A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons – This is the Longest Review Title Ever

Memoirs don’t typically fall within The Quill To Live’s purview. But Ben Folds, in a move reflective of his genre-bending career as a musician, has broken the mold and crafted a decidedly whimsical and punk autobiography that hooked me, a near-exclusive SFF reader, from start to finish. Ben Folds fans will likely flock to the artist’s book, which shines with the same exuberance and flair that he so often pours into his music.

Ben Folds, in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, weaves tales that cover an impressive range of emotions and topics, reflecting his songwriting. Sadness, anger, hardship, and moments of success color the book, boosted by Folds’ signature voice. That voice, stripped from its usual sonic medium, hops off the page and makes Fold’s unique brand of celebrity feel accessible to readers, even without his expertly crafted melodies setting the stage for the prose. Like his album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” A Dream About Lightning Bugs makes its creator intensely relatable, even as he tells stories of performing on stage for thousands. 

The book succeeds because it is unabashedly Ben Folds. I usually steer clear of memoirs for fear of ghostwriters diluting the subject’s personality. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, though deftly edited and polished, bears no signs of outside influence. It reads like a Ben Folds song sounds, and his tales mirror the music he produced during the time in which those stories took place. 

A welcome wave of relief rushed over me when I discovered that Ben Folds’ life is actually interesting. Too often authors, in their autobiographies, try to make something out of nothing. Folds has a way of packaging the seemingly mundane in evergreen life lessons. When he explores his later work, he calls back to the earlier struggles that influenced it. This is all to say that Folds knows the story he wants to tell, the message he wants to share, and he does it well by carefully choosing the right anecdotes to grace the page. 

Certain moments stand out to me personally because I’ve always imagined Ben Folds a certain way through the lens of his music. Folds is Dad-like, unafraid of controversy, and willing to be himself without hesitation. Moments in the book showcase that he is that person (and much more) while also highlighting the moments that shaped his confidence as a musician and a person. He’s honest about his shortcomings. He accepts responsibility for his wrongdoings, including events that led to his multiple marriages and subsequent divorces. He describes throwing his shitty drum set into a lake as a rage-addled end to his time in college. He considers the good and the bad equally, and his memoir feels utterly balanced and satisfying as a result. This isn’t the story of a man justifying the things he’s done wrong. It’s the story of Folds coming to terms with his hardships, self-inflicted or otherwise, and understanding their role in his eventual (and continuing) success. 

After finishing A Dream About Lightning Bugs, I felt a new appreciation for Ben Folds. Reading his story in his own words lent me a new perspective on his music, which I’ve listened to voraciously for years. On the heels of this memoir, I’m more excited than ever to see what he does next. 

Rating: A Dream About Lightning Bugs – 8/10

Science Fiction for 2019

2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:

The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.

81fywrtjuolThe Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.

Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.

32758901Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.

Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.

51wkqa3knrlChildren of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”

51o34bvmuol._sx325_bo1204203200_The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).

Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.

26850100Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.

41-d2bw0dpxl._sx324_bo1204203200_Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.

Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.

91alssdftvlArmor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.

9780312536633_p0_v3_s1200x630The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.

An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.

26114545Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.

91rstamsxzlPandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.

A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.

gideon-the-ninth-coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.

Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.

Upon The Flight Of The Queen – A Clipped Wing

9781250148803In a few weeks, we’ll release our top books of 2019 list! This has been a strong year for fantasy and sci-fi; with a number of powerful debuts, and the countless sequels and new releases made narrowing down our list very difficult. However, one debut that has definitely earned a spot on the list is For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones. A stunning take on a number of classic fantasy tropes, this book burst onto the scene in February of this year and secured a spot on our top 2019 picks (the review can be found here). Interestingly though, Jones has managed to put out the second book in his trilogy, Upon the Flight of the Queen, just last week, and given my love of book one, I jumped right into it. Unfortunately, in this particular instance lightning does not strike twice.

Upon the Flight of the Queen, or Queen for short, is an enjoyable book that fails in a number of the traditional responsibilities of a sequel novel. Kings introduced a fantastic world to explore, a large cast of complex and interesting characters, a political hierarchy that dripped with intrigue, and high stakes that got you invested. The first book did an amazing job of pulling you in and telling a cohesive part of a multi-part story. It was nicely self-contained, and although there is still a looming threat at the end of the book, you got the sense that there was a fully fleshed out start-to-end narrative in the book. Queen, on the other hand, felt more like “DLC” for Kings than an actual fully fleshed out novel.

Queen hit the ground running, picking up in the aftermath of the end of book one and focusing primarily on cleaning up lingering plot points from Kings. However, it doesn’t feel like it really has a cohesive story of its own other than turning the tide in one long three-hundred-page battle. It follows a similar set of POVs from the initial book (Elenai and Rylin for those keeping track), but adds a few new ones as the story progresses. One of Kings’ strongest characteristics to me was its excellent pacing and balance between the POVs, spending the perfect time with each before alternating. In book two, instead of being a strength, the pacing is a weakness with the POVs feeling choppy and unbalanced. I felt like I was riding in an unsecured pickup bed on the highway and being flung about. In addition, the powerful worldbuilding in Kings is expanded upon in Queen, but it feels like a footnote and I found myself eating up huge amounts of pages without actually understanding more about the world. However, it isn’t all bad as the character development in Queen continues to be phenomenal. Although I didn’t enjoy that the book was one long war scene, I did enjoy the complex character arcs that it put all of the cast through. There was powerful and meaningful growth with almost everyone and it kept me invested when I thought other elements of the book were falling short.

In the end, Upon the Flight of the Queen is a fun and captivating book that I enjoyed. However, it fails as a sequel to For the Killing of Kings by not appropriately progressing the story, not standing on its own as a complete narrative, and declining in some areas that were strengths in the first book. I still absolutely recommend that everyone pick up this series and give it a spin, but I am hoping that Jones pulls out the stops for book three and returns the narrative to the high bar he set with the first entry.

Rating: Upon the Flight of the Queen – 7.0/10
-Andrew

System Failure – It’s All Fun And Games Until The Universe Is Ending

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.

If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.

Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.

If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.

System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.

Rating: System Failure – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – Human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew

The Sacred Throne – I’m Putting It On A Pedestal, Try And Stop Me

I’m not usually the guy on here to write about fantasy, though I do love it. If you went through my history, you’d see I tend to talk more about science fiction. But once in awhile, some fantasy books come along that I have to talk about. As you can probably guess from the title, The Sacred Throne trilogy by Myke Cole is one such set of books. This story is an ambitious grimdark fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels through Cole’s loyalty to his characters and immersive worldbuilding. While I would like to hype it up more before diving in, the review is quite a long one, so we should just get started.

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The Sacred Throne trilogy is made up of the books The Armored Saint (previously reviewed by Andrew here), The Queen of Crows, and finally, the soon to be released The Killing Light. The story is centered on Heloise, whose life is thrown into turmoil when the Order arrives in search of a sorcerer. The Order is a group of religious fanatics who serve a Godlike Emperor. Their job is to make sure that demons do not take hold within the mortal realm, which happens when someone uses magic to any degree. The Order’s methods for keeping their world demon free would make the Spanish Inquisition squeal with glee. Heloise’s life starts to break down as she refuses to take part in an Order-commanded Knitting, a village-wide witch hunt, effectively refusing the Emperor’s decree. When the Order demands retribution for Heloise and her father’s actions, the town rallies around them in a small revolt. Heloise joins the fight and dons the Palatine armor, an armor reserved for those chosen by the Emperor himself, and helps to temporarily defeat the Order.

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The Queen of Crows takes place immediately following the events of the first book. Heloise is recovering from her wounds from the battle with the Order to find out that the Palatine armor (think of it as a steampunk mechanical suit) she had been wearing was left behind in order to save her life. Heloise and her village are taken in by the Travelling people (known to the villagers as the Kipti, or homeless), who promise to safeguard them within their roving caravan. The surviving brothers of the Order are regrouping while the village determines what to do next. The obvious choice is to invade another small village, recruit them to their cause, and prepare to be besieged by a larger army. I want to avoid too much plot detail, because Cole did such an amazing job with the pacing by slowly upping the ante with each battle and each book. There is a deliberate and realistic escalation with each conflict that hooked me everytime. A grimness infiltrated every aspect of the story, and created an atmosphere that filled each calm before the storm with dread. I’m not usually one for pop culture references, but the trilogy felt like the Battle for Helm’s Deep stacked on itself three times.

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To be a little more honest, I’ll say that the plot itself is a pretty standard “rebel against the current status quo” affair. Highlighting it, to me, doesn’t necessarily do the book a disservice, but I will say it’s not what hooked me into this trilogy. I’ll always be on board with “war against the crown” stories, but it takes a little pizzazz to make it feel new and fulfilling. That said, I think Cole did something special with The Sacred Throne. He built a fairly realized world within a short amount of time. He filled it with characters that felt so natural to their setting, it felt like reading a myth about a historical event. The brutality on display is stark and unforgiving, but Cole does a very good job not revelling in it. It’s a fact of life, and the characters who take it to the extremes see it as a duty, not a luxury, but it’s also inexcusable to people within the story. So I wanted to do a more thorough dive into what Cole does so uniquely within The Sacred Throne. I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as I can, but be aware that the events of The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows will be discussed.

The setting feels like the foundation for the rest of what I want to dig into. Cole has built a small but expanding world that is bleak as hell, but incredibly compelling. The drudgery of medieval life is apparent from the first page of The Armored Saint. He makes the dreadful mundanity feel real, as if everyone has their purpose ordained and that’s all they have to live for, especially amongst the peasants. On top of all that, though, Cole built a hierarchical society that feels suited to the world he has created. The power of the Emperor infests every interaction between his subjects and the Order. The language Cole uses throughout the series to define the different relationships between characters and how they view the world is meticulous and deliberate, heightening the divide between the people that populate the land. There is a maliciousness to the ideology that feels apparent from the beginning, wherein the people respect the power and good deeds of their godlike Emperor, but hate the Order, known as the Emperor’s right hand, for taking liberties to enforce his Writ. They rely on their interpretations of the Emperor’s words to bear the burden of the Order’s boot heel on their back, creating an inescapable cycle of violence. This is not only seen in the narrative but reinforced by sections of the Writ, and the journals of Samson Factor, Heloise’s father, that preface each chapter.

Where the setting really begins to pull weight, though, is when the rebellion begins. I cannot stress enough how much I love Cole’s portrayal of a peasant revolt. It feels unplanned, frightening, and as though it could collapse at any moment. Everything I listed before worms its way into how Heloise, and the people who follow her, battle against the Order. There is a subtle and distinct way the townspeople and Heloise differ in their perspectives. Heloise knows, and does not hesitate to mention, that they are actively fighting against the Order, regardless of how the Emperor may be influencing them. However, there are a lot of townsfolk– her father included– who believe that the Emperor’s light shines upon them, and if they can just prove that by fighting the Order, things could go back to the way they used to be. They continue to fight, but only because their faith is placed in the very man whose laws have sentenced them to death. This is evident in the townsfolk’s language surrounding their fight, about how they revere Heloise as an instrument of the Emperor, and how the Order is a perversion of the Writ. This is not a rebellion to most of them, but a testament to their Emperor’s commands and their need to serve him to the fullest.

The rebellion gets even more interesting as it becomes more of a coalition between Heloise’s village, the Travelling People, and eventually the army of the Red Lords. The ragtag rebellion slowly becomes a Revolution, with the different parties vying for a similar goal, but not the same one. Cole manages to make the bickering of these different parties not only realistic, but interesting and conflicted. There is an incredible sense of urgency; decisions have to be made on the fly, and some people may suffer for it. Issues were left unresolved at points because they did not have the time, or even the ability, to solve them. What I enjoyed so much about these councils and interactions is the characters’ individual and community biases were front and center. The language hinted at what individuals thought of each other based on the groups they were from, and how they could use each other to achieve their goals. The Revolution’s success was a ticking clock, but the parties involved could not relieve all their internal tensions prior to the big battle. However, there was a give and take, along with a slow and very unsteady recognition of each other’s humanity and purpose. It was a succinct snapshot of what an unplanned revolution might look like, amongst people who do not have the terminology to understand their needs, let alone the time.

I’ve refrained from talking about Heloise through most of the piece up until this point because to be honest, she feels set apart from everything I have discussed. She starts with an innate distaste for the Order that is stronger than the ambient mistrust her village shares. She is more openly defiant in front of them, and the Writ seems to hold no sway over her. She does not seem to harbor negative feelings towards the Emperor, but neither does she praise him in the ways her father and the others do. She talks about her deeds as things she has done, or actions the armor allows her to take, instead of as divine acts from the Emperor himself. I say all this because it feels a little dissonant, until you realize she does not belong in this world. There is no vocabulary in the book that describes it, but simply put, Heloise is a lesbian, something the Writ forbids. Thankfully, Cole is not subtle about it, but neither is he indulgent in ways other authors might be. It’s simply a part of her; it feels important to her but also incredibly dangerous to let others know her secret. It’s integral to her worldview in that even if she were able to get the Order off the village’s back and the status quo restored, her existence would be still be dreadful, so she fights with everything she can.

Heloise has a similar, if more complex, relationship with her village as well as with the rebellion. In some ways, she helps to foster the rebellion with her open acts of defiance, but she does not force the village into it. They hide her family from the Order of their own volition. Only when she emerges from the tinker’s shop inside the Palatine armor does the village begin to subconsciously alienate her. Her community instantly and reverently otherizes her as soon as she is able to use the armor. The way they talk about her is different, no matter how many times she tries to downplay her role. How they listen to her also changes, as her opinion becomes the will of the Emperor in their eyes. She becomes a symbol out of the desperation that she and her fellow villagers all feel. Meanwhile, her encounters with the Travelling People and eventually the Red Lords are vastly different from each other. They allow her to feel a sense of responsibility and all the good and bad that comes with it. In return, she engages with the communities on their own terms, learns their world views, and attempts to reconcile differences between them in order to maintain the alliance. Her otherness becomes a larger part of who she is, allowing her to navigate the space between.

Within that navigation, Heloise starts to grow and become an adult. Her relationship with herself is easily one of the more rewarding aspects of the book, as Cole really dives into introspection. Given that the books are on the shorter side, I imagine it’s pretty tough to fit in small moments for Heloise to think about who she is. Cole puts a lot of effort into relaying how Heloise really feels about everything around her, making these moments seamless with the rest of the story. The interactions she has with nearly every character feel important and have a heightened quality to them. Her inner voice is incredibly apparent, especially when dealing with her father and other villagers who consistently place her on a pedestal. Over time, this inner voice becomes more resonant with how she talks out loud, forming a more coherent whole. It feels like Heloise is literally reaching out through the armor she wears, testing people’s reactions to her ever more radical feelings. This is nicely paired with the fact that the armor does not protect her from everything. She is consistently wounded, and sometimes even maimed operating the machine in battle. As I said previously, Cole does not delight in this mayhem, making Heloise’s injuries feel doubly important as if to say, you cannot hide from the world no matter how powerful your armor. Over the course of the three books, Heloise takes this lesson to heart, and it’s incredibly heart wrenching.

I had never read any of Myke Cole’s work before, and before reading this Andrew told me “Cole never does anything by halves.” I have to say, I have never heard more succinct or accurate description of an author, and The Sacred Throne highlights it brilliantly. Everything in the series feels honed to precision from the setting, to the character work, to the themes. It’s clear that a lot of work and love went into these books, and it doesn’t feel like a miracle that it paid off. Even weeks after reading them, I can’t stop thinking about them. My mind feels like a crow picking at a beautiful bounty of a corpse, always finding fresh little morsels to satiate my curiosity. So if you would, please come take part of this feast and enjoy all that The Sacred Throne has to offer.

Ratings:
The Armored Saint – 7.5/10
The Queen of Crows – 8.5/10
The Killing Light – 9.0/10
-Alex

Famous Men Who Never Lived – Open Your Heart And Your Reality

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Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.

Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.

Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.

The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.

And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.

Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.

Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
-Cole