Docile – It Will Bring You To Your Knees

If you have read a lot of my reviews in particular, you might have noticed that I enjoy reading books from the perspective of an individual’s relationship to society. So when offered the chance to read a book with the tagline “there is no consent under capitalism,” you can imagine the inhuman sounds of excitement that spawned within my mouth. Not only does it scratch the aforementioned itch, but I get to think about capital “C” Capitalism too? Sign me up, I’m ready to report for duty. Fortunately, for people who are not me, K. M. Szpara’s debut novel Docile, is not quite the screed I was looking for. Instead, Szpara delivers an intelligent, emotional and deeply human exploration of how society, economics and power can affect those struggling at the bottom, as well as those who rest at the top. 

Docile is the story of two men, Elisha and Alex, in a near future Baltimore where trillionaires reign supreme. The state of Maryland enacted a law in which debt is shared by members within a family, but can also be sold to those with the means, for years, even lifetimes, of servitude. Luckily, for those willing to sell their debt, there is Dociline, a drug that inhibits the short term memory of the user and turns them into an effective automaton, allowing them to serve out their term in relative “peace” and ignorance. Elisha’s family is millions of dollars in debt, and he takes it upon himself to sell it and serve so that his younger sister has a chance at life. Alex is a trillionaire and heir apparent to the Bishop Family, the makers and distributors of Dociline. After a recent breakup that makes the board question his abilities, Alex purchases Elisha’s debt and takes him on as a Docile, as part of his plan to prove the effectiveness of a new version of Dociline. Alex’s plans are thrown to the wind when Elisha refuses the drug, creating new terms for their relationship. What follows is a story of sex and abuse as the two men try to discover who they are to themselves, and each other. 

Szpara accomplishes an incredible amount within Docile and interweaves so much of it together that it’s very hard to separate and highlight the strengths of the individual parts. Fortunately, I do not have to break that much down to really get to the good stuff. The characters are honestly the star of this book, and I owe that to Szpara’s attention to baseline emotions, deterioration of said emotions, and the internal monologuing he provides for Elisha and Alex. Both characters are written in incredible detail but not in a way that overwhelms the reader. Their transformations through the book are gradual, aided in part by time skips that feel natural as the characters follow the emotional paths their decisions set them down. Elisha’s journey of defiant and somewhat naive farmboy to cowed subservient plaything was as heart wrenching as it was believable. In turn, Alex’s transition from uncertain scientist to a domineering and demanding master was cleverly executed through his understanding of playing the role, and yet he still becomes the mask. 

Much of the excellent characterization is highlighted by Szpara’s efficient and descriptive writing style. He is straight-forward and not ambiguous in his descriptions of character’s feelings, sexual acts being performed, or societal roles being played. It is a raw and unflinching look at power dynamics from an economic, social and personal level. That is not to say however, that morality shines through every step of the way through the book, with Szpara highlighting what is wrong in every situation. Instead, Szpara questions the systems at play through the character’s own inner monologues, following their own trains of thought after they did something they found distasteful. Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms. It pulled me in while allowing me to think about the things Szpara’s characters were dealing with. 

The lynchpin argument of the book is right there on the cover – “There is no consent under Capitalism.” If this feels daunting and in your face, do not be alarmed. Szpara’s handling of that thesis is more human and intimate than I expected. Instead of a sweeping system wide exploration of all the different ways big and small people are affected, the whole of Docile is focused on a single pair of men, one with power and privilege, the other without. Szpara goes to great lengths to paint this relationship with as many colors of abuse and intimacy as he can, highlighting the lack of choice, and the gap between Elisha and Alex. The author also emphasizes how the economic system bleeds into every aspect of life, every interaction is tainted in some small way, that it’s impossible to know where the system ends and one as an individual begins. Szpara surprised me most with his exploration of Alex, and his role within the system he was perpetuating. The small amounts of maliciousness that start to get infused in his daily life as he “trains” Elisha to prove to the company board he is a stable and productive member of Elite society. How he, along with Elisha, become the embodiment of his theme of “you change a little bit every day,” until they both become unrecognizable. It was cleverly and masterly handled. 

Lastly, I just want to commend Szpara for writing a dystopia that in its bones, reflects the material conditions of now, instead of just the worries and anxieties of where we as a culture might be headed. I think there is a tendency to slip into “the worst possible scenario,” and, to me, it feels like the author avoids that here. Instead, Szpara tries to highlight what is already concerning today, with a slight step up on the absurdity scale. Instead of billionaires there are trillionaires. Instead of working your whole life to pay for debts incurred in order to participate in life, you sell your debt to become a docile and take a drug to ease the pain. The questions that characters ask themselves do not just relate to their specific situation but highlight general concerns that then branch into other questions. On top of that Szpara avoids spiraling, and digging too deep where everything feels hopeless, choosing to focus on what’s important: the people who inhabit their/our lives and who we choose to be around them. It was an incredibly touching revelation. 

Overall, Docile, is an incredibly fascinating read, with wonderful characters and a world that feels all too real. Unfortunately, some may be put off by the incredibly vivid and descriptive sex scenes, or the large amount of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on display. However, if that is not a hindrance to you as a reader, this is definitely worth your time. Rarely has such a monstrous world felt like it was dealt with in such a human fashion. I definitely recommend it, and look forward to more of Szpara’s work. 

Rating: Docile – 9.0/10
-Alex 

Beneath The Rising – On Top of Its Game

I have always been enticed by cosmic horror and other Lovecraft adjacent stories, but I never really dove into the genre. It’s always lurking in the background, taunting me with its perceptions of madness. Luckily for me, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath The Rising is a Lovecraftian story filled to the brim with horror, adventure, a dash of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced adventure. Beneath the Rising follows two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and on the eve of destruction as they sort out their friendship and try to contain the Lovecraftian consequences of their decisions. Written through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Nick Prasad, the story explores the nature of cultural and class differences, shared traumas, and teenage romance as the characters attempt to save the world from Eldritch horrors.

The story begins when Johnny, Nick’s childhood friend and supergenius, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers”, returns from her latest travels of the world and shows Nick her latest experiment, a new unending source of clean energy. Upon activating the device, strange beings start appearing and harassing the two teenagers. Soon, Johnny reveals to Nick that she fears she has awoken the Ancient Ones, beings she has learned about through the various scientific societies she is a part of. Nick is inadvertently pulled into the chaos of Johnny’s quest to save the world by virtue of being her closest friend, even though he feels he barely knows her. He’s poor, of Indian descent and secretly in love with Johnny, a rich, white supergenius who flies around the world. 

Mohamed’s ability to explain the world through Nick’s eyes is wonderful. I sometimes felt lost, but it seemed like a deliberate choice, becauseNick’s consciousness switched between memories and current events with no real transition. It was as if I was reading someone’s thoughts while they were trying to parse what was happening in front of them and also reconciling it with a memory it triggered. These were the only times I felt pulled out of the book, but it gradually became less jarring as I attuned to the style. Nick felt like a teenage boy, aware of the seriousness at hand, but willing to take a crack at a joke to impress his friend. He referenced pop-culture a decent amount, but mostly because that was the easiest way to relate to the absurd situations he found himself in. Normally, I cringe at pop culture mentions, but they felt natural here in a way I have not experienced before. It felt like Mohamed purposefully wrote them as a point of contact for Nick to make sense of the world instead of being used to relate to the reader, and that is refreshing.

With the story being told in the moment through Nick’s point of view, the pacing is fun and frenetic. It conveys a sense of what Nick and Johnny must be feeling as they face the end of the world. There are constantly new threats that must be dealt with, or a new library to get to in order to find a way to defeat the Ancient Ones. Mohamed’s strength as an author is not just in her ability to keep the plot moving, but also giving the characters room to breathe and process what they just went through. Johnny lends an air of “whatever, I see crazy stuff all the time,” while Nick is still playing catchup and questioning the nature of their friendship, let alone the nature of the cosmos. Their fights with each other hit hard, and the reconciliation is earned if it even happens. Their relationship is truly engrossing as it’s pushed to the limits as these two teenagers travel across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Even more astounding is Mohamed never let the larger plot fade away and lose relevance, having it hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles. It put a lot of pressure on the story and kept pulling me to the next page.

I am not an avid reader of Lovecraft, but even so, something about the way the mythos is used felt refreshing. The Ancient Ones were always within reach, but rarely ever in sight, adding an increasing amount of tension. This might be disappointing for some, but I did not mind it. The first time “something” showed up in the story, I felt my blood run cold and I owe that to Mohamed’s careful and deliberate revelation of the world. My feelings as a reader often seemed to mirror Nick’s, unsure of what was going on and always needing an explanation, but only able to get a little bit from Johnny. It felt like a madness creeping into Nick’s brain, as if what he was going through could not possibly be real, but there was no other explanation. Moments that were humorous could also be easily turned on their heads as moments of horror. I never got the sensation that I missed the cue, however, as if Mohamed was hinting at the ambiguity for a reason and making me think about how teenagers would handle themselves in these terrifying situations.

The last aspect of the book that really gripped me, however, was just how insidious every interaction felt. Mohamed starts the story off with a moment of alternative American history in which 9/11 happens, but the planes miss. Similar tensions still pervade the western hemisphere, however, and Nick receives some of the backlash as an Indian person born and raised in Canada. It felt real, and as if Mohamed looked at me through the pages of her book, and asked “are you paying attention?” I could not stop looking for the little ways this change wove its tendrils into how Nick and Johnny engaged each other and the world given their backgrounds. I felt every word and turn of phrase had to be dissected. Being inside Nick’s head only fine-tuned this notion, making Johnny feel unreliable and dodgy in response to his inquiries. It was bold, and I felt it paid off immensely through the rest of the story.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters. I had a blast, and this book makes me want to dive further into the genre. So, if you feel its pull even slightly, its worth it to answer its call.

Beneath The Rising: 8.0/10

-Alex

The Unspoken Name – A Maze Of Mystery

unspoken-gld-t1Yesterday we posted our first 2020 Dark Horse Initiative list, but you might have missed it because we put it out on an unusual day for us. The reason for this is I was dead set on getting my review of The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, out today, and it felt weird to review it before including it as part of our DHI. The Unspoken Name is a powerful, unusual, and extraordinary debut that will likely be the talk of the town for many months to come. The book is not at all what I expected from its back blurb, but I think that may be the point. This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.

The plot follows Csorwe, an orc priestess of the titular god of “The Unspoken Name.” Her job, for a short period, is to be a conduit for communication between the god and supplicants who come with offerings. She is supposed to serve this role for a number of years, starting as a young child, and eventually be sacrificed to the god at a certain age. She knows that her death is marked on the calendar from day one of her service, and she reacts accordingly, becoming a sullen, fatalistic, and incurious person. What is the point of exploration and discovery when you know you will die soon? This all changes when a supplicant, a Gandalf-esque wizard, comes to The Unspoken and whisks her away right before her death. He enlists her in a bodyguard for a quest to reclaim his homeland and they travel Larkwood’s multiverse (a series of worlds interconnected by a giant maze of portals) seeing all sorts of wonderful things – and that’s about all I am going to tell you.

The story of The Unspoken Name is surprising. It doesn’t follow a clear path and often takes unexpected turns and twists into wonderful new directions. For a large portion of the book, Csorwe doesn’t really have a goal. She thought she was going to die, it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do now. She has some ideas, but not many, and a huge part of the story is her just trying things out and learning about the world. It is a beautiful and unique narrative style that I really enjoyed and gave the book a very pervasive atmosphere of whimsy and wonder. This is helped enormously by the fact that the world is just absolutely wonderful to explore. he magic and multiverse are convoluted and complicated by design to keep everything mysterious. However, what you do learn about – such as the race of giant snake philosophers who built the foundation of civilization as they know it – is wonderful. I also particularly liked how there are a variety of different magical races, but race politics was a very minor footnote in the story. For example, Csorwe is an orc and while that carries through into a lot of her flavor and general identity, there is very little attention and time given to it by the other races or people. The entire book projects this idea of a universe where people come in all shapes and sizes and that is very normal and not worth commenting on.

I ate up every second of the world-building and constantly found myself desperate for more. However, the world is more of a vehicle for the journey of self-discovery that Csorwe and many other characters find themselves on and it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters. The characters are absolutely fantastic. The protagonists mostly share the theme of growth and self-discovery and the antagonists are mired in a refusal to change or grow. It is a powerful high-level idea that plays out wonderfully in the character stories and the individual journeys of the cast are extremely satisfying to boot. I really enjoyed Csorwe. She feels so real and relatable it hurts. Her joy at discovering new things and skills is so sweet, and her mistakes feel like important moments that she learns from and grows. I don’t want to talk too much about the supporting cast for spoiler reasons, but they also share the same arcs and moments.

Despite all my lavish praise, I do think the book struggled in a place or two. In particular, the book can have slightly uneven pacing and some trouble with telling versus showing. While it’s wonderful that the book wanders, Larkwood occasionally seems to feel scared the reader will get bored if she lingers too much in any particular place and jumps from set-piece to set-piece. In a book about stumbling and finding your way, I didn’t think there was enough breathing room to occasionally take in and process things. In addition, for someone who has sheltered her entire life and has “inexperience” as a cornerstone of her personality – Csorwe has a weird tendency to just announce everything there is to know about a person in her head the second she meets someone. Meeting new characters often has Csorwe take one look at them and think things like “he was a cruel man, who seemed like he had a troubled youth. He wasn’t respected by his peers and spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of his father. He didn’t call his mom enough.” I kept waiting to find out she secretly possessed psychic powers or some sort of keen insight, but by the end of the book, it seems like the story just suffers from a little too much telling.

The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first to the last page. A.K. Larkwood has crafted an absolutely stellar debut that only has a few minuscule issues. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next, though I have absolutely no idea where Larkwood will take us next.

Rating: The Unspoken Name – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2020 – Jan to June

After the success of last year’s Dark Horse Initiative, we knew we were going to do it again this year. For those of you just joining us, the DHI is our attempt to sift through all the relatively unknown debuts coming out in a year and bookmark a handful to check out and review just based on their descriptions. However, when we were building the lists this year we realized that we had A LOT of books on it – so we decided to make two. We are splitting the DHI into two lists, one for each half of the year. The following books are our picks for books coming out from January 2020 to June 2020, and we will have a second list for the back half of the year in July.

As mentioned, each of the following 12 books (in no particular order) is something that caught the eyes of one of our reviewers. We will do our best to read and review all of these, but there are only so many hours in the day so no promises we will get to all of them. Regardless, each looks like a promising new story and we are very excited to check them out! Happy 2020 everyone.

  1. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
  2. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
  3. Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
  4. A Song Below Water by Bethany C Morrow
  5. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
  6. Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
  7. Docile by K. M. Sparza
  8. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
  9. The Loop by Ben Oliver
  10. The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
  11. The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
  12. Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson

The Naked God – A QTL Discussion

We return with our final installment of our Night’s Dawn audio reviews! For those of you still listening, thank you for sticking with us. We know this is a bit out of the ordinary for our content and we are learning a lot. This time we are doing book three, The Naked God, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. The goal of this discussion, once again, is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you skip today’s post. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book three (PS., we are extremely loud so you might want to turn down your volume):

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – Fantasy Divorce Simulator

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro, by K.S. Villoso, is equal parts compelling, refreshing, engrossing, and frustrating. The novel has a problem– it has an extremely rough start in the service of setting up a brilliant finale. Before I dive in and start lauding the book’s many positive qualities, I want to say this upfront: if you get easily frustrated with dumb characters, or you don’t like investing in unenjoyable characters for long term payoff, this book likely isn’t for you. However, if you consider yourself of great patience, want to read a refreshing fantasy story, and like character growth, I may have a treat for you.

Oren-Yaro grabbed my attention right off the bat with its premise. Our story follows Queen Talyien. Princess of a country that lost a bloody war, she was sold off as a hostage bride to the winning side in order to secure peaceful days for both nations. This works (for a while) until her husband metaphorically goes for a pack of cigarettes and just never comes back. Left to raise their only son and govern a hostile nation, Talyien suddenly has problems. However, she manages to make do and come out on top, until she receives a message from her deadbeat co-monarch (duarch?) that he wants to meet and talk. She agrees to meet him and this is where our story takes off. The story follows Talyien as she navigates her way to the meeting, deals with the meeting (which is a request for a divorce), and decides what she wants to do. All of it is a rollercoaster of both good and bad.

The good: Talyien, when alone, is really fun to watch. There are a number of “princess slumming it” scenes that are very endearing with great dialogue. The investigation of divorce in a feudal state is interesting – and Villoso’s idea of how it might play out is captivating. There is a clear air of mystery and unreliable narrator in the first 90% of the book, and the reveal of what has been hidden at the end is pretty good.

The bad: Talyien, when with other characters, is awful. She is obnoxious, seems to drop several points of intelligence, and is just grating. The politics and lore of the world feel unnecessarily dense and confusing due to their stark and vague descriptions. Several of the supporting cast, like Talyien’s son, have zero character depth other than “make Talyien feel bad.” Seriously, her son shows up like five times in the first quarter of the book and all he ever contributes is “why did you make dad go away?” The unreliable narration is a little too unreliable. Talyien comes off as unlikable due to a perceived lack of consistent character for the majority of the book and it can be very hard to read.

The ending of the book is awesome, but I had to be told by someone else to finish the novel as I quit Oren-Yaro my first time reading it due to frustration. I think Villoso played her cards a little too close to the chest in order to make a grand reveal– though the reveal is indeed grand. If you have a lot of patience and you find the premise compelling, I hesitantly recommend The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro. However, I think its choppy narration and its sometimes difficult characters would make it hard to recommend it to everyone.

Rating: The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – 6.0/10
-Andrew

Upright Women Wanted – Standing Tall

Upright Women Wanted By Sarah Gailey starts off strong with its main character, Esther, stowed away in a librarian’s book wagon. She’s a runaway in a future dystopian American southwest. Esther is running away from a marriage arranged by her father. The man she was set to marry, was originally going to marry her best friend, and secret love, Beatriz. Beatriz had been found with resistance propaganda, otherwise known as “unapproved materials”, and summarily executed. The old West is back again, but this time with even more small-town tyranny aided by an oppressive military focused on keeping order and restoring “traditional family values.” All the while, a group of upstanding women of reputation, the Librarians, distributes resistance literature under the guise of providing “traditional” education town to town in their roving wagons. 

There is something special contained within Upright Women Wanted, but it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Gailey has certainly built an immersive world, filled with details that make it feel alive. The casual way stereotypical western movie-speak has infiltrated daily conversation is fun and feels very natural. Gailey leaves no stone unturned as they litter the novella with descriptions that feel old-timey, but with a modern sense of vigor. Every bit of the world-building feels purposeful, and while I wanted more, I can understand the decision to keep some aspects of the world vague. For instance, how this future came to be doesn’t really feel as important as in other dystopias, which felt refreshing. Overall it feels more tangible, as if it just sort of happened while no one was looking, because the oppressive aspects of that culture exist today. 

The characters are a big selling point to me beyond the western trappings. They leap off the page with a dynamism and loudness I was not expecting in a novella. The people that Esther encounters fully understand the world that they live in, and have chosen a life that allows them to skirt the edges. They have to, as they are all queer, unable to live the life they want, for otherwise they’d be hanged by the society that requires heterosexuality. Gailey is not subtle about this either, and it’s bracing. I loved learning about their struggles, but I really loved how they have not succumbed to their fears and taken the fight head-on. There is a lushness to their lives that stands in stark contrast to the open and empty desert around them. Cye, a librarian in training, in particular stands out as they have to lead a dual life since they are non-binary. They consistently remind Esther to refer to them as “she” within towns so as not to give them away. That it was something that their entire well being hinged upon struck me deeply. 

While there is not a lot of time to get deep within the novella, Gailey has added a richness to a straight forward story. It both makes me want more of this world, and satisfied with the story already told. If Gailey never goes back to this world, Esther and Cye along with the other women on their journey have taught me there is always a way to fight for your future, whether it’s in plain view or in the cracks that appear in civilization. 

Upright Women Wanted: 7.5/10

-Alex

Steel Crow Saga – Everybody’s Got Problems

51re9unfc2blWell let’s get this out of the way early: Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger, feels like someone sat down and tried to combine the best parts of Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and did an admirable job. A lot of how you will feel about this book is how you react to the last sentence. If this concept fills you with excited glee, you are probably going to love it to pieces. If this concept fills you with trepidation, you will likely find the book to be a bit lukewarm. To be fair, distilling this impressive book down to a single sentence is an injustice, so let’s dig more into the meat of this interesting story and see what it has to offer.

Steel Crow Saga is the first book in a series of the same name and follows four different POVs in political intrigue seasoned with a lot of action. Our leads are Lee, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Tala, and everybody has issues they need to resolve. Each of them comes from a different nation that represents a different piece of the world – each with a different real-world Asian allegory. Tala is a soldier from Sanbu (Phillippines), Jimuro is a prince from Tomoda (Japanese), Xiulan is a detective from Shang (China), and Lee is a thief from Jeongson (Korea). I found the inspirations from the countries tasteful and interesting, but as a Caucasian American I am absolutely not the right person to weigh in on that and I recommend seeking other sources if this is a concern for you. The book takes place right after an all-out war between the nations. Tomoda launched a campaign of dominance that successfully subjugated all the other countries, however, after a harsh occupation they were eventually beaten back and conquered themselves by Shang and Sanbu. The story focuses on transporting the last living royal of Tomoda back to his country to assume the throne in the hopes that all the countries might be able to put their conflicts to bed and begin moving forward. Unfortunately, peace is not what everyone wants and this relatively simple task quickly becomes complicated and potentially deadly.

Okay, now that you have a general gist of the plot, let’s talk about the pros and cons. First pro: the world-building. The reimagining of these Asian countries is a lot of fun. Each nation has a good mix of real-world culture and new spins that make the fantasy counterparts take a healthy step away from their inspirations. The book focuses heavily on two different magic styles native to different countries. The Tomodese can Steelpact, an ability gained through their perfect attenuation with nature, allowing them to put pieces of their souls into metal and breathe life into it. This allows them to be leaps and bounds ahead of their rivals in technological advancements, have swords that cut through anything like a lightsabre, and have the best marksmen around with their firearms. On the other hand, the Shang and the Sanbu have pokemon. They can pact with a single animal of almost any kind to turn them into giant energy versions of the creature that can be summoned and dismissed at will. Both magics are pretty awesome. In general, I liked the world-building a lot. However, I felt there were a few holes and gaps in the world Krueger showed us, even though I got the sense that he was saving them for later books, not that he hadn’t developed the missing areas.

Up next is the characters, who get mixed marks. On a personal introspective level, the cast is all fantastic. All four leads are all complex and interesting individuals that you will rapidly find yourself growing attached too. All of them have different issues they are dealing with and its very rewarding to watch how their very different personalities grapple with these difficult subjects. In addition, the supporting characters all have memorable quicks that did a great job sticking them into my memory so that most of them remain fresh in my mind weeks after finishing the book. Unfortunately, this is where my praise now must turn to criticism, as the chemistry between the characters is…. rough. While I really enjoyed the introspective parts, many character interactions often felt tonally inconsistent, a little too simple, and repetitive. The table stakes for characters in this book are that they have experienced the horrors of war. But, a good half of the dialogue between all the characters in this story feels like it can be boiled down to fingerpointing. You are shown very quickly that all sides of the war did some horrible things, but then you have to listen to the characters repeatedly say “no, your side was worse” over and over again for the majority of the book. It is exhausting and while I understand the desire to explore the topic of post-war devastation to culture and society, the wonderful delicate introspection the characters do inside their own head was massively overpowered by the back and forth accusations in the dialogue.

The plot was also a bit messy. While the book starts out strong with a clear goal and obstacles to overcome, it seems to rapidly descend into a series of disconnected set pieces where really cool magic and action happens. And I do want to emphasize, there are some really cool magic and action. However, I often found myself not understanding why, where, and how some things were happening. The antagonist is also frankly a bit of a disappointment. The set up for the villain is great, but the reveal and climax felt like they didn’t really match the scope of the rest of the story. There are some great twists though, and while I didn’t love the plot as a collective there were a number of pieces of it that I enjoyed immensely in isolation.

Steel Crow Saga is a book with a lot of things to offer and a fun concept that just falls short of being stellar. The world is a joy to explore, I love the characters, the action is exciting, and the magic is both original and nostalgic at the same time. It just needed a slightly more directed plot with some better character chemistry and it would have been one of my top books of 2019. Instead, I think it is a good book that has a lot of potential. I will definitely continue the series and look forward to seeing if Krueger can elevate it a bit in the next chapter.

Rating: Steel Crow Saga – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Puzzler’s War – A Satisfying Next Step

51i5x8gwmal._sx324_bo1204203200_I am not a prolific post-apocalypse reader, but I have read enough of them to realize there is a cyclical nature to their stories. Many trilogies within the genre follow the following format: book one shows you a ruined world and explores the question of “what happened?” Book two provides a window into the past and explores “why the end times happened.” Book three provides you with the full context of what is going on, moves you to the present, and explores “is what happened good or bad?” I have been through this cycle around five times now, and even though each story I read has its own quirks and originalities, it is hard to keep getting excited about these same themes. Thus, it should speak to the quality and execution of Eyal Kless’ The Puzzler’s War that it falls neatly into this trilogy set up that I mention, but has kept my attention glued to the story.

The Puzzler’s War is the second book in The Tarakan Chronicles, a story about a post-apocalyptic world struggling for survival. The plot revolves around mysterious mutants called Puzzlers that have the ability to unlock hidden caches of pre-apocalypse tech by solving riddles in dangerous conditions. I reviewed and enjoyed the first book (The Lost Puzzler) and you can find my thoughts and summary of book one in the link. Book two picks up right at the end of book one and follows the aforementioned PA pattern: this book is about why the end times happened and what the world used to look like before. The narration is once again split into two different timelines: the present, where our main cast tries to save/heal the world, and the past, where we learn more about the background and mystery of what is actually going on. While the “present” POVs are the same cast from book one, in the past we leap back to the start of the apocalypse and follow the story of one of the antagonists that caused the end of the world.

The book is great. The characters continue to be interesting and productive; they feel as though they have the agency to actually change the status quo of the world. One specific character, Vincha, felt like she could use a little more work. She pretty much only had one dimension, and that dimension was annoying and critical to the plot so it is brought up a lot. The worldbuilding is phenomenal and greatly helped alleviate my disinterest in reading another similar post-apocalyptic story. While the plot isn’t exactly the first of its kind, the world-building is dripping with love and imagination. Kless’ Earth feels like this strange ephemeral place that is both familiar and deeply alien at the same time. Occasionally, you can feel like you are reading a fantasy story that is pulled completely from imagination. Other times, you can see the world we live in under the surface and feel like you are reading about the place you live now.

This wonderful world-building is enhanced by the additional insight the “past POV” in the narrative provides. In the reader’s mind, Kless’ Earth slowly changes from this scary, magical, and foreign place to the planet we know – but ravaged by human folly and hubris. In the meantime, the “present POV” in The Puzzler’s War does a wonderful job keeping you invested in the story and provides a palpable sense of urgency as the cast needs to make choices around the future of the planet. All of this blends together to make a novel that is easy to pick-up, greatly improves the story that its predecessor told, and sets the stage for the next book.

The Puzzler’s War is an excellent follow up to The Lost Puzzler and broadcasts clear signs that this series will have a fantastic ending. Kless’ imaginative and evocative worldbuilding does wonders to refresh some tired tropes and classic genre stories. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction, I think it is safe to say that The Tarakan Chronicles will likely press a lot of the right buttons. Kless’ mysteries and descriptions will keep you up late into the night, wondering about what could be behind the next puzzle-locked door.

Rating: The Puzzler’s War – 8.0/10
-Andrew