An Illusion Of Thieves – A Garden Of Larceny

81zzj2jtx5lI am disappointed that I was unable to get to An Illusion of Thieves, by Cate Glass, sooner – as it likely would have made our best of 2019 list. The first book in the Chimera series, this (ironically) sneaky book has slipped under the radar for many this year, which is a shame. While this debut book has some issues, it is also a fresh and fun take on the heist genre and looks to be building to something incredible. With a little upfront investment and trust, you will soon find yourself in love with the cast and story.

Thieves has an interesting start that is both explosive and slow at the same time. An enormous amount of life changes happen to our protagonist, Romy, in the first few pages. She is a courtesan of a powerful lord in a corrupt city, but her younger brother Neri robs someone and is caught – shaming her into banishment. All of this is set up to place Romy and Neri in the slums of the city where they must both learn jobs to survive. Also, they are both sorcerers who are being hunted for their innate magic. That’s right, welcome to another round of “magic is super outlawed and we must hide our dark secrets”! I tease because it is an overdone trope, but I actually liked how the ban on magic contributed to the set up of this story. The first half of the book feels almost like watching someone play through a well-written life sim. Romy and Neri both struggle with learning basic skills that will keep them from starving to death and allow them to contribute to society. It sounds boring, but it’s actually really engrossing watching them slowly carve out a life together. That being said, hoooo boyyyyy, did I want Neri to die horribly for the first third of this book. A huge chunk of the first part of Thieves is devoted to the evolution of the relationship between Romy and Neri. While it ends in a really compelling and satisfying place, there is a lot of Neri being the absolute worst and Romy having to clean it up for the first 100 pages. Glass is definitely an older child because she has captured the worst frustrations of having a younger sibling perfectly. However, once you make it past the midway point in the book – something interesting happens. The plot and purpose of the book take a drastic, and fascinating, shift.

In the course of building up their meager lives, Romy and Neri meet a large cast of compelling characters who both help and harm them. As the story continues, the magic system in the world is slowly expanded upon more, and you learn that most sorcerers have a unique kind of magic that they can use to influence the world. Romy, for example, can implant memories in people and Neri can walk through walls. The siblings also eventually meet two magic users, who I won’t spoil, and eventually start to explore their powers. And then a catalyst changes the direction of the tale. A character approaches Romy and basically puts her in a difficult situation – she can either rob a very powerful and well-connected person, or watch the city burn down around her. And when placed in a position of helping the greater good at massive personal risk, she creates a super awesome crime-fighting band of super thieves. I cannot express how awesome this was.

One thing you see in a lot of heist novels is a short and colorful introduction into the crew before rapidly moving onto the stealing. Glass takes a much more leisurely and organic route and slowly brings this crew of people together naturally over the course of their lives. It is masterfully done and when push came to shove I honestly found myself thinking “I mean, of course, they are going to form a group of magical super thieves, it absolutely makes sense.” In addition, when An Illusion of Thieves wraps up, you learn about a new world-ending problem that only this crew of magical do-gooders can handle, and they immediately set out to go handle this new problem (which is the set up for book two). Look, if you don’t want to read an episodic series about magical Robin Hood saving the world through larceny than we don’t have a lot in common.

Some other general assessments include that the characters and worldbuilding are good, but a little inconsistent. I felt Glass did an amazing job bringing the city where the book is set to life – but the world didn’t feel like it extended beyond its walls. Similarly, the smaller cast of characters that the book focuses on had a ton of life and depth to them, but some of the side characters occasionally felt like they were mannequins just there to progress the plot.

Overall, I really enjoyed An Illusion of Thieves. It requires a little work at the start, but it rewards your dedication with a one of a kind heist novel with a ton of great character growth and magical fun. It is original, well written, relatable, and stands out amongst a lot of powerful books that came out in 2019. I am really hoping the Chimera series is more than a trilogy because I would enjoy reading many more books about this band of misfits saving the world through the power of crime. This debut is definitely worth your time, please come join me in watching this team of lovable rogues save the world.

Rating: An Illusion of Thieves – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2019 – Derby Download

So 2019 is rolling to a close and we have started eyeing books coming out in 2020 to build our to-do lists. However, while building our reading schedule for next year we realized that we should probably do a wrap-up on our Dark Horse Initiative 2019. P.S., you may notice we have changed this list slightly from our original – that is because we somehow missed that two of our books (Priory and Sixteen) were not actually debuts and have replaced them with other debuts we read. So, below you will find a mini-list of all of the debut books and authors we specifically sought out and read in 2019 in the order of how much we enjoyed them. In addition, given that we have already put out a list of our favorite books of 2019 which contained many of these, we thought we would also spend some time highlighting a few specific books for their contributions to their genres. While we didn’t love all of them, almost all of them brought fresh new ideas to the fantasy and sci-fi genres and should be applauded for trying something new. First, the list of Dark Horses in 2019:

  1. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
  2. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
  3. This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  4. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
  5. For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones
  6. The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull
  7. The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
  8. Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
  9. Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
  10. Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
  11. Titanshade, by Dan Stout
  12. Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell

Books worth additional discussion:

The Luminous DeadThe Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling – What can I say that I haven’t already said about this wonderfully creepy and ambient debut. The limited perspective is engaging, reducing the amount of information the reader receives, heightening the tension. The danger feels ambiguous and ephemeral, making the reader question what is really happening. On top of that, the character to character interaction is sparse, dense and unreliable. Starling does a brilliant job of capturing so much humanity within such a small story. If you’re put off by galaxy-spanning epics, but still want to read something that captures the human condition as it extends to new planets, The Luminous Dead should help light the way.

51tsalt2b0el._sx321_bo1204203200_Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K ChessFamous Men Who Never Lived offers a heartbreaking slice-of-life story with a healthy smattering of sci-fi. Days after reading, I contemplated K Chess’ story of being the “other,” and the book helped me understand concepts I’d never fully grasped before. As I said in my review, Famous Men isn’t an action-packed adventure. Rather, it skews our perception of our own reality by presenting us with a new one and urges us to explore the implications of immigration and racism. It’s a true sci-fi gem that transitioned from dark horse pick to hard-hitting sci-fi favorite.

51gxorcir2lGods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia – I didn’t love this book, but a lot of people will. My problems with the novel were all due to stylistic clash; its campfire story style bored me and failed to pull me into the story. However, there will be many who rightly love this style and list Gods of Jade and Shadow as one of their favorite novels. Moreno-Garcia’s debut stands out as a unique voice, for better or worse, among the endless dross that the fantasy genre produces each year. Her mix of Mexican heritage, evocative prose, and romantic storytelling are absolutely worth checking out so you can assess it for yourself.

71uzngwnyelThis Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – This Is How You Lose the Time War is not the book that you think it is. It certainly wasn’t the book I thought it was when I initially opened it on a plane ride back into the states. The few hours I spent within the world that El-Mohtar and Gladstone described were some of the most magical, whimsical, and heartrendingly beautiful I’ve had in recent memory. The story told about Red and Blue is at times terribly romantic, beautifully horrifying, and is constantly dripping with intent and craft. As multifaceted as poetry but with the unrelenting pace and drive of prose, everyone needs to give This Is How You Lose the Time War a try.

91mbw2bkarelTitanshade, by Dan Stout – Hogwarts P.D. is certainly fresh. Titanshade blends two genres that I absolutely did not think could be blended: buddy cop shows and epic fantasy. You might think that just sounds like urban fantasy, but Titanshade is so much more with its completely original fantasy world – with a modern setting. Titanshade has some flaws, but it did a great job showing that fantasy need not be limited to historical European settings. While the book was both grim and dark, the modern setting allowed it to function as both a drama and escapism tool. The second book in the series is coming out next year, and you better believe I am going back for more.

That’s it for our Dark Horses of 2019! If you liked this mini-project of ours, I have some good news: we will be back in early January with our Dark Horse 2020 to-read picks. See you then!

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The Name Is A Trap It’s Actually Scary

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Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to judge a book by its cover. I occasionally see cover art so striking that I want to buy the book just for display, regardless of whether the content is all that good. Christian McKay Heidicker’s novel Scary Stories for Young Foxes is one such book. With expressive and stunning cover art and the promise of similarly styled illustrations for some of the stories, I knew I’d pick this book up just for how pretty it was, and I hoped that I’d end up enjoying the story as well. Luckily for me, Heidicker absolutely knocked it out of the park, and I will feel absolutely no shame placing this front and center on my bookshelf. 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a collection of eight short stories that are thoroughly interconnected and serve to tell a single overarching tale. Told through the window dressing of a group of fox kits sneaking out to hear scary stories from a nearby older fox, the novel strikes an interesting balance between outright horror and old-time fairy story morality tales. Each of the so-called scary stories is meant to teach the kits an important lesson while still having a distinct “stories around a campfire” spookiness to them. I thought that the individual stories were all very good as self-contained narratives while clearly building toward an overarching tale, and though the “twist” was incredibly clear from almost the beginning of the book, I did enjoy the slow reveal that went on over the runtime.

I was very interested to find out exactly where on the horror spectrum this book would land, what with the title including “for Young Foxes” and all. Particularly with the whole storybook illustration style and the campfire story window dressing, I was ready for this book to be mildly scary but mostly cute. Boy howdy, I was not prepared for what I got. Scary Stories doesn’t pull punches at all, and the first story absolutely wrecked me. The final three paragraphs are pretty much burned into my brain. Heidicker’s ability to scare through describing sounds is absolutely fantastic and really plays into the overall aesthetic of the book. You can imagine a good storyteller making the klikklikklak sound as the flames from the fire jump around them, and even on the page these descriptions just drip with suspense and terror. Not every story really spooked me, but most of them did, and there are a couple that were absolutely terrifying and would feel at home in any horror collection out there.

While slightly less stellar than the spooks, the characters were still very solid. We follow two foxes named Mia and Uly as they are separated from their dens as kits. Over the course of the novel we are shown them growing into adult foxes and experiencing a variety of frights in the process. All of the characters, main and side, felt well distinguished and unique enough to easily discern them from one another. Clocking in at 272 pages and containing eight distinct stories told by a third party to the events, this isn’t the book for you if you’re looking for in-depth character profiles, but I didn’t think the remainder of the book suffered for it.

After a chapter or two, I was ready to complain about how I would have preferred eight totally unconnected stories and how the fact that they were all related to each other would diminish the scariness and impact of the plot. As I read, though, I realized that wasn’t really the type of horror story I was in for. While I enjoy extremely dark stories and generally have found the “no one made it out okay” type of tale to be my favorite, I really enjoyed having Mia and Uly’s story slowly unravel for me. I thought the pacing was fantastic and felt that the breaks for the illustration and quick pauses where the storyteller talks directly to the listening kits were timed perfectly to add suspense. In addition to heightening the mood, I thought that the notes each of the stories ended on, upbeat or dark, were very well planned out and thoughtfully used to impact how I felt while I was reading it. It all added up to a sense of supreme intent and careful construction.

I think that Scary Stories for Young Foxes is great. I had a blast reading it and would recommend it to readers of nearly any age. Not leaning on “adult” themes of horror while remaining dark, scary, and impactful is a difficult trick to manage, and Heidicker pulls it off with aplomb. I would highly recommend giving this book a try, and while I am a devout Kindler would recommend even more reading it in paper to enjoy the fantastic illustrations that are included. 

 

Rating: Scary Stories for Young Foxes – 8.5/10

The Starless Sea – Beauty And Dreams Personified In A Body Of Water

81h2bkqvsgylOur second-place book in The Quill To Live best-of-2019 list was The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. However, given that the book was released about a week before we had to make the list, we unfortunately did not have a chance to review it yet. Now, we are remedying that and are here to give you a sales pitch for a positively incredible book. Given that we rated The Starless Sea as the second-best book that came out in 2019, you can probably guess that this is going to be a laudatory review. But, given the astounding success and popularity of Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, I doubt I will be the first to tell you that her second book is another masterpiece that will emotionally move and astound you.

The Starless Sea was a weirdly personal book for me and I don’t really know where to start with the plot. At the highest level, the story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a son of a fortune-teller who moves through life without a lot of direction. He eventually stumbles upon a secret entrance to a strange magical underground library that is oceanic in size. However, the library is clearly not what it once was and is, in fact, showing signs of imminent destruction. Can Zachary puzzle out the mysteries of what happened to this titanic magical place and do something to save it?

The Starless Sea is a quiet, somber, and evocative love letter to storytelling. It feels like The Night Circus and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, had a love child that was cherished and well raised. It is a slow and meandering book that explores captivating mysteries and masterfully controls the release of information to keep you fully invested. To me, its most powerful feature is its ability to effortlessly transport you into the role of the protagonist. The Starless Sea is both a story about stepping into books and appreciating the power of storytelling and it is a catalyst to pull the reader entirely into its own pages and tales. In addition, the characters are phenomenal. Full disclosure, the main character and yours truly share a frankly alarming number of similarities, so it was a lot harder to shake biases and give the book a neutral assessment than usual. Yet, I think almost anyone who picks up this book would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the small cast. The single thing I didn’t love about the book was how few characters there were. Morgenstern seems to prefer to focus on a very small group of individuals to tell her stories. While this worked extremely well in The Night Circus, where the romantic focus benefited from its smaller focused cast; The Starless Sea was about an entire magical world and the emptiness sometimes broke my immersion. Then again, one of the themes of the book is feeling isolated and alone in the world at large, so even the one nitpick I had still contributed to the majesty of this novel. The tight cast does allow for a lot of powerful character development that would be harder to accomplish with a larger group of people. Given my similarities to the protagonist, I found his introspections particularly insightful and felt like I learned things about myself over the course of the book.

Despite all the praise I have heaped on The Starless Sea, I have saved its most powerful asset for last: the prose. For better or worse, Erin Morgenstern is a sample size of one when it comes to her writing style. She has a unique storytelling style that is whimsical, aesthetically gorgeous, and polished at the same time. There are a number of “parts” in The Starless Sea that break up the story. Each part has two different POVs: one from Zachary that progresses the overall story forward, and one that consists of chapters from a book from the Starless Sea. Each book in the various parts represents a different character in the narrative and helps to subtly expand on their character. The books all have unique styles of storytelling and do a lot to make the primary cast feel very deep. The books also do an incredible job of getting the reader emotionally invested in the story and help to create huge moments of payoff.

On top of the prose feeling like borderline poetry, the world that Morgenstern builds is a delight to explore. The Sea is a truly wondrous and imaginative place, and you would have to have a heart of stone to not feel its call. The sea spills off the pages as Morgenstern captures so many small details like grains of sand at the ocean’s edge. From the way the stories are kept, to the way the entrances are guarded, to the people who travel its waves, the Starless Sea feels like a real place the reader could go out and find. Morgenstern has created a living and breathing new world, and I want very badly to go there.

The Starless Sea is a masterpiece of prose, character growth, and worldbuilding. It is a treasure that is unique from other books I have read, and a monument to the skill and imagination of Erin Morgenstern. If you have ever felt that stories are more than words on a page, if you have ever wanted to change the choices you have made in life, or if you have ever wanted to be part of something bigger – The Starless Sea will tackle your heart in an explosive hug. I have only captured a fraction of its magic and ideas in this review, but you will have to discover many of its secrets by yourself.

Rating: The Starless Sea – 10/10
-Andrew

The Light Of All That Falls/The Licanius Trilogy – A Time-Travel Cage Match

41d26na70klOriginally, I was going to open this review with a roast of the book titles because they are so long, but honestly, given how appropriate the names are and how boring most fantasy book titles are I have no ground to stand on. Okay, so today I want to spend some time talking about a series that way too many people are sleeping on that deserves your attention. If you somehow have gotten this far without reading the title, I am talking about The Licanius Trilogy by James Islington. I have talked about book one, The Shadow of What was Lost, briefly here, and gave a full review of the second book, An Echo of Things to Come, here. I enjoyed both books immensely, but it was not until I read the recently released third and final book, The Light of All that Falls, that I truly understood what a gem I had discovered.

On its own, The Light of All that Falls is a very strong book. It does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor, and has a strong interesting plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

If there is one criticism I have of this series, it’s that it’s designed to be read in one continuous sitting. The books are extremely complicated, and despite Islington adding a very nice preface that summarizes past events, it is not comprehensive enough to remember all the nuances of the story after a break between books. But, the reason a synopsis isn’t enough is that these three books form an elegant exploration into time-travel and the way time functions. If you read my review of Echo, you will get a good gist of the plot of all three books, but I will summarize it here:

The Licanius series takes place in a magical world where a good god and an evil god went at it. The good one lost (and presumably died), but not before locking the bad one behind a giant magical barrier in the north of the world. Since then, humanity has tried to survive in the south with the traditional set-up of multiple countries that hate one another. In addition, the world has three distinct groups of magic users that have fallen in and out of favor over time. The first and most common are the Gifted, mages with the ability to alter the world around them – usually with some form of telekinesis. When our story begins in book one, they are an oppressed and feared people due to their powers, but allowed to live with a brand that makes them unable to use their magic to harm others. Next, we have the Augers; these much rarer mages have various abilities to manipulate time and occasionally see into the future. The augurs, after ruling the world poorly in the wake of the evil god’s containment, have been hunted and killed wherever they are found due to their dangerous abilities. Finally, we have the Venerate, a small group of super augers who have ascended to deity-like power and are essentially immortal. The books follow a group of individuals from a mix of these magical (and other non-magical) groups as they help the reader piece together the history of what happened in this world and how to stop the release of the evil god stuck behind the barrier.

The above is what I wrote upon finishing Echo, and it is still a decent in-the-weeds summary of the plot of the book. On the other hand, it doesn’t touch on the high-level idea of Licanius, which didn’t become clear until I was close to finishing the series: this is a trilogy about two competing schools of time travel. On the one hand, you have the antagonists. The villains of the series believe that time is malleable. They are convinced that if they can change the world in certain ways, often through horrific actions, they can learn how to alter the past – thus going back and fixing tragedies and erasing the horrible things they have done to get there. The protagonists believe that time is fixed (spoilers: they’re right). Although you can travel in time, there is nothing that you can do to change the events of the past. If you go back in time, you were always going to go back in time, and you are just fulfilling an action you have always taken.

This thought experiment, and Islington’s exploration of it in particular, is absolutely incredible. First off, it paints the antagonists as incredibly relatable and human. They are simply people who are doubling down on a bad bet that they think will solve everything. It is more akin to reading about a family member with a gambling problem than a megalomaniac bent on destroying the world. Second, because all time-travel has already happened, it was always going to happen, and is happening – the books are constantly evolving in your mind. You read the series linearly in time, seeing these time travelers pop out of nowhere to do things. And as you get further and further in the series, you start to understand the circumstances that caused them to come back and watch the characters wrestle with the knowledge that they already know what they are going to do. It creates this insane logic puzzle you get to wrestle with as you try to figure out the chain of events that encompass the book. One example of how this is explored is one character has already seen how he dies (which is metal as all hell by the way). Because he knows how he dies, in the past, he constantly grapples with the idea that he might be unkillable in the present, but that he also HAS to go back to the past to die. It is an incredible situation to watch this character grapple with, and Islington is a master of exploring their emotional response.

Another thing I love about the time travel in Licanius is that since you cannot change the course of history, Islington never uses time travel to fix events. The stakes always feel real because there are no do-overs and no changing what happened. The series has an interesting balance – with the page space devoted to time manipulation heavily weighted to the later books. Shadow is mostly an epic fantasy with a few small time-travel elements, Echo starts to treat them as equals, and Light is a cornucopia of time travel shenanigans. Finally, Islington must be some sort of five-dimensional chess player because every single plotline, every single question, and every single weird event that the reader experiences, comes together in the end. It just locks together in this incredible mosaic of storytelling that is satisfying on a deep emotional level.

The Light Of All That Falls is a shining jewel in an already exemplary series. Although the series takes a serious time commitment to best enjoy it, The Licanius Trilogy is worth every second of the time that you give it. These books shimmer and shine with Islington’s unending passion for the world and enormous skill as a writer. The passage of time will reveal Licanius to be a modern classic that readers will enjoy for years to come. Do yourself a favor, carve out a solid month of reading, and sit down with these books.

Rating:
The Light Of All That Falls – 9.5/10
The Licanius Trilogy – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10

Blood Of Empire – An Empirically Sanguine End To The Year

81ioqfizh4lOur best of 2019 list is out, but that doesn’t mean 2019 is done giving us fantastic reads. We always roll December releases over into the next year in order to get the list out, and it can sometimes result in the powerful end-of-year releases not getting the accolades they deserve until the following year. This is one of those instances. Brian McClellan released Blood of Empire this week, his third and final installment of The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, and it has likely already earned itself a spot on our 2020 best-of list. This is a fantastic conclusion to an already great trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with this series you should read my reviews of the first two books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire. But, if you are here to find out how McClellan ties up his second trilogy in this magic world then I have some good news for you.

The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy has an…interesting…structure. In a good way. To me, it seems to eschew the traditional set-up for a trilogy of an introduction first book, bridge second book, and climactic final third book. Instead, Sins of Empire was a powerful introduction book but McClellan jumped straight to a powerful climax in Wrath of Empire, skipping the bridge. This left space for Blood of Empire to be something a bit different. While the book does have a fantastic final climax, it also focuses more on the aftermath of battles and the cleanup that often goes unmentioned. The series usually pulls me in with its epic scale, but I found myself drawn into the politics surrounding the deployment of foreign armies, recovery of soldiers with PTSD, and how war strains relationships. They were all fresh takes on the genre that drew kept the series exciting by upending my expectations for a concluding book in a trilogy.

While there is a lot to praise here, the greatest strength of Blood is its characters. I have always enjoyed McClellan’s talent for writing interesting characters, and he’s only getting better at it. This series has a fantastic cast of POVs; Vlora, Styke, and Michel are all deep characters with vivid personalities and clear strengths and weaknesses. Oddly, the three leads spend almost zero time interacting with one another in the entire series, and it is almost like reading three entire independent stories that create echos that affect one another. However, the three narratives create this beautiful balance that makes the books a very easy and fun read – always switching up the prose and style of the story every chapter keeping you fresh. Although the entire series has strong character stories, Blood takes things up a notch by focusing on how each of the three leads overcomes their own weaknesses. Without going into detail to avoid spoilers, each of the POVs finds themselves in new surroundings with a job that demands skills they are terrible at. Styke has to be diplomatic and level headed, Michel has to be courageous and honest, and Vlora has to be trusting and learn to delegate. Each of the leads is awful at these things, and the book is a case study in how they struggle to improve, avoid, or think around their own flaws. It makes for a book with some truly memorable character growth and a kick-ass ending that I would recommend to anyone.

There are a number of other positives about Blood of Empire. The combat continues to be exciting. McClellan has done a fantastic job of balancing returning characters from his first trilogy and fun new faces. We get to see a new continent and part of McClellan’s very well developed world. In keeping with the more challenging themes, McClellan put a lot of effort into humanizing or at least digging into the mentality of the “enemy” in the series – which I liked a lot. There is an astounding level of detail in his worldbuilding and I definitely think that McClellan could just keep making new series in this universe and they wouldn’t get old for a while. The mysteries and plots of the series as a whole all come to satisfying and emotional conclusions. The only real criticisms of Blood of Empire are that the pacing could sometimes feel slightly uneven, especially in Vlora’s POV. Sometimes the book could feel like it was stalling in flight as the chapters dragged along and other times I felt like they were moving way too fast and I wasn’t getting enough time to luxuriate in major character or story moments.

I really liked Blood of Empire. It does an excellent job capping off a fun and thoughtful trilogy that significantly expanded McClellan’s world in positive ways. The structure of the final book alone makes it a worthwhile read, and the book feels particularly topical to today’s world events in ways that I couldn’t get into to avoid spoilers. If you are holding out on this series after reading Powdermage, are even slightly curious about ‘flintlock fantasy’, or are looking for a good story with excellent character growth – I recommend you pick up this series ASAP.

Rating: Blood of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Best Of 2019

Welcome back to another end of the year list! 2019 is rumbling to a close, which means it’s once again time to talk about the best books of the year. This year was a tough one for us. With our expanded set of reviewers, we got through a much larger number of new books and had a much harder time cutting them down to a top list. The competition was hot for every single spot this year, and our list is coming out a little later than usual due to all the discussions we had about where to rank everything. This year, the competition was so tight that we chose to include 22 books plus a few honorable mentions. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2018 into this list, and December 2019 will be rolled into 2020’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2019.

Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:

4145903722) The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull – A more personal book that takes a large event and brings it home in ways that most first contact stories don’t examine. There are no interstellar battles, no open threats of planetwide war, just three islands, the people that live on them, and the aliens that occupy them. It is an intensely close look at the effects of colonialism in its many forms and how it affects the relationships of those under the boot, literally and metaphorically. While major events rarely happen within the POV of a character, the rumors and feelings of those events bleed into the narrative, coloring the reactions of everyone in different ways. Turnbull makes every interaction feel deliberate, earned, and uncomfortable. He provokes the reader to think about the events of the book. If you want an intimate and contemplative character-based science fiction story, see if you can learn The Lesson.

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_21) System Failure by Joe Zieja – A surprisingly deep ending to an extremely humorous trilogy with a ton of excellent character development. With the publication of his third book, Zieja seems to be done with writing books for the near future–a damn shame, if you ask me. He has demonstrated that he is capable of creating thoughtful commentary and entertaining jokes at the same time, and I consider the Epic Failure trilogy to be one of the best satires I have ever read. Now that book three has stuck the landing, you can be reassured that these books are definitely worth your time. Unless you hate laughter, fun, and joy, and in that case, I am not really sure what to recommend you read.

71e9du8wynl20) Middlegame by Seanan McGuireMiddlegame was a book that flew under my radar for a while. In retrospect, I don’t know how the description didn’t jump off the back of the book at me. The book takes place in a near-future or the alt-universe United States, it’s a little unclear exactly what year the book starts in due to the fact it’s almost entirely about time travel and manipulating the flow of time. In this version of the USA, the magical practice of alchemy is real and there is a secret society of alchemists that have been pulling the strings of government and world development for centuries. The book follows a pair of alchemically created twins as they try to subvert the murderous intent of their maker and find a way to create a future for themselves. The time travel mechanic is handled fantastically, the magic feels truly mystical, and the singsong nature of the prose ties in well with the initial conceit of Asphodel Baker hiding her magic in children’s books. We highly recommend you give it a try.

81hheui0g8l19) The Killing Light by Myke Cole – A stunning finish to an already fantastic series. Myke Cole digs deep offering a sobering but impactful piece of revolution and identity. Cole maintains a loyalty to his characters through to the end, providing rich character growth inside a bombastic action-filled trilogy. The excellent pacing will keep you on the edge of your seat, with a steady but explosive ramping of the stakes in the final act. There is barely a dull moment, but Cole manages to squeeze in the occasional introspective paragraph to develop the characters. While the prose may not be overly detailed, it conveys a range of atmospheres that sell the setting and the fight ahead for Heloise and her compatriots. If you haven’t read the others in the series, this book is worth picking them up for.

51q9knbilel._sx321_bo1204203200_18) The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – Leckie’s first fantasy novel is a slow burn and odd book to pick up, but definitely worth the time. Leckie performs an amazing juggling act by building a new world, exploring the power of language, and the nature of authority in a gripping tale of succession. There is nothing I like more than deconstructing a genre, and Leckie does it with admirable finesse. The human characters are not much to write home about but serve the story in interesting ways that don’t betray who they are. Gods and kings are at each other’s mercy in this robust world where faith is a contract, and not fulfilling it has vast repercussions. If you’re looking for a book that cooks its elements like a stew, rewarding you with a satisfying finish after a deliberate and planned preparation, then look no further than The Raven Tower.

91fi4au2qfl17) For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones – Another of our Dark Horses, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic fantasy novel. It has an engrossing world, a fast-paced plot, and a smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. The protagonists are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free-time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. While I wouldn’t say this book reinvented the wheel, I think it is both a stunning tribute to old school quest fantasy and a fresh and original take on some classic fantasy tropes. This book is worth your time.

gideon-the-ninth-cover16) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – A powerful debut from a new author with a stunning voice, Gideon the Ninth is a story I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. A story with endless ambition and complication, Muir’s debut built a window into her very chaotic and fascinating mind. It takes a clever artist to combine necromancy and a science fiction setting, and yet Muir’s fascinating world seems as effortless as it is captivating. Her universe is both cool and believable, though not necessarily a place I want to live. Although her twists were somewhat unsurprising, her characters were bundles of mystery and watching them evolve over the course of the book was wonderful. Thank god the second book comes out early next year after the ridiculous cliffhanger of an ending in book one. 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.

71uzngwnyel15) This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – I didn’t expect a book about time-traveling super agents fighting a time war on opposite sides to be so…romantic. This Is How You Lose The Time War is a short book that feels so much bigger than it is. The ideas it contains and the relationship it explores expand in weight and depth far past what the short run time should allow. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have created a poetic romance of a sci-fi novella and luxuriate in it. Their prose is lavish but fitting and never feels overwrought despite always toeing the line of excessive. I was moved by this story to a depth that I have difficulty getting across in words and cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to experience the story Red and Blue live within its pages.

51QyF0Oma0L._SX311_BO1204203200_14) A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White – Alex White is on a roll, making two of our best-of-the-year lists in a row with his next installment of The Salvagers series. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. The Quill to Live reviewers will always be drawn toward books that do a good job blending fantasy and science fiction, and White has a real talent for it. These novels are a mind exploding stream of cool ideas and blockbuster set pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

51tbh9qip2l13) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Bancroft’s incredible prose,  delightful sense of humor, and mysterious storytelling are back again with the third installment of his The Books of Babel Series. The Hod King is the latest in an incredible character study and journey of the titular Senlin – and watching him grow book by book has been pure joy. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The book has heart and there were a number of touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction.

51dp2bmink2l12) A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Martine’s debut is a frenetic political space opera that asks the reader to put in some work, for easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the year. The worldbuilding is near seamlessly blended into the narrative, allowing osmosis like an exchange between the characters and their world. It’s a character-driven drama, wherein the characters have as much agency as the situation allows, leading to the characters to deeply question their own identity, especially when it comes to nationality and the goals of an inherited community. To top it off, Empire has one of the most exciting and bombastic conclusions I’ve read in a long while; it closes the book, but it opens the world.

43521682._sy475_11) The Bone Ships by RJ Barker – 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. The world is top-tier in its quality and the plot is surprising in its direction and themes. 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 speaks to me on several levels. This book was one of the only ‘escort quests’ I have ever enjoyed being a part of, and it was a privilege to watch the protagonists forge a legendary ship’s crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Welcome to the top 10 of 2019. Please note that the competition for these top 10 spots was fierce this year, so all of these books should be given high accolades.

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_10) The Burning White by Brent Weeks – I gotta tell you, I did not have a lot of faith that Weeks could pull off a powerful ending for The Lightbringer – and wow was I wrong. This is one of the twistiest series I have ever read, and the more turns you have the harder it is the land the final reveal. The Burning White sticks a landing that would earn a straight 10 from Olympic judges. The final installment of this modern classic cements its standing in my mind and does a lot to alleviate some of the minor animosity created by book four in the series. Future generations of readers will not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to read these five books back to back, and will never know the pain of having to wait years to find out what happens in the story next. Give these books a spin if you haven’t already.

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form once again.

The Luminous Dead8) The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – Horror and science fiction have an interesting relationship as they can sometimes explore similar ideas with wildly different approaches. Luckily, Starling is an excellent matchmaker, highlighting both genres’ strongest attributes in her debut, which also happens to be our top Dark Horse pick. The setting and the characters are the biggest stars in this book. Gyre and Em have layers to them that heighten the tension and horror of the deep caves Gyre is exploring. The first person perspective is purposefully disoriented, making the reader feel as if they are in Gyre’s shoes, and needing to ask the questions she herself has trouble answering. The character’s flaws are on full display in an incredibly human fashion. Their reckless decisions feel necessary, but also stupid and punishable. I never really felt safe during the story, especially when Gyre’s radio only partner Em, seemed so questionable. The Luminous Dead has buried itself deep in my brain and will remain there for years to come. If you’re looking for an intimate horror experience, turn out the lights and let the dead light your way.

91dsajyop2l7) A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs – If I had my way this would be in the first slot. I have evangelized about this book to everyone I have spoken to about reading since I experienced it and will continue to for as long as I live. A duology of novellas, one longer than the other, A Lush and Seething Hell may be my favorite book of all time. The longer I’ve had to think about and reflect upon its story the more profoundly it has impacted me and influenced my thoughts. Each of the stories it contains is compelling and moving in the extreme, and while I personally have my favorite of the two either one would top a list of what my personal “best” short stories would be. The genre and subject matter means that by default this book won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to find out personally. I will get my ARC signed by John Hornor Jacobs someday if it is the last thing I do, and I would highly recommend every single person reading this article to go and pick this book up. I cannot wait for what Jacobs does next.

51xnnd8dqtl6) Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey – I have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now.” The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the series tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how The Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

71wcezdltrl5) Exhalation by Ted Chiang – One of two books to sneak into the top five in the last two weeks of the year and cause a delay on the list. As far as I am concerned, Exhalation should be required reading for everyone. It is a book that evokes curiosity in the reader and kickstarts introspection. It is such a thoughtful and inspirational book and I can’t imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy it. In 300 pages and nine stories, Chiang will drop a boatload of wisdom on you and ask some questions that will have you thinking weeks after you finish the collection. This series of shorts pack punches orders of magnitude larger than other things that have come out this year, it a much smaller package. Just read it, seriously. You really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of these wonderful stories.

356060414) A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie – Like anyone familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised this is in the top five. Headline: author who everyone agrees is dope as hell writes next installment of beloved series and it turns out really good – surprising no one and delighting everyone. Seriously, A Little Hatred is amazing. Abercrombie has ushered in a new generation of characters that are just as compelling, unconventional, and emotional as the last – without cannibalizing his own work. The book is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, one of the best books I have read this year.

51sght5qhjl3) Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – With powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of its predecessor 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. While Time had great characters, Tchaikovsky really upped the ante in Ruin. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. Unfortunately, this closeness led me to feel that some of their stories were not fully explored by the end of the book, but it did not dampen the power of the story overall. 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.

81h2bkqvsgyl2) The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This sneaky little snake is the true reason our list is late again this year. The silver-tongued Morgenstern must have known what she was doing when she released 2019’s arguably most anticipated book a week before reviewers like me had to put out best-of lists. I have not written a full review for The Starless Sea yet because I am still digesting how I feel about the book after binging it in a few days. However, I was only about ten pages into the book before I knew it would be a top contender for the book of the year on every fantasy and sci-fi list. With one of the most relatable protagonists of all time, The Starless Sea captured my imagination in a way few stories ever have. The book, simply put, is a work of art. With its stunning exterior and gorgeous prose upon its pages, I found myself holding this modern classic to my chest for comfort after it hammered my heart into oblivious with its touching story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and dive into The Starless Sea.

91gyhjy8mjl1) A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – This year it was a close thing. The difference in ranking between the number one and two books this year is minuscule, but at the end of the day(year) I had to give it to A Brightness Long Ago. Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read. It is a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and is The Quill to Live’s #1 book of 2019 – I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Happy 2019 from The Quill to Live Team