Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole

2010: Odyssey Two – Starry-Eyed Sequel

Before I start this review, a few orders of business must be addressed. First: we have an unwritten rule at The Quill To Live that we don’t review sequels unless we have reviewed previous installments. Look at me, shirking tradition, braving the unknown just like Clarke’s fictional spacefarers! Well, not quite. Though we never reviewed 2001: A Space Odyssey, I did write an essay about its impact on me as a reader. It also made an appearance on our “Best ‘Buts’ of SFF” list. If I had given it a score, it would’ve been a perfect 10. Second order of business: as I mentioned in my love letter to 2001, the novel and movie that sparked this sequel were produced in parallel, rather than in succession. As a result, the book and movie differ on some points, and Clarke, perhaps understanding the widespread impact of the film, chose to favor the movie’s details over his prose treatment. I can’t imagine it will throw too many readers off, and he does mention this in the mass market paperback’s intro letter. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting. 

With those notes out of the way, let’s jump into 2010: Odyssey Two. From this point on, though, beware of 2001 spoilers.

2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey earns its spot among the sci-fi greats. Both a daring sequel to one of the genre’s masterpieces and a resonant story on its own, 2010 is damn near perfect, save for a few standard Clarke faults. For anyone interested in a journey into the unknown mysteries of our solar system and a pioneering expedition into the future of humanity, 2010 is a perfect launchpad. 

Clarke’s successor to his spacefaring masterpiece is…another spacefaring masterpiece. 2010 puts Heywood Floyd front and center, following his supporting role in the early chapters of 2001. Floyd uproots his happy life in Hawaii (his house overlooks the ocean, and dolphins swim up to greet him every day) in favor of a trek toward Jupiter, where the U.S. spaceship Discovery was left derelict after mysterious events involving astronauts Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and supercomputer HAL-9000. Floyd and a few fellow American astronauts are slotted into the crew of the Leonov, a Russian ship destined to head for Jupiter. The team-up between the U.S. and Russia becomes necessary to reach Discovery before other nations try to claim the derelict ship. Their primary opponent is China, who builds a space station shrouded in mystery, then uses it to launch a ship on course for Jupiter. That ship–Tsien— will by all calculations arrive well before the Leonov and allow China to salvage, i.e. steal, Discovery’s remains despite the diplomatic ill will it could generate. 

However, despite the excitement in all of this plot, it is all just the setup. Clarke does a frankly amazing job creating a conflict for the members of Leonov’s crew. As the space race kicks off, the pressure is high and tension is thick. But the sprint to recover Discovery only serves as a springboard into a downright mind-boggling narrative. Clarke’s prose is perfect. There’s no other way I can put it. He keeps one foot firmly planted in real scientific concepts and the other on cosmic hypotheticals with fascinating (sometimes terrifying) implications. The imposing monolith returns, and a few staple characters from 2001 reprise their roles in 2010, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the wonderful reveals Clarke has in store for first time Odyssey-goers.

Clarke’s one-two punch of prose and plot is a difficult combination to beat. After all, there’s a reason one of science fiction’s most lauded awards is named after the guy. His mastery is on full display here, just as it was in 2001. There’s a new surprise on every page, and you’re ushered to them gently by his lyrical descriptions of space and its myriad mysteries. Clarke is a sci-fi treasure, and this book proves it. 

Most readers, even the Clark diehards, would likely agree with my lofty statements about the author’s prose and plots. I’d also say that they’d heartily support my claims that Clarke prefers to let characters take a backseat to those elements. 2010 is no exception. Beyond a few names and roles on the Leonov, there’s little I could tell you about each character in 2010, except for a few iconic returning cast members. If you’re a character-driven reader, Clarke’s not going to satiate your particular palate. But if you can see past the shallow characterization, you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of hyper-visual science writing that drops you right into the dark vacuum of space. Reading Clarke is like floating through the solar system and understanding all that you see, even if that understanding means accepting that the mysteries of space are incomprehensible to the untrained mind. It’s a delicate, sometimes confusing balance. But for me, Clarke’s shunting of character depth works in 2010’s favor. 

And if you stick with 2010, be prepared for an ending that’ll send goosebumps up your arms. I’ve read this book twice now, and each time I turned the final page with wide eyes and my jaw agape. Every speck of Clarke’s story culminates in a stunning climax, and I believe this to be a near-perfect conclusion. 

To remove my (hopefully obvious) love for the Odyssey series and give an objective opinion on 2010 is admittedly difficult. On the fence about Clarke? My suggestion is to try 2001 and let it serve as a barometer. If you want more after that, rest assured that Clarke delivers tenfold (or should I say 2010-fold?!) in the sequel. And once you close this quick and elegantly written sci-fi tome, you’ll feel in awe of our universe and curious about both the glorious treasures and dangers it may contain. 

If you can’t get enough of the Odyssey series, check out my 2010 Page2Screen conversation with Ian Simmons of KickSeat.com. In our latest episode, we discuss 2010 and it’s film…”adaptation.”

Rating: 2010: Odyssey Two – 9.5/10

-Cole

Star Daughter – Shine Bright, Shine Far

Shveta Thakrar’s (wait for it) stellar (I had to) debut comes from our 2020 Dark Horse list. Star Daughter journeys to the cosmos, telling a celestial coming of age story. Thakrar weaves Indian mythology and folklore with resonant characters from our world. The result? A pleasant and imaginative read.

Star Daughter follows Sheetal Mistry, 16-going-on-17-year-old with a cosmic secret. Her mom is a star–the celestial, twinkle twinkle kind, not the Hollywood walk of fame kind. Her dad, meanwhile, is human. Sheetal’s mom rejoined the constellations in her nakshatra (a celestial palace/governing body), leaving a 7-year-old Sheetal with her father. Ten years later, near Sheetal’s 17th birthday, she feels the pull of the starsong, a sidereal melody that pulls her toward the celestial realm. Just when she and Dev, her boyfriend, start to hit it off, Sheetal’s celestial origins start to manifest in ways she can’t control. In response, her aunt gives her a letter left by her mother many years ago. It instructs Sheetal to answer the starsong and travel to the stars. She follows the call, bringing her best friend Minal along for the ride, and sees her mother for the first time in 10 years. The current matriarch and patriarch of the stars are stepping down, which means it’s time for houses to compete for the right to rule. Sheetal must represent her nakshatra in the competition, which sees mortals perform or compose an art piece while being inspired by a star. Sheetal and Minal are thrust into an unfamiliar world, and with the competition looming, Sheetal has to work quickly to get a grip on the intricate starry politics, her family history, and the stars’ complicated relationship to humans. 

Thakrar’s debut novel bursts at the seams with imagination. Star Daughter makes elegant use of Indian myths and legends. Every few pages introduced a reference to Indian folklore I had never heard of, and I eagerly Googled mythical beings and settings I was unfamiliar with. Thakrar weaves mythology into her story so well that Star Daughter felt as much like an education in unfamiliar tales as it did a gripping story. Astrology plays a huge role in the book, and the narrative Thakrar sets forth rests sturdily on a strong foundation of generations-old tales

This otherworldly celestial mythos is a joy to behold through Sheetal’s eyes, who knows of her starry heritage but knows little about it. Sheetal struggles to balance her relationship with her father, having a boyfriend, missing her mother, and her yearning to answer the call of the starsong. She’s a distinct and rounded character with flaws and talents. It’s just easy to believe Sheetal is a living, breathing person. At the same time, Thakrar allows Sheetal to hold up a reader-facing mirror. The reader experiences the new world just as Sheetal does, and her uncertain exploration of her nakshatra welcomes readers in and provides a nice anchor through which the story can be read. 

Even outside of the solid protagonist, Thakrar has a knack for characters. Every cast member feels fleshed out, even though Star Daughter reads at a brisk pace. Nani and Nana, Sheetal’s grandparents (also stars) have a quiet, controlling, subtle air about them with sinister undertones that unravel alongside the primary narrative. Sheetal’s mother, Charumati, shines bright with a love for her daughter, but there’s a hesitant air about her–another thread Thakrar gently pulls throughout the book. Every character–Sheetal’s best friend Minal, her boyfriend Dev, his cousin Jeet, and a whole cast of supporting stars (literal stars) all have meaningful and memorable moments in Star Daughter. Everything has a purpose, and Thakrar takes great care to give readers plenty of relatable and intriguing characters. 

The settings of Star Daughter vary wildly from one another. I found myself riveted by some locales and underwhelmed by others. Sheetal’s home life on Earth is classic teenager fare. She dodges questions from her family about career and education. She sneaks out at night to meet Dev and make cookies. Her life as a human contrasts her place in the world of the stars, which Thakrar doles out with skill. My personal favorite locale was the Night Market, a waystation between the Earth and the celestial realm. At the Night Market, Sheetal encounters magical creatures that offer entire worlds contained in glass orbs and various other whimsical trinkets. She doesn’t spend much time there, but the Night Market stood out to me as a riveting setting for the beginning of Sheetal’s starry tale. On the other hand, the settings that follow the Night Market left me disappointed. Thakrar has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Star politics and policies are complex, and the author does a fantastic job entrenching the reader in her intricate world. But the actual celestial realm where the bulk of the novel takes place is hard for me to visualize. 

Layered into all of this glorious cosmic madness is a story with high stakes. Thakrar has a tight, carefully plotted narrative, and she executes it well. Sheetal’s story quickly intertwines with centuries of celestial history and a faction of humans known to hunt stars. Her performance at the competition will determine whether her family will rule the stars for hundreds of years to come, but she isn’t sure if that’s the best path. Sheetal is presented with so many perspectives that it’s easy to relate to her flustered, pressured feeling throughout the majority of Star Daughter. Thakrar does an excellent job wrapping up the narrative loose ends and bringing the novel to a satisfying conclusion. 

Star Daughter does so much right that it’s easy to overlook any small personal misgivings I had. Shveta Thakrar breaks new ground in fantasy by employing a mythology that (in my opinion) is under-utilized. By taking a grounded coming-of-age tale and bringing it to the stars, Thakrar has crafted a worthwhile and entertaining story. 

Rating: Star Daughter – 8.0/10

-Cole

The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name 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 page to the last.

From our review: “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 Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “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.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “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.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…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.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

The Dark Tide – Witching Hour

Alicia Jasinska’s The Dark Tide was my third and final Dark Horse debut pick for the first half of 2020. The novel slotted neatly into my dark horse reading slate, adding an atmospheric fairy-tale inspired story to pair with my epic fantasy (The Kingdom of Liars) and sci-fi (Goddess in the Machine) selections. The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a poetic reading experience. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters and their stories. 

The island of Caldella holds an annual festival on St. Walpurga’s Eve. During the festival, the witches from the nearby Water Palace join in the revelry, singing and dancing alongside the non-magical islanders. Witches trade spells for songs, dances, and performances, giving the islanders a chance to earn magic that’s otherwise extremely expensive. But the festival’s sinister underlying purpose is to choose a sacrifice. Each year, the Witch Queen kisses one boy at the festival, marking him for sacrifice. The boy is then whisked away to the Water Palace and kept safe until the full moon, when he’ll be given to the dark tide to prevent Caldella from sinking into the black depths of the sea. Only one boy–Thomas Lin–has ever escaped the sacrifice. Two years earlier, he convinced the former Witch Queen to sacrifice herself in his place. In response to his triumph, the tide has reached further and further up the island, and many believe the Witch Queen’s sacrifice didn’t take. 

This year, protagonist Lina fears that her brother Finley will be taken. So she locks him in his room to prevent him from attending the festival. He escapes out the window and attends anyway, so Lina rushes to the event to bring him home. On the way, Thomas Lin offers to help her find Finley. But when they arrive, the festival rages and Thomas Lin–once again–is chosen as the annual sacrifice. Lina sails to the Water Palace to rescue him, eventually offering herself as a replacement sacrifice. Eva, the Witch Queen, accepts her offer, but neither expects to fall for the other. Eventually, Eva and Lina have to make a difficult choice.

The Dark Tide’s concept is promising and intriguing. The islanders of Caldella live a half-magical life away from the mainland (where we’re told they boil witches to use their parts for magic). Witches offer magic to the islanders, but every spell takes a part of them with it–a strand of hair, a drop of blood. And when a witch uses all of his or her magic, they simply fade into nothing. The islanders use this relationship mostly out of fear that the dark tide will rise and sink Caldella permanently. The magic system (everything has a cost) and dark underbelly (necessary sacrifice) of the book lend it a cool premise that had me invested early. 

Jasinska’s writing only boosted my excitement. She writes lyrical prose that has a shadowy, darkly poetic slant to it. Her writing is some of the most unique prose I’ve read in a while, creating a thick atmosphere and crafting a stand-out identity for the book. 

Where The Dark Tide fell short for me, though, is the character work and the plot itself. Lina and Eva, our two POV characters, have limited space to breathe and never truly come into their own as semi-protagonists. The supporting cast is the same. Each character has a few defining traits that make them distinct from others, but I didn’t feel for them or empathize. Thomas Lin is a mysterious, handsome boy; Finley is a headstrong, temperamental, protective (and handsome) brother. Eva is a troubled queen mourning a loss. Marcin–another witch–is cutthroat and clearly desires to rule the witches of Caldella over Eva. I am a handsome book reviewer. All of this is to say that each character has defining traits, but The Dark Tide tells these details instead of showing them. It’s one aspect of the story that felt overshadowed by the remarkably descriptive prose. 

The Dark Tide’s narrative never hooked me enough to genuinely wonder what might happen next. The novel’s climax–the choice Lina and Eva must make to save themselves or Caldella–breezes by in a few pages without any emotional payoff. What should’ve been a hard-hitting character- and plot-defining moment felt like the story fizzling out. Instead, I found myself reading for the joy of Jasinska’s writing. The story of sacrifice and love and shirking tradition in The Dark Tide may strike the fancy of some readers, but I found it the weakest point of the story. The narrative is riddled with plot holes, but I’m not even sure that it matters. The fairy tale atmosphere makes it easy to ignore any consistency issues or glaring questions, allowing the reader to enjoy the book as a unified whole. It’s like hearing a tale passed down through oral tradition. Details may clash, but the message remains. 

The Dark Tide also features LGBTQ+ romance as it should be featured: it’s one of many aspects of life on Caldella. It’s great to see strong representation for marginalized communities in fantasy.

From an objective standpoint, I think many readers will enjoy The Dark Tide. The story has a flavorful hook, and the prose proves that Jasinska has writing chops. I personally didn’t connect with the story or the characters, but I still found plenty to enjoy in the beautiful writing and strong themes contained within. 

Rating: The Dark Tide: 6.0/10

-Cole

The Kingdom Of Liars – Fast Fun Fantasy Fodder

Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars delivers a strong debut that lays the foundation for a promising epic fantasy saga. Martell’s story of king killers, magic-induced memory loss, and political corruption springs off our Dark Horse 2020 list with fresh concepts and a high-speed narrative. 

Michael Kingman wears the fire-seared brand of a traitor thanks to his dad. His father, David Kingman, was executed ten years ago for the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son. Now, Michael and his siblings Gwen and Lyon are also branded and ostracized, their Kingman name disgraced. As Gwen and Lyon struggle to rebuild lives removed from the Kingman legacy, Michael begins to find inklings of evidence that may prove his father’s innocence and expose the corrupt royal family of Hollows. But as Michael explores the possibility of his father’s innocence, he finds his life at risk when he learns that the mercenaries, politicians, Nobles, churches, and royalty of Hollows all have a stake in the game. Meanwhile, Michael begins to notice gaps in his memory, usually a symptom of using Fabrications (magic) without learning to control them first. 

Michael tells his tale in the first person, ushering readers on a journey through Hollows (the primary setting) and the Endless Waltz, an extravagant multi-event celebration meant to pair High Nobles into political relationships and solidify powerful alliances. Michael joins the event thanks to the guiding hand of a rich maniac who the royals won’t dare defy. His presence alone sends ripples of discontent through the nobility, eventually reaching corrupt Prince Adreann, who makes his distaste for Michael abundantly clear. 

Naturally, I’ve managed to scratch only the thinnest surface layer of what this novel has to offer. Michael’s trek through Hollows and the details of his family’s past, present, and future feel like a supercut parkour video. The story jumps from one plot point to the next at a breakneck pace with the occasional pause for dramatic effect. I think this tone is the result of Martell’s succinct-yet-descriptive prose and the myriad plot elements that Michael needs to encounter for the narrative to work. The Kingdom of Liars is one of those books that you pick up for a quick 20-30 page reading stint, only to end up flying through 150 pages. And that feeling fits the style of the novel really well. There are so many moving parts that even Michael has trouble tracking all the information he receives, the conversations he has, and the events he attends. Michael’s experience mirrors the reader’s; the more invested he becomes in the events unfolding throughout the novel, the more I felt drawn to the story. This breakneck spiral of a story could be a massive draw or a significant detriment, depending on the reader. Personally, I loved being whisked from one locale to the next through Michael’s eyes. Each page gave me something more than the last.

Kingdom’s scattershot worldbuilding slots neatly into the narrative. It’s clear that Martell has a unique and vivid setting constructed in his mind, and for the most part that translates to the page. Hollows is a poverty-ridden city with a rich history of turbulent politics. The military factions and rebellion add some nice flavor to the personal story Michael tells. The magic system is a novel concept: overuse your magic, and you risk losing memories. Not just recollections of events, but possibly the muscle memory of how to see or how to walk. The world of Kingdom has two moons, one of which has shattered into 7 separate pieces. Bits of the moon fall from time to time, and the city has an alarm system to indicate where the piece will hit. 

All these worldbuilding tidbits offer refreshing takes on tried-and-true fantasy tropes. However, it’s tough as a reader to truly grasp what this world is like. Cogs turn and the story moves at a relentless speed, so much so that I often wished for a filler chapter that would tell me about one tiny aspect of the world. Martell constantly drops hints about the history of the shattered moon Celona, mercenaries, Hollows royalty, mythical beasts, and Fabrications. There’s a bigger picture here, but The Kingdom of Liars zooms so far in that it’s easy to miss things. 

Space to breathe is the one thing Kingdom is missing, but the end promises much more from this richly imagined world, and I think Martell’s second and third outings will up the ante big time. Michael as a character has a fun arc. He begins the book as a stubborn, overly-independent child, but he spends much of the book learning from his mistakes and trusting those he loves. So much of the book’s central narrative results from Michael’s own growth, so I won’t spoil much here. One thing is worth noting, though: if you find Michael an insufferable brat for the first half of the book, you’re not alone. The second half makes it worthwhile, in my opinion. The supporting characters, meanwhile lend some verve to the book, much needed considering Michael’s single-minded purpose and frustrating first half. Domet, an incredibly rich aristocrat with a secret, stands out among them. Michael takes a job with the rich, elite, functioning alcoholic Domet that eventually catapults him into the center of political unrest. Michael’s siblings Gwen and Lyon have great moments as well. They both dealt with their father’s execution in different ways, shaping their unique relationships with Michael. 

Like I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve left out some details–a few because they’re spoilers and others because they take a backseat to the main points of the story. There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion. For now, though, I’m happy I picked up The Kingdom of Liars, and I look forward to following Nick Martell as he explores his unique world. 

Rating: The Kingdom of Liars – 8.0/10

-Cole

Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

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 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.