The Best Books Of The First Half Of 2020

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this has been a difficult year for most people. Thus, we wanted to get a jumpstart on getting amazing books into your hands in order to find a little joy. Instead of waiting until November to give you all a list of the best books of 2020, we decided to compile a small list of dynamite novels from the first half of 2020. A book charcuterie board, if you will. So, if 2020 has you down and you need a high-quality read – look no further than these books. In no particular order, here are our top six reads from January to June 2020:

51iik4c-6gl1) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Coming in hot on the heels of Foundryside, Shorefall is a perfect second book to The Founders trilogy. The magic system continues to be one of the most innovative and exciting I have read in years, and Bennett’s flair for action, imagination, and horror are on full display. As a bonus, the themes of the book revolve around connecting people from different POV to make the world a better place and finding hope when all looks lost – a perfect book for current events.

81mny8q7oll2) The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – TJ Klune penned one of the most joyful books I’ve ever read. The House in the Cerulean Sea follows by-the-books caseworker Linus Baker, who audits orphanages that house magical youth. When he’s sent on a particularly difficult assignment, Linus finds himself embraced by an unlikely family of talented magical children and their quirky caretaker. To read this book is to smile through every page, laugh along with the witty humor, and shed an occasional tear. Klune crafts perfectly timed, subtle, emotional, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose. Through it, he creates characters that you truly come to love over the course of the novel. The House in the Cerulean Sea is unquestionably one of the year’s top books, and everyone should read this feel-good adventure as soon as possible.

41spd48rbal3) Network Effect by Martha Wells – I just really didn’t think Network Effect was going to be such a success. I am so used to authors cashing in on popular IPs and writing terrible spin-offs that I was jaded, and Network Effect is anything but that. This novel sequel to the popular Murderbot novellas is the perfect transition between the two mediums. Network Effect takes everything good about the short punchy novellas and expands the world, cast, and plot without losing any of the character depth. On top of everything, Network sets the stage for a big and exciting plot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am4) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – Usually one-sentence ideas like “gender-bent Alexander the Great in outer space” sound cool (and this one sounds amazing) but fall flat beyond initial expectations. Elliott, however, runs a marathon with it and at breakneck speed. The amount of world-building, character development, and political intrigue that goes into this first novel of a series is astounding. Elliott also plays very heavily with her narrative style that makes you hooting and hollering for a form of propaganda. It’s a genuinely fun read that blew away my expectations and should definitely be on your list of to-reads for the year.

91xjptkukl5) The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo – I have read so many Asian inspired fantasies about slighted royals getting even in the last six months. Yet somehow, this novella packed more character and spirit into its short hundred pages than any of the other full-sized novels I read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the perfect balance of familiar and original. It’s a short read with great pacing and sets up a world that Nghi will continue to explore in subsequent novellas. I was so impressed with this novella that it managed to edge out a lot of the other full novels from 2020 – but it isn’t the only one.

50905325._sx0_sy0_6) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – We still need to get around to reviewing this one, much to our shame. Prosper’s Demon has a very specific story to tell, and it tells it flawlessly. Parker has an agenda and an argument to be made, and he utilizes this short story to execute both with a flawless flourish. It isn’t the best or most fun story I have ever read, but holy cow does Parker nail his themes and characters. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s only like 80 pages long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you can read it in an hour.

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds – Nobody Faster

51wgb7eeelI gotta hand it to Alex White, the quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. Today we will be talking about the third and final installment of the trilogy, The Worst of All Possible Worlds. On top of White continuing their trend of extremely verbose but super cool names, they have managed to write an explosive and climactic conclusion the likes of which I have not read for a while. Usually, finale books in trilogies are hard to talk about due to spoilers, but I have so many nice things to say about this book that this review essentially wrote itself.

If you are just hearing about this series for the first time, please go read my reviews of either book one (A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe) or book two (A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy) and get started – you will not regret it. For everyone else, strap the heck in. Our story picks up very soon after the end of Galaxy, and the crew of the Capricious is feeling pretty worn down and wrung out despite their massive success in book two. They’re hurting from their losses, and though they have made noticeable progress against their nebulous foe – the antagonist is still going strong. Unfortunately, the big bad guy of the series has decided the time for stealth is over and launches a full-scale invasion with overwhelming firepower against the known universe. The crew quickly realize that there is no way to currently beat back the rising tide of enemies. So, as usual, the Capricious sets out to find a lost legend – Origin, humanities cradle of life – in the hopes it might have something that can win the battle.

I was actually recently talking about this series when I wrote my guide to Science Fantasy. As I mentioned in that piece, The Salvagers is a beautiful action-packed fusion of a world that combines magic and technology for astoundingly cool results. I also mention in that piece that there is nothing I have read that comes close to my favorite work of science fantasy, Heroes Die,… until now. Worlds has this perfect fusion of both fantasy and sci-fi that work together in concert to build a symphony of awesome. The biggest theme throughout the series is using historical knowledge and research (fantasy) to innovate powerful leaps forward in technology (science-fiction) – and it works to blend the two genres wonderfully. But, the use of this theme is a wonderful element that all three books have – so let’s focus on the two huge things that Worlds’ nails in particular.

The first is blockbuster action. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. I was initially a little worried based on the back blurb that makes the book sound like it’s going to be a McGuffin fetch quest to Deus ex the conflict away. It is nothing close to that, with Worlds containing action sequence after action sequence, set piece after set piece. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse.

The second thing Worlds does right is the emotional pay-off. Now back when I read book one three years ago, one of my major criticisms of White is that their writing felt somewhat overemotional. I love huge emotional scenes, but it felt like White was putting the cart before the horse and trying to get the reader to feel massively connected to these characters that the reader just hadn’t spent enough time with. Yet, that same weakness in book one is now a massive strength in the finale. The emotional payoff in Worlds’ is like winning a lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series.

I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. My only complaint is I felt there were a few too many unanswered questions at the end of Worlds, especially if White doesn’t plan to return to the world any time soon. I can say with confidence and ease that this will be one of the strongest science fiction and fantasy books of 2020. Go read this series right now.

Rating: The Worst of All Possible Worlds – 10/10
-Andrew

Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

Peace Talks – Excited To Be Back, Yet Disappointed To Be Here

51mbjzgnffl._sx329_bo1204203200_I am a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series. I could sit here all day and nitpick the problems I have with Butcher’s prose and characters, but at the end of the day I still really like this 16-book urban fantasy. There are few series that have this much content to sink your teeth into, and while there are a few duds in the series, the average quality of the books is pretty great. There is something about Butcher’s world and its mash-up of lores that is just delightfully fun to step into. Yet, it has been over six years since readers got their last fix. The previous book, Skin Game, came out in May of 2014 and was one of the strongest books in the series. Skin Game was about a crack team trying to rob the god of the underworld, Hades, of the holy grail. What an exciting and thrilling book it was. Now we have Peace Talks, which is about Dresden… talking… a lot?

I am going to get this out right up front: Peace Talks was a simultaneously nostalgic and disappointing experience. There is very little going on in this book – there aren’t many new plot elements, there is very little character growth, and it kinda felt like reading an anime filler arc. The majority of the story focuses on Dresden’s relationships with his half-brother and grandfather, but even in that dimension, there is very little growth and progress. The first 80% of the book focuses on Dresden’s brother committing a crime for which his motivations are never explained, and we follow Dresden trying to keep him out of a metaphorical noose. It’s a whole lot of Dresden saying “we shouldn’t murder my brother” and a whole lot of everyone else saying “please stop inexplicably defending a war criminal that committed a lot of war crimes on video.” The back 20% of the book has some climactic and exciting developments, but they are just set up for the next book with no exploration in Peace Talks itself. Given the fact that the sequel, Battle Ground, comes out in a few months – I think it is safe to say that Butcher wrote one long book that he decided to split in half and Peace Talks got all the setup. This isn’t a good book.

Despite being fairly empty of substance, it’s still fun to be back in the world of Harry Dresden. I was actually curious as a lot has changed in the fantasy landscape since these books were still regularly coming out. Butcher’s treatment of female characters has always been a little problematic, and I was excited to see that he seems to have fixed some of these issues. Female characters have more agency and depth, and while they do still talk about sex A LOT it isn’t the only thing they talk about anymore. At the same time, Dresden’s stance on the opposite gender has not aged well, and I do not think the earlier books in this series would survive a time capsule unscathed. Also, I never really noticed this before but every description that Butcher makes of character seems to comprise two features from a pool of four options. People are either over 6’5” or under 5’, and they are either jacked as a brick wall or so lean you could cut yourself on their bones.

I had fun reading Peace Talks, I enjoy being in this world. However, this was not Butcher’s best work and I enjoyed it in the way one enjoys a trashy romance novel. I am glad Dresden is back, but this belongs at the bottom of the series’ rankings. Hopefully, the follow-up novel in a few months will deliver where Peace Talks fumbled, otherwise I might need to reassess my love for Chicago’s only openly-practicing wizard.

Rating: Peace Talks – 4.0/10
-Andrew

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10
-Alex  

The Obsidian Tower – A Tall Success

50147675._sx0_sy0_The Obsidian Tower, by Melissa Caruso, is the first in a new spinoff series set in the Tethered Mage world. Normally, I am not one for spinoff series; I enjoy jumping into new worlds rather than returning to ones I know for what is often a B-list version of the original series I liked. However, in Caruso’s instance, I made an exception as she continued to expand the scope of her world and story from the original series and left a lot of room for exploration. In addition, her writing quality has improved with each book she has put out, and I was curious to see if this trend continued. So I decided to dig into The Obsidian Tower, and am happy to say it is a delightful book filled with delicious mysteries.

If you are new to Melissa Caruso’s work I recommend you start with her first book The Tethered Mage (reviewed here). But, if you just can’t wait to read The Obsidian Tower, it is a completely standalone series set sometime after Caruso’s initial series. Caruso’s world is one of rampant dangerous magic and antagonistic empires that love political cloak and dagger shenanigans. The protagonist of Obsidian is Ryx, a royal mage whose job is to guard the aforementioned obsidian tower that has been in her family for generations. No one knows what is inside it or what it does, but the family lore is quite clear on what her duties are – don’t let it be opened. Unsurprisingly, Ryx fails at this duty almost immediately at the start of the book, and the tower is breached. But what Ryx finds inside is confusing and puzzling, and sets off an exciting investigation as to what the purpose of the tower was and why was it sealed.

Caruso’s original series was primarily a political drama, with some romance splashed in on the side. The Obsidian Tower is a mystery book first, with a large side of political drama. I really enjoy this genre change-up and actually think that Caruso is a stronger mystery writer than she is a romance writer. The tower is a fun enigma, and I was very much invested in pulling apart its secrets. Caruso is very skillful in how she parcels out information, and the pacing of the book is excellent, constantly sitting at a low burn.

In addition, Ryx is an excellent protagonist who brings a lot to the table. For starters, she is a viviomancer – a magic-user whose power is directly entwined with the land her family controls. It is a unique and interesting magic that was used primarily by the antagonists in Caruso’s first series, and it is definitely fun seeing it used from the POV of the characters you are rooting for in Obsidian. Ryx has the added complication of her magic being “broken.” She had an accident while growing up, and it caused her magic to somehow go wrong. Now she is a magical Midas, siphoning the life energy out of anything near her and killing literally everything she touches. Caruso did a lot more with this premise than I was expecting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the story. Ryx essentially has to live like a combination of a cripple and leper – using specialized tools that she can’t break with her power and never coming near another human for fear of killing them. There is a nice exploration of what this does to her emotionally and I really enjoyed hearing a story from someone in this POV. A+ protagonist, sign me up for more.

However, I was less impressed with the supporting cast in Obsidian, especially compared to Caruso’s first series. The side characters consist of primarily three groups: 1) Ryx’s family members and servants, 2) envoys and ambassadors from various other political powers who are in her home for a summit, and 3) an independent group of mages from different countries who investigate magical disasters like a fantasy United Nations. There were a few interesting individuals from each of the three groups, but I found most of the supporting cast forgettable and wish they had more depth (like the large support cast in Caruso’s first series did). On the other hand, the worldbuilding and prose continue to improve with every book Caruso writes. Obsidian benefits massively from the groundwork that the previous series laid, but does a fantastic job expanding the maps and magic of the world. The prose is slightly better and I am constantly impressed by Caruso’s drive to improve and streamline her writing.

Overall, The Obsidian Tower is a great spinoff and fun for new and old fans of Caruso’s writing. The book is packed with fun mysteries and a highly original protagonist with a unique POV. The pacing and prose are good and I found almost nothing to complain about. The Quill to Live gives a warm recommendation that you check out The Obsidian Tower, and also Caruso’s previous books if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Rating: The Obsidian Tower – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Harrow The Ninth – Sure, Ok, Yeah

9781250313225God, it’s like assembling a fusion reactor without a manual. I am honestly surprised at my perceived commercial success of Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series. Not that it is bad in any way – in fact, we gave book one a stellar review and listed the series as one of our top Science Fantasy books of all time. It’s just that these books are so confusing that you will literally never understand what is happening, which is usually a huge turn off for most readers. I am pleasantly surprised that the general public has collectively decided these books are worth the time and effort.

So, Harrow The Ninth, the second book in the series, is coming out soon. You might be sitting on your couch right now, browsing this review on your phone, and thinking “oh a Harrow review, maybe he will say the books get less confusing.” Well reader, no, unfortunately, I cannot say that because I don’t understand half the plot, and the other half I do understand is basically all spoilers. And yet, I absolutely do recommend this stellar second installment of the series. This puts me in an awkward position because I usually use the plot and story as the foundation of why I like a book like Harrow the Ninth. Thus, much like The Locked Tomb’s storytelling, this review is going to be a little unorthodox.

So what can I tell you? Well, Harrow the Ninth picks up our story shortly after the end of book one from the perspective of the other half of the delectorable duo of Gideon and Harrow. If you are completely new to this series, in Gideon the Ninth our duo represents a tag team of warrior/bodyguard (Gideon) and space necromancer (Harrow) competing in a strange unorthodox game of sorts and told from the POV of Gideon.

In the second book, Harrow the Ninth, Harrow is the frontliner and it leads me to my next profoundly gushy thought about this series. Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure when flipping from the POV of Gideon to Harrow, and yet both styles have extremely excellent prose. This prose and style shift is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. It reminded me of my The Black Company, by Glen Cook, and if you have read my large thought piece on the series, you will know that is a good thing.

Harrow the Ninth is split into two narratives because Harrow essentially lobotomizes herself at the start of book for… reasons. This metaphorical icepick to the brain is a key factor in how Muir completely alters her prose to evoke Harrow’s POV. Half the story is a strange heavily changed retelling of book one, and the other half is Harrow trying to piece her mind back together post lobotomy. This means that Harrow is doing one of two things to the reader at all times: 1) actively lying about how events happened or 2) being so confused about what is going on that she might as well be lying. Harrow might win the award for the single most unreliable narrator in the world, and it’s amazing. See, Harrow the Ninth is less about telling a coherent narrative and much more about watching a character claw her way back to sanity – and at this, it succeeds magnificently.

Without a clear plot to coherently grasp, I feel like there was a lot of pressure on the characters and world to grab the reader hard. Luckily, both of these aspects of Harrow are phenomenal. The magic in The Locked Tomb continues to be the only series that uses necromancy as its main magic in a cool and innovative way. The blend of fantasy and science fiction is delightful and otherworldly. While I may still be very confused as to what is happening in the plot, book two does a lot to better at fleshing out the magic and technology of the world and puts a ton of cool new tools in the reader’s hands. The characters are also unsurprisingly phenomenal. Harrow is an all-star, and I actually think I like her more than Gideon. Gideon was complicated, amusing, and fun as a protagonist – but Harrow has uncharted depths that I just want to dive into. The supporting cast also continues to be a small set of well fleshed out foils. This book has a lot going for it.

However, I did have one small complaint about Harrow the Ninth that knocked it from getting a perfect score from me. As I mentioned before, a large portion of the narrative is devoted to an altered retelling of book one that has had a ton of facts changed due to Harrow’s brain damage. In the end, I very much understand why Muir added these sections to the story, but I feel that there was too much page space devoted to them. They add very specific elements to the atmosphere and character growth, but I don’t think they needed roughly 30-40% of the page space to do it, and some of the sections can drag. I definitely got the feeling of “why am I rereading this again” a few times.

Harrow the Ninth is a stunning, impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Rating: Harrow the Ninth – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Book Rookie – The Hero of Ages

We’re back with another installment of The Book Rookie! This time, Alex and Andrew join cole to discuss The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson’s thrilling conclusion to the original Mistborn trilogy!

Just catching up? Listen to our discussions about Mistborn and The Well of Ascension before you dive in.

And enjoy our shiny new musical intro!

The Book Rookie is a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

Interview with Nadia Odunayo, Founder of The StoryGraph

Welcome to our special interview with Nadia Odunayo! Nadia is the founder of The StoryGraph, an online service that helps you find books to fit your mood. After you read the interview, head over to The StoryGraph to sign up and find your next read!

What is The StoryGraph and what does it do for readers?

The StoryGraph is a website that helps you to find perfect books for you based on your mood and the types of books you like to read.

Our magic feature is “Ordered for you.” Users fill out a short survey — it takes anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes to fill out — letting us know their favourite sorts of books to read, down to specific topics, types of authors, themes, genres etc. — and we order all of the books on our website for them based on how well they match their preferences.

Combine that with our filter menu, where you can filter down by moods, pace, genres, book size, and more, and you’re never more than a few clicks away from your next perfect book!

Can you tell us what sparked the idea and how The StoryGraph has evolved since you founded the site?

The StoryGraph started life as a side project to create and share personal reading lists on anything you wanted.

However, when I started showing early demos to people, I realised that it didn’t solve the biggest needs for readers: better tracking tools and having one place to consistently find great book recommendations.

That’s when I started to pivot the product towards what it is today!

How do you categorize books? Why moods?

Moods are the main ways to characterise books on The StoryGraph because when I was researching how users discovered new books to read, they often spoke about books they loved in relation to how it made them feel and wanting to find books that made them feel a similar way. And yet — there was nowhere to plug in those feelings and see what came out the other end. Until now!

What are the main moods on your StoryGraph profile?

Reflective, dark, and emotional.

What are your favorite books/authors?

Some of my favourite books are:

What was the hardest mood to categorize?

“Challenging” can be, well…challenging! Sometimes it can be because a book’s writing is dense or complicated, or because it can make you think hard about your beliefs, and then both of those things are incredibly dependent on who the reader is — what is complicated to someone else might be easily digestible to another. Then again, all of the moods are subjective — we try to find the labels for each book that the vast majority of readers would agree on! If readers disagree, they can express that in their reviews, and eventually we’ll use data from our community reviews to update the mood tags on each book.

Are there additional moods that you are hoping to add in the future?

Before building the beta site, I did a lot of research with the books community on Instagram to come up with the initial list of fourteen moods. The goal was: can we produce a relatively short list that covers every book?

So far it looks like this list is really working out, and if we don’t have to adapt the list then that would be great. That’s not to say a new mood won’t emerge in the future. But rather than us actively seeking to add one, I think the need for it will become obvious at some point based on people struggling to classify a certain group of books.

What features are you most excited to add to The StoryGraph?

I’m really looking forward to adding support for trigger/content warnings.

Books with sensitive content will be flagged on the site. On top of that, users will be able to specify which content they’re sensitive to in their “Ordered for you” preferences and books matching that content will be hidden away from those users.

It’s going to be a tricky problem to solve though, but I’m up for the challenge!

Finally, where can we find The StoryGraph on social platforms?

You can find us on Instagram (@the.StoryGraph) or Twitter (@thestorygraph).

I also write a 1-min read weekly newsletter explaining a little bit more about what’s going on behind the scenes. You can read some past issues and sign up right here.