squad, and he killed people. They did not enhance his experience on the moon or reveal anything about his character to the reader that they could not already glean from his actions throughout the narrative

Unfortunately, Dechert was surrounded by stock characters who did not add much to the story beyond dialogue and tension with Dechert himself. Lane is the quintessential smart female engineer with a penchant for wanting to murder those who disturb her. Quarles is a snarky, younger, slacker genius who serves as Dechert’s delinquent but lovable foster son. Standard – yes that is the character’s actual name – is the typical corporate stooge, coming to inspect the station, making sure everything was on the up and up. The characters themselves were not bad, and their dialogue was largely enjoyable. There was clearly chemistry between everyone, but a lot of their quirks were handled through narration by Dechert. The reader is never treated to one of Lane’s death stares, or Quarles’ need to smoke pot. These are just traits that Dechert relates to the reader at odd times, ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. I never really felt like I got to know the people he cared so much about, only that he cared about his ragtag little group of misfits. I wish we encountered a little more of the characters outside of Dechert’s brain because they genuinely did seem fun, and possibly interesting. Instead, it felt like someone coming home from college trying to tell you about how cool and zany their new friends were.

If all these other parts of the book are a mixed bag, surely the plot itself was engaging enough to shepherd me to the end? Well, like most of the other things I have talked about, the story itself was also just on the cusp of being good. Pedreira managed to keep the pacing tight and fast. He did not waste time setting the rules of the world, and the murder quickly kicks the plot into high gear. The book never truly felt dull, and even though the flashbacks did not add anything, they felt appropriately placed. Tension built consistently, and I felt danger lurking at each turn as the moon’s environment and international tensions intertwined. However, the plot itself did not feel novel or exciting. The stakes were set high from the beginning, and never really grew. To be fair, it is hard to get any higher than globe-spanning warfare set off by a single murder on the moon, but it just fell flat for me. I am not a big fan of mysteries in general, so to center the fate of the world on solving a murder felt too big. And the reveal felt very “Saturday-morning cartoon” by way of Scooby Doo.

All in all, if you are just looking for a fun space romp that has a noir aesthetic to it, Gunpowder Moon scratches that itch. It has fun moments, and Pedreira really put some work into the moon-based setting. The addition of extreme caution to every decision the characters make supplemented the standard murder mystery storyline in a way that made it more appealing. Pedreira also shows a lot of potential in his writing abilities, especially with his dialogue and general structure of the story. I would not recommend it to avid readers of science fiction, but if you know someone who likes the idea of science and new rules attached to their mystery-thrillers, Gunpower Moon is a good start.

Rating: Gunpowder Moon – 6.0/10
-Alex

The Tiger And The Wolf – Team Maniye

911er8bm6nlThis was a hard book to summarize my feelings on. The Tiger and the Wolf, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a weird novel built on the premise of shapeshifters. Set in a fantasy world where every human belongs to an animal tribe, individuals are all capable of shapeshifting into their peoples’ totem animal at will. It is a fairly common magical system in fantasy, but like all things that Tchaikovsky infuses with his imagination, The Tiger and the Wolf manages to stand out from novels with similar premises by diving deep into the duality of man and beast and building a world that is awe-inspiring to explore.

The world of Tiger & Wolf is a fractious one, with most animal tribes competing (and waging war) for land and resources. This is particularly true in the north, where the hearty tiger, wolf, bear, eagle, seal, boar, and deer fight to survive the habitually recurring frost. The Tiger tribe once ruled the north uncontested – until the various wolf clans banded together and threw them down. In the process, one of the wolf clan leaders took the tiger queen hostage and had a child – Maniye. Maniye in our main protagonist and she has an interesting problem – she has two spirit animals. Being able to “step” into both the form of a wolf AND a tiger initially sounds like a blessing. However, Tchaikovsky does an incredible job of bringing the nature and majesty of each animal to life in their respective tribes, and the tiger and the wolf HATE one another. The spirits of the various tribes are not faceless forces, but sentient deities with agendas – and the tiger and the wolf both despise the girl who forces them to “be in the same room”.

The majority of the book follows the escapades of Maniye, and how her duel heritage constantly makes her the center of conflict and intrigue. In particular, her father wants to use her tiger heritage to subjugate the remaining tigers that survived his war – a plan that she wants no part of. As Maniye continually (literally) runs from this fate she meets a cast of fantastic support characters and travels all around this fascinating world introducing us to a number of interesting animal tribes. The side cast really is memorable, in particular, the snake priest who finally makes serpents feel like good guys for once. The animal tribes are all extremely well developed and you will find yourself burning through the pages to learn about all of them. Additionally, on top of the grade-A worldbuilding, the combat is absolutely stunning. The individuals of this world all fight by blending their human and animal forms into unique fighting styles and reading the characters move between their forms with such fluidity makes the fighting feel innovative, original, and brings the clans to life.

However, as I mentioned at the start of this review this was a difficult book to review. Despite all the wonderful things Tiger & Wolf has going for it, it also has some issues. The first is that something like 70% of the book revolves around Maniye just running from something. There are, so many, chase scenes in this book. They are super cool the first five times, but by chase 17 they were starting to wear a little thin. On top of being repetitive, the pacing also suffered due to the bloated chase sequences. The plot is also not particularly strong. It’s certainly not bad, but I didn’t find myself often wondering what would happen next. Maniye’s path forward was always fairly easy to see, and it was who she met on the way that made me want to keep picking up the book, not wondering what was going to happen to her. The book also felt a little overly focused on Maniye when there was such a strong set of support characters to give more spotlight.

The Tiger and the Wolf is only the first book in a larger series, one that I definitely plan on continuing. The world is very fun to explore and continues to showcase Tchaikovsky’s impressive imagination and skill at writing fight scenes. However, I hope that the future books will have slightly better pacing and at least a small reduction in chase scenes. Regardless, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Tiger and the Wolf.

Rating: The Tiger and the Wolf – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

Noumenon Infinity – If Only There Was A Beyond

81yaaugbqhlIf Noumenon felt like the detached and cool but ultimately understanding older cousin, Noumenon: Infinity is your loving aunt who also happens to be a trained therapist. The first book took a more removed and neutral approach to its narrative style as well as the questions it posed about the nature of purpose and drive, but Noumenon: Infinity seemed to move towards an increasingly active narration that sought the answer to the first book’s questions. I enjoyed the first book’s presentation, but, I also appreciate the tack taken in Infinity, because it invites the reader to join in dissecting the answers to these complicated questions. Infinity has some pacing issues but ultimately carried the torch lit by Noumenon to a brighter future.

Infinity follows two separate storylines, one in line with the vignettes from the previous book, and the other a more linear story following a parallel project that launched after the original Noumenon fleet left for the stars. The vignettes follow the crew of the Noumenon as they set back out into space, hoping to determine once and for all the nature of the Nest, the structure they had found in Noumenon. The crew begins their return journey to the Nest, but along the way they separate. A small group of volunteers decides to follow the trail of a presumed extinct alien race while the bulk of the fleet attempts to finish construction of the Nest. The parallel story follows another team that is investigating more efficient ways to harness subspace dimensional travel when their experiment goes awry and sends the team to an unknown part of the galaxy.

At first, the separate timelines were a little jarring. The linear story about the experimental dimensional travel has chapters which are chronologically closer together, heightening the immediate character tension. The vignettes operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, nodding to the first book by employing large time jumps in order to smoothly process the grander story. Lostetter, refreshingly, relates very little of the first book, relying on the reader to have read Noumenon in order to fully experience the story. Her choice forces the reader to expend some effort, in the beginning, to keep the timelines straight and process the new cast of characters, but it feels worth. As the book proceeds, the separate storylines feel stronger, and the chapters begin to complement each other. I rarely felt frustrated that I was leaving one storyline for the other as Lostetter managed to balance the tension in two very different conflicts. Survival felt very real as the struggles within each narrative gradually became more threatening as each chapter ended.

One of my favorite things about the first Noumenon was how human the characters felt. I was engaged in the first story, but Lostetter made me feel deeply involved with the characters in Infinity. The original story of the clones, grasping towards the stars with their own imbued purpose, was still as riveting as ever. However, the author dialed it in so much more with the second storyline. She focused on people whose experiment was not to leave the solar system, but rather people with families on Earth who get flung across the universe in a seemingly freak accident. Lost, confused, and dealing with circumstances beyond their control or understanding, they eventually make the first contact with an alien species. Operating with no protocol for how to handle this event, as well as a dwindling amount of supplies, the crew had to desperately reach into the unknown hoping for a helping hand. The crew had to make real and immediate decisions that ultimately forced them to deal with the aliens or die alone in the dark.

One of the more interesting things Lostetter did with her parallel story structure highlighted the dualism of purpose and feeling of aimlessness. Often, events would occur that were out of the characters’ control and lead to bouts of horror and depression. A sense of direction needed to be reapplied after deliberation, as rash actions created a blindness to the future. Both stories produced this effect by examining this human tendency on different scales. This dynamic was shaky at first, but gradually a harmony was realized with the ramping tension. It is a nice thing looking back, and something I did not realize while I was reading. It gives me a sense of hope that someone like Lostetter can make her own writing feel it has a past of its own, which also forces the reader to question humanity’s own history as a species. This intricate dance of purposefulness and aimlessness within the story, as well as the melding of the two narratives, is a clever way to examine and present this idea.

As I mentioned earlier, I liked the slight tonal shift away from the feeling of a distant, neutral eye watching wayward children to the more active narration. It may have just been my reading experience, but Lostetter seemed to write with higher expectations of herself and her characters. The stakes felt higher than in the first book, all while feeling even more attached to the characters’ decisions. There was a sense that humanity could do better, and that individuals in or out of power, had a responsibility to do right. Accepting the way things are is not enough, despite what may have been the status quo for generations. It felt as if Lostetter was saying that purpose and the pursuit of it are both important and the examination of both is required. Lostetter has a gift for recognizing the beauty in people, or even a people, who are realizing their mistakes. Whether it was unleashing some horrible monstrosity or losing control of one’s own emotions in front of a close friend, pain, horror and regret were all handled with poise and renewed empathy.

All in all, Infinity is a tight sequel that expands on the themes from the first book. It is longer, but it also has more to say and more substantive material. Lostetter manages to heighten the terror of exploring the unknown while offering even brighter sparks of hope. The characters’ choices made are not made lightly, and the consequences are heavy enough to stick with the reader long after closing the book. Several scenes will probably stay with me until I die. But if there is one thing that Lostetter wants you to know, it is that though the universe might be a dark and scary place, full of monsters we might embody or encounter, we do still have each other. In fact, it might be all we ever really have, now and in the future. In a weird way, she makes it feel like hope if we are only willing to accept it.

Rating: Noumenon Infinity – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Goblin Emperor – A Short Reign

51n8zxqxzclIf you are engaged in the fantasy genre, chances are that you have heard of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor before. This stand-alone novel about court intrigue is a popular recommendation from a number of respectable reviewers and is considered by many to be a modern classic. However, I don’t trust anything I haven’t read myself, so I set aside some time this week to dive into this relatively short novel to see if my feelings match those of the general reviewer populace. Turns out that The Goblin Emperor is indeed a good book, but I also found myself noticing a lot of problems under the hood that kept it from achieving true greatness.

First, let’s discuss the plot quickly. The Goblin Emperor follows the story of Maia, an 18-year-old half-goblin/half-elf prince who is living in exile imposed by his father, the emperor. An airship carrying his dad and three older brothers goes down, killing all of them, and suddenly making Maia the man in charge. He is retrieved from exile, forced into a court with no training that he knows nothing about, and is expected to rule a land that is anything but calm. Amidst all the swirling court intrigue, Maia also learns that the accident that killed his father and brothers was no accident, and launches a murder investigation to discover the source of the treachery.

Other than these basics, which can almost completely be found on the back of the book, The Goblin Emperor follows a fairly predictable plotline. Each day Maia wakes up, is confronted with some new political problem, and must bumble his way through it. The book is court politics at its finest, and if you are into aristocrats having heated debates while groping for power, this book does an incredible job of distilling that feeling into its purest form. On top of this, the characters are mostly delightful – Maia, in particular, is both adorable and lovable. He is a kind and loving soul and a large part of the book surrounds his tendency to break with imperial tradition in favor of showing empathy and sympathy. This leads to a number of truly heartwarming moments as Maia ambles through the book like a giant regal teddy bear. The supporting characters are all well-developed, and I got a very good sense of the court and its history through the careful worldbuilding that Addison weaves into her story. Addison’s prose is also above average, and I found myself reaching for a dictionary to look up new words (that were used to excellent effect) on more than one occasion. However, while I really enjoyed all these positive aspects of the book, there were also a handful of negative ones that severely weighed the reading experience down.

For example, while the setup and execution of the political intrigue in the book were fantastic – the follow through often left a lot to be desired. By this, I mean that a lot of the machinations of the story often felt like they had very little bite. To give a better illustration of this, there are multiple attempts on Maia’s life throughout the course of the novel. These moments are thrilling when they are happening but in the aftermath, Maia still clings to his aforementioned kindness and empathy by suggesting that a timeout will hopefully be enough to prevent future regicide attempts. His staff, as usual, convince him that this is not a possibility but by this point, I was starting to worry that Maia was not showing a lot of character growth and that the book wasn’t taking me seriously. While I understand that a major theme in the book is Maia’s uncompromising empathy, Addison did not do a strong enough job showing how Maia works through complicated situations to find a empathetic solution, which painted Maia as childish and naive. On a similar vein, Maia did not feel like he had enough agency in the story in general. Almost half of the book is him reacting to the actions of other characters or telling his staff to accomplish the results he desires without putting in any of the work. While I like Maia a lot for his warm heart, he did not come across as a particularly strong character – even by the end of the book.

The book as a whole also felt a little rushed and shallow at times. A major theme of the story is bridge building, both literally and metaphorical. Maia’s goal from the start of the book is to make friends, build a family, and bridge a river to connect two dissonant factions of his empire. The novel does an incredible job laying the foundation of these goals – showing a very clear “before” picture of the uphill battle Maia must make. By the time the book is finished, we have just seen a number of these bridges tentatively built, which is great, but we get absolutely no time to enjoy seeing the friendships that Maia establishes. The book ends with the characters saying “sure, we can be friends,” which is all well and good but I wanted to revel in seeing these characters’ friendships in action.

In addition, while the world building as a whole was very good, it was also weirdly patchy in certain areas of the novel. One example of this was in the implied racial tension. I think it is safe to assume that if you tell an average fantasy reader that you are reading about a half-goblin in an elvish society, that the reader is going to expect some racial tension. While there is a tiny amount, it was not present in nearly the same amount I was expecting. Addison only partially explains the racial politics between the two groups, but I think I am inferring correctly that elves see goblins more as distant strange relatives as opposed to a race of inferior useless sub people (which is what I expected). The names of the characters in the book are also needlessly confusing. God help anyone who tries to read this book on an e-reader because I essentially had to flip to the name appendix at the back every other page. Even then, I still had a very hard time keeping a number of characters straight.

Finally, the descriptions in the book could sometimes feel like they were glossed over. I think the best example of this was when Maia receives an incredible “emperor clock” from the clockmakers guild for his birthday. Or at least I was told it was incredible, I don’t know myself as I have no idea what it looks like. After being told by four separate characters how incredible it was, Maia finally gets to see it and just says “They were right, it was both incredible and surprising”. That’s it. Moments like these really broke my immersion in the world, which is a shame because Addison’s creation seemed like something in which I could lose myself.

Overall, I don’t want you to think The Goblin Emperor is a bad book. Addison has an eye for political intrigue and does an incredible job distilling it down to a single engrossing book. There was the potential for this to be one of my all-time favorite novels, but it missed the mark due to the list of grievances I outlined above. Overall, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Goblin Emperor, I just also suggest that you temper your expectations somewhat.

Rating: The Goblin Emperor – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Dreamers – A Wake Up Call

81-ovsfccplAt least once a year, it feels like the news highlights an outbreak of some dangerous disease. Very often it’s contagious, with disastrous side effects and varying numbers of fatalities. I myself was quarantined to the University of Delaware campus during the outbreak of swine flu in 2009. The Center for Disease Control was brought in, and the school’s field house became a medical center. Luckily, I and the people I knew were unaffected beyond our inability to leave campus. But still, to look back and remember that bizarre episode as I write this feels surreal. Karen Thompson Walker manages to capture that same feeling in The Dreamers. Through a methodical narrative, Walker details the slow spread of the disease, the inability of the authorities to explain it, and their eventual quarantine of a small American town in the northwest.

The Dreamers starts with college kids coming back drunk from a night of partying. None are the wiser as one of the young women sleeps through the morning. As the day wears on, she does not answer texts. As they come to her room in order to rally her for another night of partying, they find they cannot wake her up. She is taken away by the hospital, and the other students console each other. Over the next several days the students learn that she died in her sleep. Slowly, other students in the dorm succumb to the same condition. The campus isolates the dormitory, effectively sealing the students in. As time passes, more students across the campus and later the town fall ill with the sleeping sickness. No one knows what to do, and the only treatment seems to be life support until they can wake – if they ever do.

The book follows several sets of people affected by the disease in different parts of Santa Lora, all at different stages in their life. Often Walker pairs her characters off, with one suffering from the disease and the other dealing with the repercussions. Unfortunately, despite this interesting take on storytelling I never felt particularly investing in any of the characters.. I got the two male protagonists confused, and I only felt attached to two individuals because they were among the first characters introduced. It’s not that our cast was uninteresting, but that I saw them as just the vehicle to the tell the story. It helped that Walker highlighted that the disease affected people of different social standings, showcasing their different reactions and their ability to survive the outbreak and subsequent quarantine. My favorite dynamic was between Mei and her dorm-mate Matthew. Their budding intimate relationship was shown in counterpoint to their very starkly contrasting outlooks. Mei and Matthew felt the most fleshed-out as characters, due to their muted and often touch and go young romance along with their relentlessly emotional discussions about what they can do as the world falls apart around them.

For me, the selling point of The Dreamers is the procedural style that Walker forces the reader to sit through as this small town slowly becomes threatening to the rest of the country. The disease starts small with the college students and eventually breaks out into a nursing home. Doctors and medical researchers are brought in, and no explanation or cure can be found. Many of the victims do not wake up, regardless of drugs administered. Oddly, they are all experiencing high brain functions, suggesting they are all dreaming. Still, this explains nothing to the professionals. As more people fall asleep, the national guard is called into blockade the single road out of the mountain town. Walker is blunt about the response, often citing other periods in American history in which the government was brutal in its methods to prevent further contamination. It shows that Walker did her research when writing this book, as everything felt very realistic.

The surreal and foreboding tone of The Dreamers easily kept me invested until the final pages, as Walker’s writing read almost like a clinical report of the events. Often, entire chapters were just a statement of facts: “The disease appeared in [INSERT BUILDING HERE] building, infecting [X NUMBER OF] victims.” The number of beds being filled and slow attrition of medical personnel succumbing to the disease felt like a losing battle. It helped build an apprehension that I had a hard time shaking. Even the chapters that followed a character had a detached feeling to them. I do not know if this was Walker’s intention, but I often felt like I was supposed to be unattached, so I could understand the whole picture instead of focusing on a single character’s struggle to leave the town. It was paralyzing in a way I did not expect. On top of that, almost every ramp-up in the response to the disease was paired with a story of a true historical episode, heightening the realism and the dread that a cure may never be found.

Unfortunately, beyond the plodding descent into controlled chaos, the disease itself did not feel like it added anything to the narrative. I was mostly intrigued by the dreaming aspect when I first heard of the book, hoping it would play an important part in the progression of events. Unfortunately, the dreaming did not seem to play an important role in the narrative and it was a bit disappointing. After a week of thinking about it, I still could not find a connection that resonated with me, but it was something I gradually became okay with. Others may find something in the dreams that adds to their experience of the story, but unfortunately, I was left wanting. The disease was not the star so much as it was the instigator and catalyst to the greater story.

In the end, Walker’s focus on the community, the town, the society, and the people that comprise those institutions makes this book worthwhile. It is a story that has been told before, but the tone and the research backing up the narrative’s speculative events solidify the realism. I did not get as invested in the characters as I wanted to, and some of the undertones of the dilemma of individual versus community could have been clearer. However, Walker’s distanced approach to writing, as well as the slow buildup of unreleased tension make The Dreamers an experience I recommend.

Rating: The Dreamers – 6.5/10
-Alex

A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy – But A Good One For Me

Alex White was really working overtime in 2018. Fresh off the release of his debut book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Big Ship), White has just released a sequel with an equally lengthy name, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy (Bad Deal), in the same year. Big Ship was one of my top books in 2018 and I described it as Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The book was fun, exciting, and had excellent combat, but unfortunately also suffered from a cast that was fairly insufferable for the first half of the book. However, this is the price that one must play when you are committed to character growth, which White clearly is, and I was excited to dive into Bad Deal and continue the story we left off from book one. There are some mild spoilers for Big Ship following this paragraph so if you want to remain completely pure I would recommend coming back to this when you have finished book one.

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Jumping into the story, Bad Deal is set a few months after the climactic events of Big Ship and we pick back up with Boots and Nilah more or less where we left off. Boots is moping at her distillery but is quickly dragged back onto the Capricious. The crew has grown to include two mysterious twins and our cast of characters are hunting the financial bankers of the villains from book one in order to continue dismantling the shadow organization. The book follows this plot thread through five to six fantastic settings and ridiculous events until ending on a climax that rivals book one. In other words, the plot of this book is a good time. White has a really good eye for exciting scenes and I think these books would make fantastic movies. The magic also continues to be excellent, despite its complete lack of structure. In book one we were introduced to a fairly small range of spell users that had fairly straightforward abilities, such as making shields or integrating with machines/hacking better. In book two, White expands the magic we see noticeably and highlights a number of spell users with weirder abilities – like “hoteliers” whose magic is basically used to make rooms feel like nice hotel lobbies (I am paraphrasing, but not joking). However, despite these strange additions the magic system only felt more vibrant and fun in Bad Deal and found myself simply excited to see what White would show me next.

It was no surprise that the plot and world of Bad Deal were excellent, they were what carried the first novel to lofty heights. Where book one really struggled was its characters, as I only liked the cast for the back third of the book. I am super excited to say that the feeling of affection I felt at the end of Big Ship carried over perfectly and allowed me to hit the ground running in book two. Bad Deal runs like a well-oiled machine, using the character growth from book one to springboard into new emotional issues for the cast. However, the warmth I felt to the various members of the Capricious only strengthened in Bad Deal and I found myself more invested in their dramatic arguments and fragile emotional states. I was on the record as saying I thought Big Ship was “overly dramatic” and I think a lot of this feeling came from not caring about the characters enough as they poured their hearts out. Now that I adore the cast, I had many fewer issues with its soap opera style drama and found myself happily yelling at the characters as they worked through their issues.

If I had to find one issue with Big Ship it would probably be the story structure. The pacing of the book will certainly never leave you bored and moved at a delightfully fast speed. However, when reading the book you can definitely tell that White sat down and planned out three or four events that he wanted to build around and then carefully strung them together. It’s a very minor criticism, and it did very little to detract from my experience, but I wish that these scenes flowed a little better into one another so that the book felt a little less like discrete chunks.

Overall, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

Rating: A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy – 9.0/10
-Andrew

An Excess Male – More Than Necessary Reading

51WJWWdGrzLIt’s a great time for readers and writers of dystopian fiction. Whatever world you want to imagine where something terrible is happening, it is out there for you. One can recede into the classics, finding new relevancies and warnings. Then there are the newer stories that draw inspiration from the past, with the emotional resonance of today’s anxieties. I mean, sure the world is terrible, but we can always imagine new ways it could be worse, right? I honestly did not realize that I was going to be reading about a dystopia. The very basic description had an air of a satire, sexually oppressing the men to highlight the avalanche of anti-woman dystopian stories in our culture. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male instead provides a narratively balanced but horrific look into a banal and homogenous society that feels like the next logical step in the nationalistic population restrictions seen today in modern China.

In An Excess Male, the one-child policy is still in place and the Chinese government has expanded upon it by allowing women more than one husband due to the disproportionate number of men in their society. Each man can have one child with his wife, and the blended families act as a single unit. The story begins with Wei-Guo, a forty-year-old fitness instructor, as he attempts to become the third husband in an already troubled family. The initial husbands to twenty-two-year-old May-Ling are brothers, a sixty-year-old businessman and a software engineer in his fifties. The story is told through the perspective of all four characters as they weigh the pros and cons of letting Wei Guo enter their lives. The family grows closer and secrets are revealed as the oppressive weight of national duty grows heavier on everyone’s shoulders.

Plot and pace-wise, the book feels closely-woven with short focused chapters that exude empathy, while also subtly filling empty space with inescapable dread. The narrative takes place over a few weeks, setting up the story as a snapshot of these character’s lives where the stakes feel incredibly universal, but ultimately very personal. King chooses to place the story in a time where the rules have already been established, enabling her to focus on how lives unravel as individuals attempt to mold themselves to meet the stringent needs of a system. Personal feelings, habits, and ways of life that we take for granted are examined through a system that ultimately finds the open expression of diversity to be inherently hostile. King also manages to highlight how the ruling regime benefits a very small subset of people, using small personal connections between the characters and others in different strata of the society. King uses numerous lenses including lifestyles, sexual orientations, and even cultural views of developmental disorders to demonstrate that regardless of gender, nobody benefits from such a societal structure.

King is not only able to control the plot with an even hand but successfully molds it to highlight the story’s antagonist. As the narrative progresses, the characters’ personal dynamics change, shifting between excitement and anxiety as they process welcoming a new person to their family. While these emotions are normal, they are exacerbated by ever-present pressure from the story’s Chinese government and society. What you or I would consider to be normal interactions are given new weight and urgency under the regime that King has created. The trifecta of husbands are willing to submit to whatever demands are made of them in order to look normal and fit in, while May-Ling is cornered by her lack of choice and will, her feelings negated in the service of society. It is a brutal expectation, reinforced systematically and repeatedly through their interactions with each other and everyone else they encounter. King shines by coating almost every moment with this creeping oppression, never fully overwhelming the reader until she needs to.

King’s writing of her characters complements this tremendously. Instead of focusing on changing her writing between the point of view switches, King chooses to centralize her protagonists differing emotions. King highlights how little anxieties pile up on each of the separate characters, immediately making them relatable. The hardest part as the reader is knowing how all the characters feel as you watch the proverbial emotional pot boil over repeatedly. I found myself hoping that the characters would open up and talk about their feelings with one another, thus sharing just how awful their experience is. When they finally have conversations about their feelings, hopes, and fears, it was a hollow catharsis. It did not matter. The characters could not solve their problems by working together because they were not each other’s problems. Rather, the society they are forced to inhabit is the problem, as it stokes the flames of existing insecurities, fears, and anxieties. While May-Ling and her husbands understand this, they also know they cannot change the system but also cannot change themselves to meet the strict standards. They are left to take it out on each other.

When I first read this story, I was sucked into these people’s lives, wondering how they were going to escape, or if there was even a chance for escape. Things that felt quirky and weird in the beginning became darker and more sinister as the book went on. There was one moment where the illusion was broken and the emotional waltz was interrupted as a pure naked force was used by the Chinese government. It seemed unnecessary to incorporate blatant state-sponsored violence to advance the plot, considering how well-paced everything else felt. After a few days of thinking on it, however, I realized it had to be there. I got so caught up in the machinations of the system, so enamored with King’s future China, and so mixed up in the emotions of these fictional characters that I had forgotten about the real, tangible violence already being inflicted. The brutal display of physical power was there to remind the audience that people’s lives were actually being ruined. Sure, it is a story- a good one, with excellent characters- but it is also a warning. Even though you might find a way to scrape by and conform in the small ways that take the eyes off you, others cannot. In such a world, those that cannot comply must be removed in order to ensure that the whole is perceived as homogenous.

An Excess Male is the right kind of dystopia. It does not overwhelm initially by introducing an interesting premise and slowly ramping up the tension. By choosing to focus on such a small time period in May-Ling and Wei-Guo’s lives, King allows the reader to expand the tension across other aspects of daily life outside the book’s focus. These small interactions add up through the book, painting an elaborate picture of emotional friction that has no true resolution. While I have become more and more a proponent of trying to envision a future that is worth fighting for through stories, books like An Excess Male can also play a role in the uncertain times we live in. Just as I was distracted by the intricacies of this menacing dystopia, I realized that I and others must avoid lulling ourselves to sleep with “it can always be worse” stories of totalitarianism. Because it can always be worse, but people are also hurting right now.

Rating: An Excess Male – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Gutter Prayer – Get Your Mind In This Gutter

51dGKfMrwvL._SX331_BO1204203200_This is pretty much the coolest post ever on the site, and I’ll tell you why. I’m writing from the future! Not only did we here at The Quill to Live receive an advanced reader’s copy of The Gutter Prayer (in exchange for an honest review), but I’m writing this from the back of a taxi in London. Not only is this being written before the book is even out, but I’m writing it from tomorrow (depending on where you live and what time it is, I suppose it could even be from the past all things considered but since that’s how these usually go that sounds less cool).

Let’s get the actual review started, shall we? To whet your appetite, I’d like to give you my one-line description: take RJB’s Divine Cities series, throw in a little churchy intrigue a la Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, then top it off with a healthy smattering of unique and fun ideas and you get The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan. Any longtime readers of the blog will know just how lofty the heights of our esteem is for The Divine Cities and the Craft Sequence, and they will surely be wondering whether this novel soars like an eagle or a little more like Icarus.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the rest of the review a little here and answer that lead-in question: the book was great. I had a really fun time with a varied cast of characters, a unique and vibrant city I enjoyed exploring, and a surprisingly deep and interesting world. While there was a bit of hand-waving when it came to filling in the parts of the world we didn’t see, there was enough fleshed out that I’m excited for a chance to go back and hear more about them. The city that we spend the duration of our tale in, Guerdon, is an old and storied merchant city with a long enough past that some of it is bound to be dark (and oh my does it turn out to be). With an incurable plague that slowly turns its victims to statues, alchemical monsters patrolling the streets, and ghouls living alongside humans Guerdon has a lot going on. It would be easy to just sketch the city out in broad strokes with so much else to describe, but Hanrahan does a great job of making Guerdon feel lived in and real. As the story unfolds and we become privy to more of the city’s past I became more impressed with the amount of thought that was put into it and how interesting it all was.

As cool as the city was, however, you need solid characters to do things in a story. Spar, Rat, and Carillon are the three main characters in The Gutter Prayer and they’re all thieves. Spar is a stone man, afflicted by the plague mentioned earlier and the descriptions of his illness and what he goes through to survive it just a little longer can be heartwrenching at times. Carillon is a vagrant and thief recently returned to the city after running away in her childhood. Rat is a ghoul. I want to point out that the fact that a main character was a ghoul was my main reason for choosing to read and review this book. I was hoping that would add a bit of something disturbing to the story and oh boy does it. I don’t think the sections from Rat’s POV would necessarily turn anyone off of the book by itself, but there are certainly things that made me squeamish.

That’s a perfect segue into explaining why I was reminded of The Divine Cities, one of my absolute favorite series, when I was reading this book. Hanrahan’s creativity in coming up with and describing the various non-human “monsters” in his story is spectacular. Roaming the streets of Guerdon instead of a police force is the “Tallowmen”, waxwork figures made from criminals (and possibly others) with a burning wick on the top of their head. Super strong, super fast, and with a wicked knife instead of handcuffs, the Tallowmen added a lot of great tension to the story considering our main characters are thieves. The Tallowmen aren’t even the only thing: Crawling Ones, the aforementioned population of Ghouls, Ravellers, various alchemical horror-weapons, and in the near distance is the Godswar where maddened gods twist nature to do battle with one another. It all adds up to nearly a thrill a page and it felt like nearly every chapter was a cliffhanger in terms of exciting new things to see.

It can’t all be good, of course, and while the characters and world were amazing, the plot felt little rushed and unfocused. It felt very much like a couple of stories mushed together to make a single longer introduction to the world, and while it didn’t put me off the book I think that a lot could have been done to make the pacing better. It’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in a book that is so bursting full of unique and fresh things, it sticks out a little bit.

All in all I think that The Gutter Prayer is an interesting and extremely fun entry into The Black Iron Legacy, the name of this new series. I love discovering new monsters and I’m a sucker for detailed, old, and dangerous cities. If you’re anything like me in those regards you’ll absolutely love The Gutter Prayer. I’m interested in where the sequel goes, because much like City Of Stairs, The Gutter Prayer ends with a variety of paths open to it. I’ll be keeping my eye out for the sequel, as I think this series is going to be one of the major talking points of 2019.

Rating: The Gutter Prayer – 8.0/10
-Will