Crowfall – Misery Loves Company

51wz0ii4rhlIt has been a case study in character development for me to read The Raven’s Mark series, by Ed McDonald. Here we are at Crowfall, the final book in the trilogy, and we finally have a protagonist I can get behind. If you haven’t read any of my reviews on the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, you can find them in the links. However, to save you time the jist of my reviews is that I really wanted to love both these books, but a boring protagonist slowed me down. Our leading man, Ryhalt, was like a piece of coal sitting in the center of a beautiful crown in book one, dragging down the worldbuilding and plot noticeably. In book two, there were some signs that a beautiful gem might lay underneath if we just gave him a bath. In book three, Ryhalt finally feels like a shining diamond that improves, rather than detracts from, the beauty of Crowfall.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of this grimdark epic, it roughly goes as follows. The Raven’s Mark tells the story of a land with two sets of gods: The Deep Kings and the Nameless. The Deep Kings want to consume everything around them and remake it in their image. The Nameless want to avoid death, so they consume everything around them in the name of murdering The Deep Kings – but aren’t as effective as they want to be. When faced with two sides of the same “die horribly” coin, the general populace of the world throws in with The Nameless as they stand a single step higher on a morality ladder that is descending straight into hell. Some of these people sign on as captains to The Nameless in order to better be able to fight. One of these individuals is Ryhalt, captain to The Nameless named Crowfoot (yes I see the irony). Our story follows Ryhalt as he tries to stop the world from ending repeatedly. Oh, and the series heavily features a magical wasteland called “The Misery” that is like a magical Chernobyl that is both sentient and malicious.

McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding and plot. His universe is a horrible place to live, with most people living hard lives that often result in brutal deaths. However, there is a clear undercurrent of hope and struggle that runs through all three books that keep you coming back. His gods and villains are capital C ‘Cool’ and their machinations are weird, imaginative, horrifying, and engrossing to read about. As mentioned above, the real Achilles heel for me in the series has been Ryhalt. Despite being Crowfoot’s captain, Ryhalt always seemed out of his class when it came to the villains he struggled against. In the first book, it could definitely feel like the only element he was bringing to the table was ‘plot armor’ and it would pull me out of the story. This issue was partially alleviated in book two but is straight up destroyed in Crowfall.

Without giving too much away, Crowfall’s plot revolves around a bar-none-battle-royale for the world. The Deep Kings, the Nameless, and some independent agents have all spent the last of their power to compete for a magical McGuffin that will place one person at the top of the food chain. The action, subterfuge, and climaxes are edge-of-your-seat captivating, and Ryhalt finally feels like he is bringing the appropriate amount of thunder. I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the strengths of the previous two: epic plot, creative magic, love-to-hate villains, and a world dripping in atmosphere and lore that I didn’t feel ready to leave. But, it has also turned its principal weakness into another ace in the hole: Ryhalt is finally awesome.

Recommending grimdark series can be hard, as they are not to everyone’s taste. However, after reading Crowfall I can honestly say that I think almost all fantasy readers should enjoy The Raven’s Mark if they follow it through all the way. It has flaws, but the end result is a diamond that shines brightly in the fantasy landscape and Crowfall is one of the best series conclusions I have read in a while. Ed McDonald should be lauded for what he has created and I look forward to seeing where his creative imagination takes us next.

Rating: Crowfall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Queenslayer – Captivating But Showing Wear

51kfgvjszblI am running out of inventive and original ways to say I really like almost anything that Sebastien de Castell puts out. This is something like the eighth book of his that I have reviewed and the worst thing I have had to say about any of his works is that you should go read it as soon as possible. However, let it be said that I do my due diligence and review everything of his that I come across. Queenslayer is one such book, the fifth and penultimate installment in de Castell’s YA Spellslinger series. Although I wouldn’t categorize these books as heavy intellectual reading, they have been a welcome romp every time I have read one and I was really looking forward to the fifth installment. Is this the book that finally breaks de Castell’s streak of excellence? No, but I do think that the Spellslinger series is starting to show some signs of strain.

For those of you not familiar with the series, you can find my review of book one here, and the other installments here and here. A gross oversimplification of the plot would be that Spellslinger follows the story of Kellen, a mage with a demonic curse that will eventually kill him and has restricted his ability to use magic. Thanks to his curse, he is exiled from his tribe and hunted like a criminal. Thus Kellen must make use of his wiles, tricks, and friends to survive in a harsh world where magic is worth everything. The books in the series all take a similar structure, and Queenslayer is no exception: Kellen travels to a new location and is confronted with a strange new magical threat and must use the skills and tools he has acquired thus far to figure out what is going on. In Queenslayer, Kellen finds himself in the court of one of the larger kingdoms in de Castell’s world. Through an unfortunate series of events, Kellen is forced into the role of tutor to a young, yet deceptively smart, monarch. Kellen must survive the machinations of the court, discover who is plotting the downfall of his new charge, and survive the usual amounts of death one encounters while being wanted in exile.

I really like Queenslayer’s premise. Court intrigue has always been a favorite book subject of mine and it’s a space that de Castell naturally excels in with his powerful character writing and fun dialogue. The new characters are fun and memorable, and the developments at court captivated my curiosity and kept me invested to the point where I finished the book in a single sitting. In addition, de Castell’s worldbuilding continues the series trend of fleshing out his magical world and gives you a strong and consistent sense of the political landscape both within this new country, and other locations we have visited in the series before. The pace is unsurprisingly excellent, and while it is definitely aimed at a YA audience it is a book that almost any age can enjoy.

Unfortunately, while the positives of Queenslayer are massive, I had a negative thought that I couldn’t banish for a large section of my reading: I have seen a lot of this before. Although de Castell has done an admirable job of giving each book its own unique identity, there is a pattern of sameness that has started to become a little more apparent at book five. Some of the events in Queenslayer seem a little more unlikely than usual. When this is paired with some recurring villains and machinations showing up yet again for the fifth book in a row, Queenslayer started feeling like a weak installment that was showing signs of wear. The book was still a delight to read, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the first four installments did. I am surprised to say this, but it feels like this series is about ready to wrap up and I am excited for what will surely be an exciting conclusion in the sixth and final book.

If you are already reading the Spellslinger series, Queenslayer should be an obvious pickup. Sebastian de Castell’s work has a warmth and a joy that is contagious and ever present in everything he makes. Queenslayer has all the great things its four older siblings have, although it is starting to show a few signs of age. Queenslayer feels like an excellent set up for the final installment of the Spellslinger series and I look forward to closing out this saga with very positive memories.

Rating: Queenslayer – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Story Of The Stone – Fool Me Once

220px-story_of_the_stoneThe Story of the Stone is the second book in the much-underappreciated Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series by Barry Hughart. I read (and reviewed here) the first of the series, Bridge of Birds, as part of a book club last year and was very impressed with the novel. Bridge of Birds was a sneaky book, with a number of our members dismissing it early on only to have every single reader fall in love with its subtle humor and themes by the end of the story. However, a huge part of the joy of reading Bridge of Birds was the surprise of discovering how much lay beneath the surface of such an unassuming book. Going into The Story of the Stone a reader will be much more on-guard towards Hughart’s subtlety and does that make it harder to enjoy The Story of the Stone?

For me, the answer was both yes and no. Hughart is still a brilliant writer and his clever ideas, witty scenes, and humorous dialogue still shine through in this second installation. He is one of the few authors I have read that remind me of the great Terry Pratchett, as both of them display a talent for hiding profound messages in silly and fun stories. Unfortunately, the reveals and subtleties of The Story of the Stone didn’t quite have the mind-blowing effect that they did in the first book once you know what to look for. Yet, even though I was much more easily able to guess the direction of the second book’s plot it still didn’t keep me from loving the outcome.

The Story of the Stone picks up shortly after Bridge of Birds ends and shows us a Master Li and Ox who are bored with their daily routine. Everything in their lives is going swimmingly and they are going out of their minds at the plainness of it. So, when Master Li is asked to come investigate the mysterious resurrection of a mad prince, the pair fall over themselves to look into this supposed second coming. The prince was a scientist who performed gruesome medical experiments on his people in the pursuit of immortality. His machinations poisoned the beautiful land he rules, killed and deformed a number of his subjects, and drove their society into ruin. Upon his death, he promised to return – and now a century later there are signs that the promise is coming true. Things such as a mad disembodied voice with the prince’s cackle can be heard in the night. Deformed mummers with the prince’s regalia are appearing and disappearing without a trace. Parts of the kingdom’s wildlife is dying with no explanation. It is up to Li and Ox to determine how to stop the second coming of the prince.

Much like the first book, The Story of the Stone has a fairly linear structure. Li and Ox are showed a handful of seemingly supernatural occurrences and one by one look into, and debunk, how they were achieved. While doing this Hughart masterfully weaves pseudo-Chinese folklore into the worldbuilding and humor into the character interactions. Li and Ox are a memorable pain that remains delightful to follow, and the new support cast rivals them in eccentricities. It would be had to argue that Hughart’s characters are unoriginal. As I mentioned before, the mystery in The Story of the Stone was a lot easier to solve given my experiences with Bridge of Birds, but I still found it intriguing enough to read the book in a single sitting. All of my compliments to the prose, worldbuilding, and pacing in Bridge of Birds equally apply to The Story of the Stone.

Much like Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone is an intriguing and entertaining journey through pseudo-Chinese folklore with a lovable cast. Although I liked Bridge of Birds more, it is only because my expectations were so much higher for Hughart’s second book. Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are one of the great underappreciated gems of the fantasy genre and I implore you to pick these books up when you can. You will not regret discovering what lays below the surface of these seemingly innocent books.

Rating: The Story of the Stone – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Titanshade – Familiar Yet Fantastical

91mbw2bkarelAlright, I am back from my wedding and honeymoon where I read nine books on the beach – so I have a ton of new stuff to talk about and am excited to get back into it. Let’s see if I still remember how to write a review. The first book I want to talk about this week is Titanshade, by Dan Stout. It is a fantasy buddy cop book and one of our dark horse selections for this year. I was eager to tear into it for a number of reasons, the simplest being “can it do a better job at a fantasy buddy cop story than the train wreck that was Netflix’s Bright from last year.” The short answer is yes, it is much better, but that bar was extremely low and there is a lot of space between “terrible” and “amazing.”

As mentioned, Titanshade is a fantasy buddy cop book. The plot is fairly straightforward: our lead cop protagonist, Carter, is an excellent but unconventional cop with a troubled past that has mired his career in the cases that no one else will touch. He lives and works in the city of Titanshade, a Siberian industrial city that holds high esteem in the world because it produces most of the known supply of oil. The city sits nestled in a northern icy wasteland next to a mountain that contains a chained god who is constantly being tortured by devils (we don’t really know why). The god’s agony produces a massive amount of heat, warming the area and allowing workers to live in the shade of the titan. Unfortunately, Titanshade is running out of oil. The wells are running dry and the city needs to find a new source of income and power to remain relevant in the world. So when Carter stumbles onto a murder case that threatens upcoming talks to transform the cities industries he is assigned a young plucky non-humanoid partner to work the case and keep the city from metaphorically dying.

The murder investigation is fun and interesting, but if you are familiar with a cop or detective dramas the story isn’t really something you haven’t seen a million times before. Carter is assigned a young partner named Ajax, an adorable yet effective cop who serves as a good foil to Carter. He is this strange bug humanoid creature, and while he and Carter have a ton of friction at first they unsurprisingly come to trust and like one another over the course of the book. Titanshade’s plot doesn’t really stand out and does nothing to reinvent genre clichés that I personally find extremely tired. If you are hoping that this would be the new frontier of cop stories then you might be disappointed. However, this book still has a ton to offer readers if they have the right expectations.

In my opinion, the target audience of Titanshade is people who like both cop shows and fantasy and are looking for something that bridges the gap. While the plot isn’t innovative, the characters are extremely enjoyable and the world-building is fantastic. Carter and Ajax are just fun to read about, and it’s hard not to find yourself enjoying their relationship even though you know where it is going from page one. Originally I was going to say that the world-building is simplistic, but a more accurate adjective would be to say that it is streamlined. Titanshade’s fantastical elements are fairly subdued. There are a ton of different fantasy races, all cool and original, but all of them are essentially humans with very different physiology. There aren’t tons of psychological or cultural differences between the species. Additionally, although there are magic and fantastical things – they are incorporated to accomplish things that we already have in the modern world through the use of technology. Dan Stout has essentially taken our existing world, and stripped a bunch of the tech, and then replaced it with things that are powered by magic. The result is a world that feels both extremely familiar, yet exciting and fun to explore. It is a really cathartic read, giving you a tried and true plot that you are sure to enjoy – in an original setting that enhances instead of distracting from the plot. My only complaint with the world-building is that there were still some pretty big questions left unanswered from book one, that I can only assume Stout will answer in later books.

If you like cop shows and fantasy books, you will almost certainly like Titanshade. Although it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, the book is a wonderful reskinning of popular cop tropes with a lovable cast. Thank you Dan Stout for giving me an absolutely perfect beach read, and I can’t wait to check out what is next for Carter and Ajax. Go check out this debut book when you get a chance.

Rating: Titanshade – 7.5/10
-Andrew

2001: An Odd Space Essay

Nearly two years ago, I sat in Chicago’s beautifully ornate Music Box theatre at the peak of the venue’s 70MM film festival eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to begin. Next to me sat Ian Simmons, a friend, a coworker, and a movie critic/superhero capable of producing three or more podcast reviews per week for his site, Kicking the Seat. Just a few months prior, Ian and I exchanged a few messages about possibly partnering on a podcast series that paired my blog (the now-defunct ColeTries.com, where I posted about my adventures into the unknown and the uncomfortable) with his site. Our first toe-dip into the waters of the collaboration was a viewing of The Fate of the Furious, which we both enjoyed, though for my part (and hopefully Ian’s), not nearly as much as we enjoyed the prospects of our joint interests in storytelling and what makes something “good” or “bad.” Enter Late Screening, a monthly podcast series in which Ian would subject me to a movie I’d never seen before and, by most accounts, should’ve seen long ago. I’m talking classics like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and countless others. We cooked up a list of missed movie opportunities and started scheduling showings.

That first experience led to a cavalcade of horizon-broadening movie-binging that completely changed my outlook as a reader. Game-changing literary or cinematic favorites appear with such irregularity that it’s easy to dismiss new experiences as “not my thing.” On one night I’m tempted to call fateful, 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the film and its prosaic treatment, looked me dead in the eye and overhauled my entire bookish world for the better.

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic fell somewhere in the first few months, and I distinctly remember sitting in the Music Box’s butt-numbing chair hoping desperately that the film wouldn’t bore my brains out. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, I walked home fueled by an insatiable appetite for fan theories, reviews, any piece of content that would tell me more about 2001. The following day, still jarred by Kubrick’s cinematic journey into deep space and what lies within it, I spoke on the podcast and came to the determination on-air that this was a storytelling masterpiece.

And then I read the book.

Perhaps out of sheer aggravation that I wouldn’t shut up about 2001, my then girlfriend (now fiancee–please hold your applause) bought me Arthur C. Clarke’s unique prose treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unique is probably an understatement here–Clarke wrote the novel as he and Kubrick developed the film, so neither is a true adaptation of the other. Instead, they exist as slightly different expressions of the same idea. Kubrick’s film boasts incredible scope paired with audiovisual mastery. Clarke’s novel paints a stunning panorama of space’s enormity relative to the human race and somehow makes it entirely relatable.

For me, this one-two punch of near-flawless filmmaking and delectable writing sparked a hunger for a first-class ticket to the massive pantheon of science fiction.

Clarke’s prose in 2001 delicately orbits perfection, often to the point of leaving characterization in its lyrical wake. World-building through resonant and poetic descriptions of space takes control from start to finish. It’s not the best book ever, and it’s not my all-time number one, but it’s damn close. And to me, what matters more is that Clarke’s work left a permanent mark on my bookworm psyche and busted open a page-devouring stargate (editor’s note: Cole has not seen the movie Stargate) in the part of my brain that sees a book on a shelf and demands it be read. 2001 ushered me on a personal interstellar maiden voyage into a genre I would previously avoid for no good reason. While Kubrick’s film made a meteoric rise to the top of my favorite movie list, Clarke’s book ignited a completely new reading frontier. I explored other classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to fill the HAL- and Bowman-sized void on my to-read shelves. I’ve plunged headfirst into Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy (thanks to an added push from the rest of the QTL staff).

Immediately after I came down from the interplanetary high of movie and novel alike, I devoured the remainder of the series in a matter of weeks (regretfully in the case of 3001: The Final Odyssey–stay away at all costs).

Like some of my other favorite stories–Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Fables among them–2001: A Space Odyssey provided me with an endlessly chaseable adrenaline rush. I knew the film was special even as I was watching it for the first time, and I knew the book would change me from the first page. And the results are tangible. Ian and I launched a second series, Page2Screen, to showcase and discuss book-movie adaptations. Notably, A Space Odyssey earned a slot on the schedule, and more recently, that same podcast series opened up yet another genre to me with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

My fantasy-filled world opened up to include a pillar of the literary world I was content to leave unexplored. To imagine a world without 2001 feels impossible now, and the series of events that brought me there felt like a story worth telling to fellow readers. If you’ve held off on that off-kilter, unread, unfamiliar book, pick it up. It may be your next game-changer.

Broken Stars – Wholeheartedly Good

I recently decided to treat myself by purchasing Broken Stars, a collection of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction curated and translated by Ken Liu. The collection had been showing up a lot on my Amazon queue, and while I was out at the store I decided “why not?” I had never really read a collection of non-horror short stories that weren’t by the same author. I was not originally planning on writing about Broken Stars, but the more stories I read, the more magnetic the book became, and I would feel ashamed if I did not use my platform to evangelize about the magic of this collection. Featuring sixteen stories from fourteen authors, Broken Stars is an incredible feast of Chinese science fiction.

First off, the collection feels incredibly personal. Ken Liu does a fantastic job of introducing the authors, their perspectives, backgrounds, and interests prior to each story. Sometimes he would even provide a framing of how the story can be read and enjoyed, especially when some of the cultural context may be lost on Western readers. It was very helpful, especially since most of my education on Chinese history ended in high school. It felt like he held out his hand to the reader and took you on your very own personal journey into the stories he loves. His introductions  made the whole experience very welcoming, and dissipated a lot of the anxiety I had about “not getting it.” On top of all that I think Liu did an excellent job of ordering the stories as well. He slowly dug deeper and deeper into Chinese history with each successive story, occasionally breaking up the intensity with something lighter. I never felt confused by what was happening, as some of the more Chinese stories had annotations to clue the reader in.

The hardest part about this review is actually talking about the stories in the book. They all felt incredibly special in some way, making it tough to choose which to highlight here. Liu himself even mentions in the foreword that he did not try to make a “best-of” compilation, opting instead for more variety. He certainly succeeds, as each story had its own personality, exploring different modes of storytelling, covering a plethora of science fiction staples, and exploring ideas I had never really considered reading before. Particularly of interest to me were the stories that dealt with time and the individual’s place within society. I’ll talk about three of the stories here to jump-start interest.

First off is Moonlight by Liu Cixin, of The Three Body Problem fame. It’s one of the shorter stories, but Liu Cixin makes it work overtime. It follows a man who feels he can contribute nothing to the world, as he receives phone calls from himself in the future. Each version of himself calls him to warn of the future and sends the present version detailed plans on how to solve the crisis. However, each time he thinks about sending out the plans to get to work, the future changes, prompting another future version of himself to call to explain the new problem. It’s a fun and somewhat daunting story that shows the power of the individual to help change society, for better or worse. The ending is harrowing but conveys the message perfectly.

Possibly my favorite story is What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Baoshu. It follows Xie Baosheng, a boy born in 2012, or as the first paragraph ends “I was born on the day the world was supposed to end,” as he grows up and experiences our past as his future. Meaning when he turns one, it’s 2011, when he turns four, it’s 2008 and so on and so forth. On its own, watching events unfold in reverse order is powerful enough the idea is powerful enough, watching the events happen again in reverse order. Major events in world and modern Chinese history still occur with new context as they are played backwards. However, Baoshu is not content with just replaying the second half of the twentieth century. The story itself is incredibly human, showcasing how easy it is for one’s life to get swept up in the passage of time. Major life events are competing with the ever-changing state of the world on equal footing. As Baosheng gets older, his decisions are met with more and more inertia from his earlier life and the new expectations of society. It is one of the longer stories, but honestly, buying the book for just this story would have been worth it.

Lastly, on the funnier side is The First Emperor’s Games by Ma Bodong. Following the First Emperor’s unification of China, the emperor becomes an avid computer game player. Once you accept the absurd premise that an emperor from 221 BC is playing video games, the story flows in an entertaining fashion. Liu mentions that this particular story might require some extensive use of Wikipedia to understand the more Chinese aspects of the humor, I still found it quite entertaining on my first run without the extra knowledge. It follows the Emperor as his myriad of advisors suggests different popular computer games to pass his time such as Civilization or The Sims. It’s a fun read that gets deeper the more you understand about ancient Chinese history and philosophy, so definitely take a few passes at it as you learn more from the internet.

There are a few stories that stand out to me in particular, but ultimately the whole collection is enjoyable. It’s refreshing to have read such a wide variety of stories from an incredible spectrum of voices. I’m glad I decided to step outside of my literary comfort zone to enjoy this collection, and it certainly has spurred me to look for more translated fiction. I do not feel comfortable giving a score to collection as a whole, or even to the individual stories. What I will say is that the work Ken Liu put into creating this collection, and translating it to English clearly shows. And if you’re looking for something different, but with a tang of familiarity, I highly recommend Broken Stars.

Rating: Broken Stars – Enjoyable, Deep, and Worth Your Time/10
-Alex

The Digital Plunge: My Three-Month Dive into Kindle-Only Reading

On March 1, 2019, I metaphorically set aside my library of 300+ physical books to prepare for a deep dive into the world of digital-only reading. Spurred by genuine curiosity, I read strictly on my Kindle for a full quarter of a year, ending on June 1.

As a former paper-only apologist, my 90-day excursion into Jambly McReadalot’s (I had to rename my Kindle after discovering I had about 50 different Kindle-enabled devices connected to my Amazon account, all with generic names) paper-white screen left me shaken to my core. Quite frankly, I enjoyed the whole experience with a few hesitations. Making the abrupt switch–and sustaining it for three months–fueled my newfound appreciation for digital books while simultaneously reminding me of the wonders of physical editions.

Along the way, I read a grand total of three books: Pet Sematary, There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, and The Neutronium Alchemist. Typically I’d chide myself for low productivity after seeing those numbers, but 1) The third book was more than 1000 pages of dense Sci-Fi prose and 2) I never wanted to set a productivity goal for the project; instead, the point was to see whether good ol’ Jambly acted as a stimulant or a hindrance. Turns out I ended up at about the same reading speed in either medium.  

I understand there are factions of digital evangelists that rival paperback purists, but I want to be clear that this piece isn’t meant to sway anyone from one side to the other. I wrote this for the reader who has a Kindle gathering dust, subject to occasional utterances of “Maybe I’ll try that out sometime.” I wrote it for the other reader who’s afraid to bring a beefy paperback on that morning commute but won’t take the digital plunge. It’s an exploration of the ups and downs that inevitably accompany your chosen reading medium, and if you’re wavering even slightly, I hope I can give you the nudge you need open up to the best of both literary worlds.

The Coffee Table Effect (Or The Kitchen Counter Effect)

I devoured Pet Sematary just two weeks after embarking on my adventure with Jambly McReadalot, bolstered by the high of reading in a new way and reading my first Stephen King book. Following that binge and leading into April, I’d look down at my coffee table and see Jambly sitting there, idle, destitute, unused. During a three week stretch, whenever I had a bit of free time, I’d reach instead for my PS4 controller or the TV remote. Simply by virtue of being a device, my Kindle had a distinct disadvantage.

When I’m reading any book, it has a near-permanent space on my coffee table or kitchen counter. Somewhere visible, so it begs for my time. With physical books, this keeps me accountable and effectively steers me away from other content that fights for my attention. There are times when I stare at my bookshelf and just think about the possibility of reading all the tales within. My Kindle? Different story. That mental draw, almost a calling, to read a book contained within the Kindle’s plastic walls diluted to the point of near non-existence.

Eventually, this limitation subsided, perhaps sparked by my growing interest in The Neutronium Alchemist. Still, the psychological roadblock hindered my early interest in my little e-book library.

Train (or Car, or Bus, or Plane, or Boat, you get it) Brain

My morning commute usually gives me 25 to 30 minutes of built-in reading time that I previously used to play mobile games and listen to podcasts. As soon as I switched to digital-only and started reading on the way to and from the office, I doubled my productivity by filling my otherwise free time with a book.

As an added bonus, reading on the train conditioned me for shorter reading spurts than I was used to. I’ve always been a “big chunks” reader, plowing through books in irregular 100+ page bursts. Now, Kindle in-hand, I can easily knock out 20-40 pages during the time I’d otherwise frivolously waste on Clash of Clans. That shift has seeped into my other reading habits as well; now I’ll sneak a quick chapter before dinner or flip through a few pages while I wait for a friend at the movie theater.

The most challenging aspect of this monumental shift in how I read is returning to physical volumes during my commute. I’m just starting Peter Hamilton’s The Naked God, which, at 1300 pages, is a brick of a book. Reading on the train is comparatively clunky and taxing, but my longing for paper currently outweighs my need for convenience.

Progress At A Glance

I’m stuck in the mental purgatory of constantly wishing to know how far I’ve read while also hoping not to see unwelcome reminders of said progress. A physical book’s page numbers offer the tried-and-true solution.

The Kindle offers various methods of progress tracking. The percentage measure seems to reign supreme based on my limited research, and I assume the option exists to turn off any progress meter completely.

During my readings of Pet Sematary and There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, I welcomed the percentage meter because it rose steadily at a reasonable pace. When The Neutronium Alchemist entered the fray, the soul-crushing reminder that I hadn’t even ticked that meter up by 1% after what felt like 20 pages wore me down. It’s simple math, of course, but seeing my progress felt more like an obstacle than an encouragement.

Buyer’s Boredom

Purchasing a novel on a Kindle is the book-buying equivalent of a one night stand. It happens quickly, gives you a fleeting jolt of satisfaction, then leaves you feeling empty.

This gripe, in all likelihood, is personal to me, but buying any book on Jambly McReadalot left me feeling vapid. Half of my love for reading stems from trips to the bookstore with the anticipation of a new literary discovery. I can remember where I bought most of my books, the others I considered purchasing, and why I chose the book at hand. The Kindle makes this experience robotic, and I felt drained, rather than excited, after buying a book and waiting for the download meter to reach 100%.

Best of Both Worlds

By no means an expert after three months, but now seasoned enough to make some sort of judgment, I’m happy I’ve started to explore the possibilities of digital reading. I’ll put it as simply as I can: reading Kindle-only for three months took me from my extreme paper-only point of view and opened up a new, convenient option with its own inherent benefits. I may not be an e-book radical, but I’m certainly warming up to the possibility.

Luna: New Moon – It’s No Twilight

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Hot off the heels of Gunpowder Moon, I just couldn’t help myself when it came to reading another book about the moon.  There is something so fascinating about that big, grey, dusty rock as it hangs in the sky. It captures me whenever I see it, so I will always look for a book to fill me with that same sense of foreboding wonder. I needed something that captures the majesty and terror of a place that is so desolate and barren. A story that highlights the moon’s complete hostility to human life, regardless of whatever technology is developed to colonize it. Luckily, I did not need to look very far– a book I have had on my  shelf looked all the brighter. Ian McDonald intricately weaves a tale of intrigue and consequences in Luna: New Moon, focusing on human characters living within a detailed and cruel society of their own making.

Luna: New Moon follows the Cortas, a family that counts itself amongst the five Dragons, the elite corporate families, of the moon. It does not center on a specific character so much as the family itself as they navigate the politics of life on the moon. The Cortas own most of the helium-3 refining business on the moon, controlling the ebb and flow of energy across habitats. Adriana Corta, the ambitious matriarch of the family, fought tooth and nail for the business, taking it away from another of the Dragons, the Mackenzie Metals corporation. As her influence begins to wane, the other Dragons smell an opportunity. All her family has to do is keep their enemies at bay while making sure they don’t destroy themselves from the inside.

McDonald’s characters are vibrant and interesting, if not entirely likable in the beginning. There are also so many that it was hard to keep track of them. I kept having to go back and forth to make sure I was not just continuously adding new characters of my own creation. After a few chapters of learning the intricacies of the family dynamics, though, they began to feel familiar. The Corta family’s choices and actions began to flesh out their personalities and general outlook. Lucas, Adriana’s second son, is manipulative and practical. He always feels the burden of maintaining the family and tries to protect it from what he sees as the messes that his hot-headed older brother Rafa creates. Adriana, the matriarch, is cold, calculating and singularly driven. Lucasinho, Lucas’ son, grew up in a life of luxury and is more carefree than the others. There are plenty more, each with a depth that I have rarely encountered in such a short span of pages. While McDonald wrote characters that were excellent examples of people thriving in a brutally competitive system, he made me care for their existence.

McDonald’s uncanny ability to advance the plot through his impressive characterization gripped me. Flashbacks– all to different times in Adriana’s life– were cleverly placed and brought so much depth to the story that they might be some of my favorites ever. The first one felt unfortunately jarring, as the reader must adjust from a third person narrative to a heavily informed third person retrospective following Adriana’s ascent to the moon. I normally do not like to point out specific parts of a book’s plot, but McDonald kind of broke me with Adriana’s flashbacks. Each one is presented as a story to remind the next generation of where the family came from. Rarely have I felt a character’s thoughts about their own past as distinctly as I did with her. The sheer indifference to her own emotions as she relentlessly follows her ambition was as commendable as it was painful. The ease with which she adapted to the harsh life of the moon was astounding, accepting struggle as the defining feature of her life. The second flashback sequence is where I felt for her most prominently, as McDonald details the choices Adriana made to build a monopoly and join the ranks of the elite. She cuts people out of her life to find the success she craves, and it is devastating. Even though she is often cold and calculating, you get the feeling that some of the decisions she makes early are tough, slowly becoming easier with each successive one. I honestly lost my breath at the end of her final recounting, astonished by her comfort with who she was.

While the characters were a strong part of the story, the setting was incredibly compelling. The moon is a neo-feudal state, nearly independent from the Earth. McDonald’s vision in this novel is terrifying, to say the least, but it is not unrealistic. The moon is essentially controlled by the aforementioned Dragons, five families who hold a specific monopoly on a different resource of the moon. This builds an intricate system of familial alliances for purely political ends. On top of that, everything is for sale on the moon. Things we consider necessary, like air and water, are commodities measured in breaths and sips. Everyone who travels there and hopes to stay has an implant on their eye to remind them how close they are to running out. Clothes are shredded and recycled, not washed. Only the richest are able to replace theirs and keep up with the latest trends. People with multiple PhDs can be homeless, out of work, and near death as labor competition is so fierce. Children of high-ranking families perform naked moon runs to showcase their strength and transition to adulthood. In a stunning portrayal of unimpeded capitalism, competition is everything, and there is no room for error.

McDonald’s writing only propels these ideas even further. He gets down to the details with nearly every piece of technology, showing how deeply interwoven it is within the culture. Technology is not just convenience on the moon, it is the one thing keeping everyone alive. Those who control it are considered gods, and if you displease them, they will swat you like a fly. The culture that develops on the moon is a very precisely-tuned machine, and disruptions are not tolerated. People are treated like parts to keep everything running. If someone is not as good as they need to be, they are scrapped for someone better. The Corta family plays a role of duality in this system. They are considered to be an upstart nuisance, even though they played by the same rules as everyone else. While they control the production and distribution of the fuel helium-3, they are an underdog in this starkly brutal system. They do not mean to upset the balance, only to profit from the system themselves. If others are hurt by their rise, it is only the natural ebb and flow of the society they exist in. Thankfully for the reader, the adage “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is never uttered, but it lingers in the air as if it is embedded in every breath.

Luna: New Moon is a stunning first entry in a series I will gobble up. McDonald has created an insanely intricate and monstrous system, filled to the brim with human characters, pushed to the limits by an unrelenting pace. It is a concentrated four hundred pages, but in my opinion worth it if you are at all a fan of space opera. The characters are vibrant, cruel and willing to do whatever it takes for their family. The drama is natural and relies solely on the characters’ ability to make decisions that affect the world around them. The novel is cold, unforgiving, stark, and beautiful, much like the full moon in a clear winter sky.

Rating: Luna: New Moon 9.0/10
-Alex