Middlegame – I Didn’t Quite Go Cuckoo For It, But Still Great

71e9du8wynlI wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.

Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.

If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.

The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.

I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.

I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.

Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10
-Will

This Is How You Lose The Time War – Long Title For A Short (Great) Book

71uzngwnyelI didn’t want to write this review. Strong start, right? I want to clarify that my reluctance to write critically about This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is not out of laziness or a lack of motivation. I loathe having to review writing I find profound in some way, through its message or its romance or a myriad of other sweet words to describe mostly indescribable experiences. I think mainly it’s a concern that I won’t do the piece justice. That my halting and insecure attempts to explain to others why it was that I was touched by a book won’t sufficiently get across the magic of the story. I’m so glad I didn’t have to review the Divine Cities series or The Night Circus for this specific reason. What else is there to say, really, when a text brings you to tears and rekindles a neglected but essential part of yourself? The fact that This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of these special stories was not super great for the part of me that is a reviewer. However, part of me that screams out for something bright and hot and dangerous to warm the essence of myself by, the part of me that fell in love with reading in the first place? That part of me needed this book.

To give you a brief rundown, there is a time war going on in the book This Is How You Lose the Time War. Yes, I was shocked as well. Our main characters, Red and Blue, are time traveling super agents from two separate futures. In one, a hyper-technological race of humans who have augmented themselves to be nearly wholly made up of machine have won and dictate the future. In the other, a hyper-advanced race of humans that has used biotech to augment themselves and their universe with what would be called “nature” if it weren’t used so unnaturally have won and dictate their future. The bulk of the story takes place as correspondence between these two agents at various points in the past and future as their paths overlap. What starts as a taunting letter to a respected foe eventually leads to a surprisingly touching and meaningful romance between the two. Sounds like a spoiler, right? Nope, literally laid out on the back of book blurb. That’s normally the kind of thing that would spoil my enjoyment of a story somewhat, but the fact that love is inevitable, that the future is inevitable is a huge part of why the story works as well as it does.

So my “boss” here at QTL, Andrew, who I have spoken of in reviews with both great love and great annoyance, has a large number of things that he loves in books (magic schools as an example), as well as things he tends to strongly dislike. One of these latter things is time travel. I understand and agree with him in most cases, as it’s generally done poorly, lazily, or merely competently which tends to gum up the workings of a book and mess with pacing enough to take the reader out of the flow of the story. I recently found a book I thought did it well in Middlegame, but after reading TIHYLTTW I have to compare stories involving time travel to a new standard. I love the way it’s handled in this book, and the ways in which we are exposed to the various eras that our characters play their futuristic-and-incredibly-dated-at-the-same-time- exactly game of phone tag in are beautifully described without lingering. I loved the idea of one of our agents, having lived as a north atlantic fisherman for the last ten years in an individual strand of time, seeing a pattern in the spots on a seal and interpreting that for the letter it was. I loved the future strand where an agent commits genocide by uploading a computer virus to the wrong place at the right time. I cannot think of an individual vignette in the story that wasn’t both useful and beautiful. This is a book with no fat on its bones and an exquisite skeleton.

I do want to take a moment to gush about the prose in this book. I thought, in the first chapter or two, that it was a little overwrought, a little too self-assured in its prettiness to the point that it almost came across as cocky. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to describe it, but that was the first impression I got. Something akin to “don’t you just think you’re so clever?” But that’s the thing, it really is that clever. Each word is important, each description is purposeful, and the way unimaginable worlds are described varied from beautiful to horrifying and back within sentences. For those readers who go outside, and have been to the Badlands in South Dakota, this book has the same foreboding and otherworldly beauty that the terrain in that national park does. I’ve never gotten that particular feeling from a story before. I felt like an alien while I was within its pages, eyes wide open and toiling to comprehend the vistas being laid out before me. Oh, and for those of you who know me from my cosmic horror reviews, the description of the Garden made me want an entire horror series taking place there, not being there for longer within the story is the most acutely painful thing about this book to me.

You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed our characters yet. I’m not going to as I worry I’ll spoil something, some of their development or a line from one of their letters might be that one important jenga piece to the whole tower. I can’t begin to pick apart what’s the really important stuff and what’s the stuff that’s just gorgeous and luxuriant. While you “meet” another one or two sentient creatures in the story, we really only have the two main characters, Red and Blue, and as such we are given a surprising amount of space to stretch out and learn about them even within a novella. Their growth was superb and believable, their tit-for-tat taunting and one-upsmanship was fun, and parts of their stories broke my heart despite the fact that I guessed the twist. I love them and truly, truly hope we get more of them in a series or a short or really anything in the future (whichever one it ends up as).

Well I loved it. That part is obvious if you’ve gotten this far. I could not imagine this story being made better by being longer or shorter than it was. Each individual vignette was poignant and beautiful. Each letter Red and Blue exchange buoyed my heart and broke it once more. I was blown away by each world visited, each timeline changed, and each trivial fact about their respective childhoods. What’s more, everything I just mentioned that I loved meant something. It was all important to the conclusion of the story and it was wrapped up in a way that literally had me audibly “wow”-ing on an airplane, earning me several suspicious looks from the man in the seat next to me. I will be reading this multiple more times in the future, and this may end up being one of my few “yearly rereads”. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: This Is How You Lose the Time War – 10/10
-Will

Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

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So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew

A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will

The Bone Ships – Bone, Brine, Bonds, And Brimstone

43521682._sy475_Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. Fresh off the finish of his assassin-centric Wounded Kingdom series, Barker has launched a new fantasy series about a crew of condemned who are given one final suicide mission to save their country. However, these sailors are anything but, and if they are going to stand a chance they will need to get in ship-shape quickly.

The Bone Ships takes place in a large archipelago, called The Hundred Isles, and the two nations that reside inside of it. Being an island nation, the primary form of warfare is nautical– waged in giant ships made of the bones of sea dragons. Although these ships are incredibly powerful, especially compared to those made of lesser material, the sea dragons have been hunted to extinction so their construction is finite. Without the ability to construct new ships, open warfare between the various islands grinds to a halt as the various groups fear losing their precious ships. However, a hundred years after the final sea dragon was presumed dead, an enormous shape is spotted on the ancestral migratory path of the sea dragons. It seems the dragons aren’t as dead as everyone suspected. Now, with a literal floating treasure trove of war resources on the horizon, The Hundred Isles enters a race to be the first to find, kill, and harvest this beautiful sea creature. Every boat on the sea is after this magical prize. Well, all except one – the Black Ship captained by Lucky Maes who sees an opportunity to end a generational conflict. As the captain of a Black Ship, a bone vessel that has decayed to the point of obsoletion and crewed by criminals, Maes will set out to protect, not hunt, this final dragon. If she can keep it alive and out of the hands of any one nation, she might be able to keep war from reigniting.

Despite my plot summary above, our protagonist in the book is not actually the aforementioned Lucky Maes. Instead, we get to witness the story from her first mate, Joron Twinner. Joron provides an interesting lens from which to experience the story. He starts as a sad sack of worthless poo, and we get to watch as Lucky Maes slowly whips him into a capable and inspiring leader over the course of the book. It is a time old trope that I am not even slightly tired of, and Barker nails the execution pretty fantastically. Once the story hits a “training montage” of Maes teaching the crew of the Black Ship, called The Tide Child, how to work together, you won’t be able to put it down. Unfortunately, the first part of the book drags like a corpse behind a carriage. Despite the worldbuilding being excellent overall, the intro to the book involves a ton of exposition just being dropped on you like a pile of bricks. Captain Maes also feels uncharacteristically shitty as a person (compared to her persona in the book as a whole) in this first bit. She is intensely unlikable, and although I knew she was going to make a turn towards lovable at some point, I almost put the book down.

Although I have some issues with the delivery methods, I am absolutely in love with the world of The Hundred Isles. Sometimes small pieces of the worldbuilding didn’t make sense to me, like I didn’t really get what the purpose of the Black Ships was. However, for the most part, both the larger worldbuilding concepts and the smaller details that support them are delightful. For example, there is some genetic profiling that proliferates the islands as people try to breed the best sailors. Status is conferred to women based on how many children they have birthed, and status is conferred to men based on their physical might and stature, to pass on the best genes. Men must compete to be placed into the slave, warrior, or breeder casts. Although it is fairly bleak and upsetting for both genders, Barker does an impressive job making it feel ‘right’ in the island setting, and that this is a culture that has evolved out of necessity instead of a luxury. BUT, my favorite little detail about this whole situation is what I will forever call the ‘penis pants’ that the highest cast of men wear to show off their fertility and prowess. They are essentially glorified leggings with hundreds of bedazzled arrows pointing to their dick to objectify the crap out of the guys, and I think the pants are amazing. You cannot convince me that they aren’t hilarious.

Yet, while the book can be funny and fun, it also has a grimdark streak that might not be to everyone’s taste. The magic and lore of the world are original but terrifying. Many of the bone ships have ‘ghost lights’ that hover above the decks protecting the vessels. These lights are made by smashing newborn babies, prisoners, and captives against the hull until they die and are absorbed by the bones. Fun. There are also these incredible bird people who can control the wind (which is invaluable on a sailboat) at enormous cost to their personal health. They often end up accidentally killing themselves while trying to force the wind to help their ships. These are just a few of the magics and creatures that Barker shows you in the book, many of which mesmerize and horrify. All of these things have a high level of intensity thanks to Barker’s excellent prose. He has a way of writing with a sense of momentousness that makes every action feel intense and gritty. When he describes sailors loading the ships’ bows, or seeing the sea dragon for the first time, you get these small moments of genuine awe through his writing. He has evocative prose that is an absolute joy to read.

While Joron is our sole lead, the book has an eclectic and dysfunctional cast of misfits that will warm your heart. The Tide Child is a big ship and accordingly has a very large group of people to crew him. Barker introduces you to what feels like fifty individual crew members, makes you start to love them, and then sends them into an unwinnable fight with zero plot armor. You learn pretty quickly that characters you like are not going to make it to the end of the book, and it adds a level of tension to the plot, which I really appreciated. Several of the cast have satisfying character arcs, and if watching people improve is your jam, then this book will hit all the right buttons.

The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that spoke to me on several levels. This book was one of the only escort quests I have ever enjoyed and it was a privilege to watch Lucky Maes forge an incredible crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Rating: The Bone Ships – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Song for a New Day – Playing Fast And Luce

As with a lot of people, music has played a defining role in my life. I never really played an instrument (fifth-grade trumpet does not count), but it was always there in the background guiding how I viewed the world. However, my tastes and attitudes in the past few years have changed greatly from my punk and power metal days of high school to a more individualized and private set list of artists scattered throughout Bandcamp. I find myself mesmerized by the subdued vibrancy of vaporwave more often than not, and I get easily separated from current popular tastes, making it harder to share my favorites with those around me. So when I heard there was a novel about illegal underground concerts in a future where public gatherings are outlawed, my interest was piqued and the folks at Berkley were kind enough to indulge me. Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker, is a reflective yet energetic story about the power of music to create community in a time of extreme alienation. 

Pinsker’s novel follows Luce Cannon, a musician on the cusp of stardom, whose future of playing for her fans ends with everyone else’s. Luce is on tour when bomb threats start to permeate the nation, causing a wave of uncertainty and fear that anywhere could be hit. As she plays her last known concert, one of the threats is actually carried out, killing hundreds of people. Afterwards, an epidemic of disease leads to laws banning public gatherings, followed by companies eager to offer services that allow people to stay in their homes. Rosemary Laws, a second protagonist, grows up in this new world, known as ‘the After’. Her parents move to a farm to increase their sense of safety, further increasing their isolation from a progressively more insular world. She barely remembers what it’s like to have lived in ‘the Before’, spending most of her time in a virtual space that allows her to do her job from afar. When she is presented with a chance to do something different, Rosemary seizes the opportunity and takes a job at StageHoloLive to search for new musical acts in person. This seemingly unrelated chain of events facilitates her eventual run-in with our other lead, Luce Cannon. 

The main story is a joy to read as Pinsker interweaves her two narratives together, creating a mentor/student relationship where both character’s take turns in each role. Luce’s story starts with the slow and fairly realistic creation of the After, eventually digging into her attempts to cope within the new paradigm. The anonymous terror threats paired with the outbreak of a deadly disease lead to a self-imposed isolation that everyone seemed “okay with” in order to secure a safer life. Through Luce’s eyes, the reader is shown an incredibly personal account of the events, getting piecemeal snippets of the events as they occur. The author’s choice to focus on the everyday effects really drew me in, tying me to Luce and the people she surrounds herself with. On the other hand, Rosemary’s story highlighted the contented alienation most people would probably have resigned themselves to. Her parents isolating her to keep her safe, leaving her with a dead-end job, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Seeing Rosemary learn how to navigate in a society she barely understood and learn how to be around other people was engaging and empowering. 

While the story was enjoyable, Pinsker’s characters made it all the more impactful. Rosemary and Luce felt incredibly human. Their decisions have real consequences that sometimes didn’t get cleaned up, making their journeys feel all the more personal. Rosemary’s need to explore the world paired with her culturally imposed naivete put her in some dangerous situations. Luce had a defiance to her that was whispered with every breath. However, it seemed to become a feeling of comfort, allowing her to explore her music without exploring herself or the world around her. These two dynamics played off each other extremely well, each character’s actions affected one another like dominoes. Pinsker’s ability to portray self reflection touched me deeply, as the thought processes Rosemary and Luce both went through felt very relatable. Their ability to screw up, and then pick themselves up and try again with a different approach was inspiring. Pinsker avoided making these moments feel cheap by grounding them in very deliberate and reconciliatory actions that felt natural to the character’s sensibilities. 

The book’s themes of rebuilding community and self discovery dripped off every page, supported heavily by Pinsker’s approach to narrative. The entire book felt deliberate, blending style and substance almost seamlessly. The dual narrative allowed her characters’ insecurities to play off each other, giving the story a more natural flow. Pinsker highlights this duality by writing them in different perspectives, Luce being written in the first person, with Rosemary in the informed third person. It allowed me to sink into Luce’s world-weary and largely individualized defiance and feel the comfort of “doing what I can.” Rosemary becomes the perfect contrast, as her careless curiosity and need to prove herself drive a lot of the action. The third person style allowed me time to reflect, as if another person were there, guiding the introspection. There were a few cheesy moments, but they didn’t stick out in any seriously intrusive ways. 

There is so much to talk about with this book, it’s honestly hard to contain within a few paragraphs. Pinsker has an amazing ability to write concerts in a way that puts the reader in the thick of it. There is a rawness to the story that pulled me along and left me needing more every time I had to set the book down. It made me yearn for the pit in the middle of a show, screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, shoulder to shoulder with other euphoric strangers. On top of all of that, it made me think about how I engage with the people around me in my everyday life; how it’s easier to just put on my headphones and walk through the world to my own prescribed beat, instead of opening my ears to those around me. It’s tough and scary to think about building or participating in a community, let alone actually doing it. It isn’t any easier in Song for a New Day, but it makes the work feel worth doing. 

Rating: Song for a New Day – 8.5/10

-Alex

Gideon The Ninth – Murder On The Space Wizard Express

gideon-the-ninth-coverI wanted to call this book my sleeper pick for the best debut of the year, but seeing as the book isn’t even out yet and already has a subterranean press version being made it seems like I am not the only one in the know. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, was one of our dark horses for 2019 and a book we have been paying close attention to – mostly because it features necromancers. I feel like necromancers are mages that everyone thinks are cool, but don’t have enough books to scratch my lich. I was super pumped to see a new story about raising undead minions hitting shelves, and the fact that it’s a kickass action-adventure is the icing on the cake.

Gideon the Ninth has an ambitious and complicated premise, so bear with me. If I had to describe it in a single sentence it would be: Triwizard tournament meets murder mystery dinner in space. The setting is a galaxy-spanning empire run by a necromancer so strong he might as well be a god. This “necro lord prime” has nine houses underneath him, each with their own culture, specialty necromancer magic, and noble family. Our protagonist is the titular Gideon, orphan, swordswoman, and slave of the Ninth House. Gideon is an interesting character with a strong sword arm and a foul mouth. She has a bombastic and humorous personality that will have you laughing out loud and rolling your eyes (in a good-humored way). The book as a whole is extremely funny, but I found the humor more present in the first half as book gradually takes on a more serious and emotional tone. She is also a queer protagonist if that is something you are looking for in a book.

The first part of the book details Gideon’s frustrating life as a servant of Harrow, the noble daughter of the Ninth House. After trying to escape from Harrow’s clutches and repeated abuse for years, Gideon is offered a deal: team up with Harrow in a special tournament of champions, help her win, and go free. See, the lord necromancer is looking to build a new council of lieutenants and the selection process is shrouded in mystery. All the characters know is that it involves eight of the noble houses (numbers Two through Nine) sending a swordsperson and necromancer duo to represent them in a competition of sorts at the First House. So, Gideon of course accepts, and the majority of the book takes place in a giant mysterious tower with an eight-way battle royal between sixteen contestants.

God, I still have a lot to talk about and we are already almost five hundred words in. For starters, the characters in this book are stellar. A really good way to tell if a book has interesting characters is if you can remember, and differentiate, twenty-seven god-damn archaic names thrown at you all at the same time. Muir does not make it easy to remember who is who, with the reader meeting 10+ people all at the same time and casually rotating between referring to them by their first and last names depending on who is talking. But, she made it work. Every character is interesting, complex, memorable, and evocative of their unique identity on each page, which both helps you keep everything straight and get invested in the story. Shout out to Septimus, the enigmatic and studious royal of team “Eighth House” for being my crush – he’s super cool. However, all the characters were enjoyable and there wasn’t a single one I would change. In addition, Muir gave each of the houses a different take on necromancy, which was very exciting. It was like getting eight entirely different necromancer books at the same time.

Mum’s the word on the actual competition in the book, as figuring out what the competition actually entails is half the fun. The characters are left in this giant magical ‘Tower of Babel’ type structure, with no guidance, and told simply to go to town. This does a great job to stoke the reader’s sense of curiosity and urgency while reading the book, while also creating this tense atmosphere of distrust between all of the characters as no one understands the rules of the “game.”

The worldbuilding in Gideon The Ninth is a complicated and nebulous topic, as I think it is a strength and a weakness of the book. As a strength: Muir has some really cool and interesting ideas. Necromancy, in my humble opinion, is hard magic to make fun and exciting – as it traditionally just involves raising undead minions. Muir manages to make classical takes on necromancer magic fresh and exciting, as well as invent several cool new takes on the magic. In addition, she does all of this in space, which just adds another layer of complication to the subject. The houses are all interesting and felt like they have complex histories that are breeding grounds for conflicts. The tensions between houses in the book feel organic, and you get a nice feeling of this huge space empire where each house takes on a different role.

However, while I think all of the above positives about Muir’s worldbuilding are true, I also think that the world-building can feel extremely piecemeal at times. While houses feel unique and well fleshed out, this is only true about the houses that Muir takes time to talk about (which is about half). The other houses are left completely unexplained, and it can leave the reader frustrated. While you will get these nice little details on how this space empire runs, a lot of what is going on is left completely unexplained and the reader needs to be comfortable with being left in the dark. I got the sense that Muir built out this very intricate and well-realized universe, but then didn’t explain enough of how her world works in the book so that you get this sense that you are missing a ton of information. It can also create this sense of “false depth,” where the worldbuilding seems deep on the surface but lacks the small details to really breathe life into the world. I think a lot of these worldbuilding problems stem from plot relevancy. It often feels like Muir wants to keep how her world works secret, and the only details you can pry out of her hands are the worldbuilding that is immediately relevant to the story. In the end, it gives the sense that Gideon the Ninth is less the first book in a series, and more the first half of a really good incomplete book.

All things considered, Gideon The Ninth is an ambitious, engrossing, creative, hilarious romp that stands out in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has some issues, but they do little to detract from the pure unbridled joy I felt as I tore through this debut. Gideon The Ninth is likely the strongest debut of the year and is one of the funniest books I have read recently. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly. Don’t sleep on this dark horse, go check out one of the best books of the year.

Rating: Gideon The Ninth – 9.0/10
-Andrew