The Two-Faced Queen – Sequel Struggles

Last year, I chose Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars as one of my Dark Horse selections. In fact, it was one of two picks on my list. In my review, I lauded the book’s lightning-quick pace and worldbuilding, hoping it would herald a new fantasy saga to watch. The Two-Faced Queen, Martell’s second installment, dashed those hopes. 

The Two-Faced Queen picks up immediately after The Kingdom of Liars. Michael’s myriad quests begin anew, and plenty of novel challenges are thrown his way. Michael Kingman has been accused of murdering the king of The Hollows, much like his father was accused of killing the nation’s prince years ago. The accusation, though false, turns much of the country against Michael and leaves him with few allies. His saving grace is the Orbis Mercenary Company. Dark, a member of said company, saved Michael from execution by committing him to a blood oath that bound him to the group. Under the mercenaries’ protection, Michael seeks to restore his family’s legacy, prove he didn’t kill the king, and regain the memories he lost to Fabrications, the series’ magic system. But when a serial killer returns to The Hollows, Michael has to hunt the murderer down, too. 

I’ve managed a rudimentary plot summary here. But I have to confess: I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was going on in The Two-Faced Queen. Imagine a rock skipping across a still lake. It touches the water ever-so-briefly, each jump shorter than the last. And though the rock sends ripples across the lake, it only becomes a part of the larger world across which it travels when it sinks to the bottom. The Two-Faced Queen is all skip, no sink. There’s no moment to breathe. Michael jumps from one plot thread to the next with reckless abandon. Storylines from The Kingdom of Liars return, then new ones take the stage with tenuous (at best) connections to the overall narrative. The stone that serves as this book’s story simply skips along in perpetuity. We see the ripples, the surface-level impact of Michael’s actions, but we never understand what it all means. The history of The Hollows and its surrounding nations is so thin that there’s nothing to latch onto. I gave The Kingdom of Liars a pass for this very issue in the hopes that it would resolve itself in book two. But here, it’s worse. 

There’s a vibrant, glorious fantasy world hidden beneath the layers of Martell’s world. Unfortunately, it’s a world that seems better fleshed out in the author’s mind than it is on the page. So many factions and groups inhabit The Hollows, it’s hard to keep track. Beyond their distinctive names–Scales, Ravens, Skeletons, and more–it’s near-impossible to tell them apart. 

The same goes for the characters. Michael interacts with royals, Ravens, frenemies, tentative allies, mercenaries, and many others. On the page, the only thing that distinguishes one character from another is a name and possibly an ability to use magic. Most of the characters within seem to exist for the sole purpose of witty banter with Michael. They enter stage left, have a conversation with Michael (or a brief fight), then exit stage right. Rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the dialogue didn’t feel so forced and unnatural. There’s no difference in tone from one character to the next, and the conversational tapestry of The Two-Faced Queen is threaded with clichés. 

Fabrications and Weaving, two of the book’s magic systems, suffer from similar technical drawbacks. Weaving is only hinted at in this book, and will likely appear in the next. Fabrications remain an enigma, though the price of using them (losing memories) is still a cool-as-hell idea. The problem? I have no idea how they actually work. Some people are Fabricators while others are not, and it’s unclear how Fabricators get their powers. Again, hinted at in this book, but not enough to lure me to the next. When Michael uses his Fabrications, which can simply nullify other Fabrications, he mentions a “warmth” in his chest. He redirects it toward his target. The descriptions of the magic system in action leave a lot to be desired, and based on the limited lore the book doles out, I’m not exactly clamoring to learn more.

All-in-all, The Two-Faced Queen squanders many of the promises made in The Kingdom of Liars. And it’s important to note that some readers will likely enjoy the quickfire fun that this novel offers. But it lacked the depth I felt I needed after the first installment, and surface-level fun won’t cut it for another ~600-page book. 

Rating: The Two-Faced Queen – 4.0/10
-Cole

The Slow Regard Of Silent Things – An Auri Story

Welcome, Rothfuss fans and/or angry mobs, to a review of “Kingkiller Chronicle 2.5,” which is a terrible moniker for this Temerant-set novella. The Slow Regard of Silent Things roots itself in Rothfuss’ imaginative world made famous by The Name of the Wind. But those looking for an extension of Kvothe’s story won’t find it here. In fact, Rothfuss writes a wordy intro to this novella explaining exactly why readers (or angry mobs) might not want to buy or read this story. And you know what? Good on him. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is so unconventional that it feels utterly distinct from the two Kingkiller books with which it shares a world and a character. And although I’d heard through the grapevine that I could easily skip this story, the short page count and my recent deep dive into The Wise Man’s Fear piqued my curiosity. So I read The Slow Regard of Silent Things, and I enjoyed it–to an extent.

Most of the points I’d typically cover in a review feel moot here. Rothfuss explains in detail why The Slow Regard of Silent Things won’t be for everyone. That’s because the story focuses on Auri and her life in the Underthing. It’s also because the novella “doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.” And it’s these two points that make the plot difficult to summarize. It’s not a continuation of Kvothe’s story, but you do need the context of the core Kingkiller books to feel at home here, which puts the book in a strange position. Auri’s tale doesn’t have a formal hero’s journey, climax, denouement, all that stuff. Instead, The Slow Regard of Silent Things follows Auri (one of my favorite characters from Kingkiller, by the way) over the course of a few days as she prepares for Kvothe to visit. For a book that’s ostensibly about Auri, it still feels like it’s just a Kvothe story in an Auri mask. 

During her preparations, Auri explores her home beneath the University. She loses objects and has to employ creative solutions to find them. She enters rooms that just don’t feel right, then takes it upon herself to fix them. She makes soap. For eight pages. She searches for gifts to give to Kvothe. Slow Regard is at once a long vignette and a series of tiny vignettes. 

Your mileage with this story may vary, but I enjoyed the short, breezy adventures within. Don’t get me wrong–it does not feel like a Kingkiller story in the epic, sweeping way that The Name of the Wind does. But Auri feels at home in her small world underneath the “real” one, and the story feels at home in the larger world Rothfuss is building throughout the series. 

At the same time, this story is uniquely Auri. Rothfuss’ prose in the core novels induces reading flow, sometimes making 50 pages feel like 10. In a way, it mirrors Kvothe’s proficiency with words. The lyrical writing gently urges the reader along as though transitioning from verse to chorus to bridge with lilting melodic flourishes. Auri’s story is different. She describes things with vague feelings. If she existed in modern times, you might say she observes the world as a series of vibes, and she seeks to correct the bad ones with an intriguing feng shui/alchemy analog. In true Rothfuss form, he has given us a glimpse into his world through a character that serves as a brilliant lens. 

Nate Taylor lends his illustrative talents to the novella, too, giving Slow Regard an added layer of worldbuilding and storytelling that is otherwise absent from the stories of Kingkiller

But…should you read The Slow Regard of Silent Things? That’s the question, and the answer eludes me like the ghost of a melody, fading into the recesses of my brain. The best I can do is this: maybe. If you, like me, loved the first two Kingkiller Chronicle installments and desire a quick step back into that world, chances are you’ll find something of value here. But Rothfuss makes it abundantly clear what this story is from the get-go, and you should heed his words. If you’re here for the red-headed bard, steer clear. If you love Auri and don’t mind a quick side-quest, give it a shot. 

Rating: The Slow Regard Of Silent Things– 6.5/10
-Cole

Double Review: Two Avatar Graphic Novels

Flameo, hotman! As the Quill To Live’s resident Avatar: The Last Airbender superfan, I take my duty to keep up with the latest ATLA releases very seriously. Need proof? You can see my dedication to the universe in my reviews of The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi. Today, I’m here to add a few more reviews to the growing Avatar stack.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver and Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy are the two newest additions to Dark Horse Publishing’s Avatar graphic novel pantheon. Both are backed by the same team of artists:

  • Script: Faith Erin Hicks
  • Art: Peter Wartman
  • Colors: Adele Matera
  • Lettering: Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt

Because the exact same team produced both works, and because they’re quite short, I’m combining them into a single review. Yip yip!

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver

The episode “Bitter Work” occurs about halfway through the original Avatar TV series, and it’s a gem of an episode that sheds light on the differences between each bending style. Aang, a defensive and generally nonviolent person, is forced to confront the brute-force, in-your-face style that Earthbending requires.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver takes place just hours after the events of that episode. After an unfortunate run-in with some Fire Nation soldiers, Katara is split from the group and stranded in an occupied Earth Kingdom village. Here she forms an unlikely alliance with a band of pirates to escape the clutches of the Fire Nation. Meanwhile, Aang, Sokka, and Toph trap a Fire Nation soldier and attempt to de-propagandize him. 

The narrative itself is telegraphed and in no particular way unique. For Captain Jiang and her pirate crew, this means the story compresses them into unmemorable archetypes. Just as the show already proved Katara’s toughness, it already handled pirates, too. 

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver serves as a fitting extension to “Bitter Work.” In the episode, Katara and Toph fight about the best teaching methods. Katara believes in positive reinforcement as the most viable teaching technique; Toph disagrees. The graphic novel is a clever attempt at extending the dynamic but ultimately feels overly contrived and redundant. Katara, separated…sticky situation. Katara, separated from her friends and feeling “soft,” puts on an air of toughness to get her out of a sticky situation. This plot, though, ends up feeling contrived and redundant, because Katara fans know she can be a terrifying opponent when pressed. In this way, Pirate’s Silver tries to prove a point that the show already hammered home on multiple occasions. The story is so paper-thin that any savvy reader will breeze through it in under an hour and gain little insight beyond a few fun scenes that would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor if this was a full episode script. 

All-in-all, Katara and the Pirate’s Silver ends before it can even unfurl its sails. It traverses ground that’s already well-covered by the TV series, so the result is a forgettable, but generally fun enough addition to the growing collection of Avatar graphic novels. This add-on to Avatar lore serves little purpose and shows that not every story is one worth telling. Avatar is known for hard-hitting narratives and heavy themes packaged in fun, lighthearted characters. Katara and the Pirate’s Silver has plenty of the latter, but none of the former. Fan-service can carry a book a long way, but when it sheds the qualities fans of the source material hold so dearly, it’s a struggle. 

Rating: Katara and the Pirate’s Silver – 5.0/10

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy

When you’re a legendary war hero, an undefeated earthbending master, and the inventor of metalbending, what’s your biggest enemy?

Ennui, of course. 

Following the events of the TV show, Toph Beifong has established a luxurious metalbending school, where hopeful students can learn her newly invented craft. But Toph is so proficient, so forceful in her teachings, that the school practically runs itself, giving her little to actually do. Her former students teach classes, the current students are progressing well, and life is good. For Toph, though, “good” is boring. Sokka and Suki visit Toph’s school and notice her predicament right away and take Toph to a concert (featuring an exquisite cameo from the SECRET TUNNEL band). Toph despises the concert, so she splits and ventures to an underground bending tournament for a bit of action. She even sees a lava bender compete. But when an audience member recognizes her as a friend of the Avatar, everyone bolts as though the police just showed up uninvited to an alcohol party at Josh’s house (his parents are gone for the weekend). Meanwhile, Toph’s students believe they are the reason for her boredom, so they resolve to prove themselves by entering the next underground bending tournament. 

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy is the fan-service I so desperately craved but did not receive from Katara and the Pirate’s Silver. Toph is undeniably her classic self, fed up with the day-to-day and abrasively supportive of her wards. Sokka and Suki are true to form, though they’re only briefly featured. Trustfully In Love (aka the Secret Tunnel band) is as much a ridiculous joy as they were in “The Cave of Two Lovers.”

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy manages to tell a complete story. The characters learn and grow, and we see a side of Toph that she only rarely lets loose. Unlike its Pirate’s Silver counterpart, this installment adds a worthy story to the larger Avatar universe, and fans of the show will love it.

The graphic novel leverages fan-service in a way that expands the world of Avatar. In the show, we never saw Toph struggle with the daily grind. She was constantly traveling with team Avatar, dealing with crises, and annihilating enemies with her expert earthbending. Here, we get a toned-down Toph who struggles to find her place in a world without the imminent threat of global genocide. And for a character who abandoned a life of luxury in favor of fighting the good fight, “normal” just won’t cut it. To see this new side of Toph is a real treat for Avatar fans. Not only that–this new facet is also a good enough reason for this story to exist. When Avatar stories trod new ground and explore different sides of the characters we know and love, that’s a win. 

And if these two graphic novels are any indication, it’s still possible for this world to feature new, enriching stories. If that means dealing with the occasional dud, that’s fine by me. 

Rating: Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy – 9.0/10
-Cole

The Unique Fantasy Appeal Of Survivor

Are you a fantasy die-hard? May I introduce you to Survivor?

In 2001, families across America glued their eyeballs to the screen as Survivor revolutionized reality television. 16 Americans hopped off a boat and onto a beach, where a full production crew awaited and Jeff Probst introduced the very first season of the show that would become the baseline template for reality competitions for years to come. 

As you read this, chances are you remember watching that first season of Survivor, or perhaps you just know of the show through cultural osmosis. Survivor has staying power, but it’s not just because it has the deed to valuable real estate in the annals of TV history. In fact, Survivor is…

STILL ON. 

The show that changed TV is still going strong, now enduring a Covid-caused hiatus after its legendary 40th season. 20 years later, millions of fans tune in every Wednesday evening for a dose of Jeff Probst, survivalism, crazy challenges, and next-level gameplay. 

Few people realize Survivor remains on the CBS schedule. Even fewer people realize that Survivor has a distinct fantasy appeal, and bookworms who appreciate classic fantasy tropes should take notice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fanatic, a Sanderson aficionado, or you just love the pure magic of fantasy, Survivor might be your next obsession. 

A Quick Disclaimer

I originally had 1000 words written about how Survivor works and where to start, but this isn’t an essay about how Survivor works, is it? No, this is about the unique fantasy appeal of reality television’s crowning series. 

Want a primer? The Ringer has a whole series about Survivor that’s better than I could do with limited space here (the Survivor dictionary should be required reading for newcomers), so check that out if you want to get up to speed. I will indulge myself for a moment, however, to offer you a short “Where To Start” guide because I feel that similar posts get it oh so woefully wrong. Starting with Survivor’s first season is like reading LOTR as your first fantasy book. I have a friend who told me recently that he wanted to read more fantasy. He asked for a recommendation, and I directed him to The Lies of Locke Lamora. Instead, he picked up The Lord of the Rings and bounced off within 100 pages, then tried to tell me “I’m just not a fantasy guy.”

No, friendo, you’re just not a Lord of the Rings guy…yet. And why should he be? It’s early fantasy, the OG. A fantasy newcomer (here’s an article just for you sword and sorcery rookies) might struggle with LOTR because:

  1. They don’t leave the Shire for 150 pages
  2. When they do leave The Shire, it’s a lot of tracking and eating
  3. After that, it finally–oh wait, no, now they’re talking, tracking, and eating

Point being, Tolkien didn’t have a guidebook. He was the guidebook. The Lord of the Rings is slowly paced and densely written because Tolkien was exploring uncharted territory. A modern fantasy with quickfire pacing and plenty of action is a more logical place for a newbie to start. The same goes for Survivor. I’ve seen a handful of lists that recommend new viewers start with Borneo, the very first season. 

Bad idea. Borneo is Survivor in its barest format, without all the bells and whistles the show would evolve to employ over its 20-year legacy. Borneo is great. Richard Hatch is one of the all-time great players. But the first season simply set the stage for what was to come, and Survivor hadn’t yet blossomed into the cutthroat competition it’s known as today. Instead, start with something modern, fast-paced, and action-packed. Here are a few suggestions:

Survivor New Viewer Tips

  • The following seasons offer some of the best Survivor starting points because they feature excellent characters, amazing gameplay, and generally capture the essence of the show. Watch them in any order you choose:
    • Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites 1 (Season 16)
    • Heroes Vs. Villains (Season 20)
    • Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites 2 (Season 26)
    • Blood Vs. Water (Season 27)
    • Cagayan: Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty 1 (Season 28)
  • Old school Survivor, particularly seasons 1-13, is a much slower game. These seasons are still excellent, but you should wait until you understand modern Survivor before you dive into how it began.

That’s really all you need to know to get started. Choose your own viewing order and get ready for a wild ride that has a unique appeal for fantasy readers. 

Power To The Players: Survivor’s Magic System

Look at the most popular fantasy series: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Today’s best fantasy books are accompanied by unique and original magic systems. Mistborn’s allomancy is one of my personal favorites. Allomancy is governed by rules that never change, yet characters find new ways to employ its power to their advantage. 

Survivor, too, has a magic system that works within the reality competition framework. 

Survivor’s main branch of “magic” is the hidden immunity idol. Usually a small piece of jewelry or a small symbol, the hidden immunity idol (as the name suggests) is hard to find. But a player in possession of its power has a huge advantage in the game.

When the votes are cast at a given Tribal Council, Jeff Probst will announce “If anybody has a hidden immunity idol and wishes to play it, now would be the time to do so.” At that point, a player can use the idol, nullifying any votes cast for him/her. The fact that it must be played before the votes are read makes this particular power hard to use effectively. You could play it without having received a single vote against you. But the game has checks and balances in place. One player-invented balance on the hidden immunity idol has made its way into multiple seasons: a fake idol. Savvy players have gathered random trinkets from the island and hidden a fake idol in a rather obvious spot, allowing unsuspecting pawns to pick it up and think they have protection that is, in fact, useless. 

More Survivor magic comes in the form of advantages. That’s an umbrella term that encompasses various powers granted by something in the game. Sometimes an advantage is just a clue to the location of a hidden immunity idol. Sometimes it’s a Steal-A-Vote power. Other times it’s just an extra vote that can flip the numbers. 

The “magic” itself is fun and all, but the glorious part of Survivor is actually watching the players use these powers. What’s more, it’s fun to watch a powerless player with no idols or advantages work every angle they possibly can to avoid getting burnt by an idol-shaped fireball. Just as fantasy magic systems add a unique layer to the story, so do the magical items granted to Survivor players. 

And this isn’t some “Chosen One” narrative. Instead, it’s a tale of power and access to it. Every Survivor contestant has the same chances of finding a hidden immunity idol or advantage. Only the cunning players will succeed in their quest, though. And only the most cunning players will use their power correctly.

Cunning And Cutthroat: Survivor’s Big Moves Economy

You know the Red Wedding in A Game of Thrones? The scene where readers/viewers dropped their collective jaws onto the floor and probably needed a steam shovel to pry them back into place? Iconic fantasy moments like these and many others resound throughout the genre’s great stories. 

In Survivor, big moves find their most fitting parallel in fantasy’s climactic moments. The difference is that in a fantasy book, you may get two, maybe three or four jaw-dropping scenes that completely obliterate your expectations. Survivor welcomes these seismic shifts in so many episodes it’s hard to keep track. When you start watching Survivor, you have 40 seasons of big moves ahead of you. 

I’m being deliberately vague to avoid massive spoilers. But these big moves, which anyone familiar with the Survivor vernacular will understand, represent only a handful of the show’s most impressive gameplay moments. Some involve idols or advantages while others simply involve one player convincing another to make an undeniably dumb decision. 

Imagine the feeling you get when your favorite protagonist does the thing. When the lovable thief pulls off the heist. When the bard earns his pipes. Character triumphs almost always have a great Survivor analog. And as you watch the show’s biggest blindsides, idol plays, and shifty moves play out, you’ll get that same rush as you do when your favorite magical main character triumphs. Especially when your favorite players return for future seasons (more on that below).

Oh, you want incredibly stupid moves, too? Survivor has them in spades, but I want you to discover those on your own. Bottom line: if you love bold moves and big decisions in your fantasy, you’ll love Survivor

Sequels And Stars: Survivor’s Staying Power

Survivor’s 40 season run isn’t a fluke. The show is a masterclass in character development and franchise-building. 

Imagine this: you finished an amazing book. You loved it, so you bought the sequel right away. Finished that one, too. Now you spend your days frantically googling when the next book might come out to no avail. 

When you watch Survivor, you get a full-fledged pantheon of content that has evolved, grown, and learned from its mistakes. The show introduces new twists and powerful items at a rapid clip. The best part? If the fans don’t like something, the production team usually cuts it. Survivor is made for an exceedingly loyal fanbase, and the show changes based on how those fans feel. One of the show’s biggest changes came in the form of season eight: Survivor All-Stars. Every contestant had already played on a previous Survivor season, and they each returned for a second shot at the title of Sole Survivor and the $1 million prize. 

Since All-Stars, Survivor has hosted a variety of seasons either completely comprising returning players (Game Changers, Heroes Vs. Villains, Second Chance). It’s almost like getting a sequel you didn’t expect and watching your favorite protagonist (or villain) give the game another go.

But Survivor also has hybrid seasons, which feature a combination of new players and returnees (Fans vs. Favorites, Redemption Island, Edge of Extinction). 

That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s what this format produces that gives Survivor an added layer of kinship with fantasy. The show creates full series arcs with characters that you come to love or hate–and everyone’s opinion differs. 

Survivor’s best players – be they the “honesty and integrity above all” folks like Rupert and Woo or the “Win at all costs” assassins like Sandra or the “I only fish and win challenges” beefcakes like Ozzy – have arcs that span multiple seasons. One player from the show’s first season came back 15 years later to play again. Others have played in back-to-back seasons. To play Survivor multiple times is to be a fan favorite. And when these characters return after a hiatus or a few new-player-only seasons, it’s a real treat. 

And that’s not even the best part. These players change, for better or worse. It’s just as satisfying to see a wide-eyed Survivor newbie come back and play like a grandmaster as it is to watch a former strategic force fall from grace on a returning season. And it just keeps going. Some players play on three or four seasons, as if Survivor is expanding on its fantasy-esque world. 

Of course, there are plenty of rookie seasons available, too. Think of these as debuts. First-time players can be just as entertaining as veterans, if not more so. And these seasons replicate the joy of reading a particularly riveting debut novel. 

As you dip your toes into the Survivor waters, remember there’s a whole ocean attached to that first little splash. Survivor is a fantasy universe all on its own, complete with heroes, villains, shapeshifters, and eager-to-please newcomers. And in this series, the new debuts are often just as fun as the sequels. 

The Book Rookie – The Kingkiller Chronicle

Welcome back to The Book Rookie, everyone!

Last year, we kicked off a series aimed at getting me, the eponymous Book Rookie, up to speed with some of the biggest fantasy and science fiction books available. We started off the series with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Here are the first three installments of The Book Rookie:

Now we’re back with a new addition to The Book Rookie series: Patrick Rothfuss’ divisive Kingkiller Chronicle. I say “divisive” because a mere mention of the series can set some SFF die-hards on a rampage about reader expectations and whatnot. But I’ve yet to find a person whose vitriol is aimed at the books themselves.

Does the fantastic prose and storytelling of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear make the wait for Doors of Stone worthwhile? Give the latest episode of The Book Rookie a listen for our thoughts!

Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 1: The Corwin Cycle

We here at The Quill to Live want to take you on a road trip of sorts. Today we will escort you through the book in the highly appropriate form of a road map to show you the sights, the pitfalls, the wonders, and the dangers of Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber. The 1200+ page journey is well worth it, but first you should know what kind of snacks to bring, where to stop for gas, and whether any murderous hitchhikers might appear on the side of the road.

We’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. 

This behemoth of a book tells its story through the eyes of two main characters over the course of ten books, so we’ll take you on two separate tours. Today, we cover books 1-5, known to Amber fans as The Corwin Cycle.

Hop on in.The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Stop 1: The Road We Travel – The Plot of Amber

Early on in The Great Book of Amber, amnesiac protagonist Corwin embarks on his own inter-world road trip with his brother Random. The trek spans vibrantly imagined worlds, but it’s not purely a physical journey. Corwin, suffering from a loss of memory but addled by gut feelings about the people he encounters, uses the road trip to siphon information from Random. 

The trip turns out to be rather revealing of the strange magic that governs the universe in which these characters live. It exposes the tense family dynamics involving would-be usurpers and a battle for a powerful throne. By extension, the road trip unveils that Corwin is embedded in an intricate web of strange machinations set in place by his colorful cast of family members. Friends, foes, and the ever-beloved “somethings in-between” emerge. 

Though Amber uses “amnesiac protagonist” as a narrative launchpad, Zelazny quickly (and smartly) sheds that skin and welcomes Corwin back into the fold. His amnesia becomes such a burden that he simply reveals the truth to the two family members along for the ride, and it’s honestly impressive he was able to keep the illusion up for a significant stretch.

Let’s pull off to the side of the road for a second and talk about the capital-P Pattern. The Pattern is a powerful design that grants the entire universe order. It is very much a physical thing/place within Amber, but it’s also a force that fuels the magic of true Amberites. Most believe the true Pattern to be the one within the castle of Amber. Fitting, because children of Amber can walk the Pattern–a process that is intensely difficult and possibly deadly. There are a few possible outcomes for anyone who attempts to walk the Pattern. Here’s a helpful chart:

Person walking the PatternWhat happens when they set foot on the PatternFinal result at the end of the Pattern
Child of Amber (part of Amber’s bloodline)The Pattern presents them with increasingly difficult (and potentially fatal) mental and physical obstacles, which they must traverse or die.The Pattern grants them the ability to walk through Shadows and will transport them in that instant to any location they designate.
Anybody ElseThey die.RIP.

It’s also important to note that the Pattern exists in multiple forms throughout the universe. For example, in Rebma, Amber’s watery reflective counterpart, there exists a reflected version of the Pattern that obeys the same rules. You’ll encounter these versions of the Pattern just as often as their “real” counterpart. 

The pattern is the center of Amber as a world AND the story’s core mystery. You will encounter it in so many forms that it’s unclear what the Pattern is. In fact, it’s almost a misnomer because Zelazny is so inconsistent with its inner workings that there’s no recognizable lowercase-p pattern governing how the capital-p Pattern works. Got it? No? Me neither. Good. Back to our journey…

Corwin’s joyride slows to a halt in Rebma, where he walks the reflected Pattern. As Corwin completes the trial in Rebma, his memories (and sweet powers) return, an onslaught of recovered facts and forgotten quarrels that meet at a revelatory zenith: Corwin must ascend Amber’s throne.

Thus Corwin’s story begins in earnest. With his memories restored and powers returned, he sets out to better understand the shifting family dynamics of Amber’s throne-seeking royalty.

Stop 2: King Of Worlds – Amber Reigns Supreme

One of the most magical stops on this road trip is, of course, Amber itself. Roger Zelazny’s crowning achievement focuses on the “one true world,” Amber, the functional center of his fantasy universe. Most other worlds (more on those italics in part 2) exist as capital-S Shadows of Amber. They are reflections, altered versions of the “true” world. The evolving realms of Shadow count our Earth among their ranks, alongside medieval fantasy settings and realities so far-fetched and abstract that they’re hard for the mind to grasp. 

Feeling lost yet? Get used to it. You’ll embark on various romps through Amber and its shadow worlds. At first it’s easy because you’re just the passenger next to Corwin as he races through Shadow worlds. But once he separates from Random and begins to explore in earnest, even the most experienced cartographers would struggle to track his progress. It’s best to read Amber knowing that the titular “true” world serves as a grounding force. You will almost always be somewhere within Amber or its shadow. If the meandering path feels labyrinthine at times, take a deep breath and remember you’ll be back in Amber soon enough. All roads lead to Amber, goes the proverbial wisdom of the book’s lore. That should be your mantra as you read along.

Embark on your Amber-bound road trip expecting this vast web of worlds to be Zelazny’s magnum opus of worldbuilding. You may find yourself expecting a vividly-imagined collection of fantasy vignettes as you speed through otherworldly highways, but almost all of these roads lead to Amber. This larger universe serves not as a panorama of sites to see, but as a backdrop for a battle royale, quite literally. Oberon, Amber’s king, has passed away, and his many children take up arms in a battle for the throne. This is the core of The Great Book of Amber. Zelazny’s worlds–both imagined and reality-based–are often pit stops that propel the familial in-fighting. 

Although the Shadows can be a bit thin, they are still a powerful worldbuilding force that is one of Amber’s defining attractions. Amberites can traverse between Shadows, and there’s hardly a 20-page stretch in which someone doesn’t venture to another world. The settings are so varied and numerous that none can serve as a reader-grounding force. Instead, the narrative plays that role, and you must invest yourself in the twists and turns of the road that lies before you. Never get too comfortable in one place, because Zelazny will jerk you to another as soon as you’ve poured yourself a cup of tea warmed by a hearth full of dancing flames. 

There’s one snag here, though, and it’s Zelazny’s point-of-view selection. The first five books comprising the Corwin Cycle are fittingly narrated by…Corwin. He’s an apt choice as one of the Amberites with the strongest claim to the throne, and his amnesia during the book’s first stretch makes him an excellent worldbuilding device/narrative gift drop. But because the story is so focused on his travels, thoughts, and examinations, it’s easy to feel like there is incredible potential being unrealized. You may feel slightly lost when Corwin feels the same. You may feel the urge to take the evidence one step further when Corwin decides to move on. For better or worse, Corwin tethers himself to you, and you simply have to accept that you’re along for the ride. 

Even as Corwin travels through these different worlds, there are myriad subplots happening off the page. You’re tagging along as he winds his way to the throne. It’s like driving through a maelstrom of ideas, with hundreds billowing about. But you’ll only be able to catch those that latch onto Corwin. As a result, either  buy a ticket for the tour Corwin’s leading or stay home.

Zelazny’s Amber-adjacent Shadow worlds tell a tale of infinite potential but finite execution. It’s a fantasy-setting zoo. You receive a simulacrum of what a world could be, then a guide ushers you to the next exhibit, equally limited in its recreation of an entire ecosystem. 

Stop 3: The Court of Oberon – A Masquerade of Backstabbing

King Oberon’s death sparks a litany of claims to the throne, and all boil over into a conflict between Corwin and his brother Eric. We make no qualms about telling you this, because it’s fairly obvious from the outset. It also highlights an important stop on our journey through Amber: family intrigue. 

If you pine for a blockbuster display of political backstabbing and plotting that is reminiscent of  A Game of Thrones, Zelazny’s epic fantasy might scratch that itch. King Oberon had 20+ children, each varying wildly in how “legitimate” they are perceived to be. Quite frankly, the family of Amber is ridiculous. They resort to flights of fancy and intensely intricate schemes to get ahead, and none of them can trust any other family member for more than mere minutes. Again, here’s Zelazny giving you snippets of vibrant characters, though their goals and complete storylines are hidden in lowercase-s shadow. 

Zelazny has crafted a cast of characters that rivals the best modern fantasies on the market (all the more impressive considering the first installment published in 1972). Though you’ll encounter, admire, and promptly forget Amber’s many Shadows, Zelazny’s cast will stick with you. Come for the world, stay for the (sometimes literal, wink wink) backstabbing. Also, Ganelon. We love Ganelon.

Sure, Zelazny crafts excellent characters and pits them against one another. But the ball has to drop somewhere, which brings us to…

Stop 4: Patriarchy Pit Stop – Dealing With Sexism

We’re firm believers that you can read a text (or consume any media) with problematic themes and enjoy it. However, it’s essential to recognize those problems and learn from them. For this reason, we give you this word of caution that there are some clear sexist ideas in Amber, serving as a dark tunnel through which you must drive on this journey. 

This is the ultimate pitfall of Amber, the reason you may turn the car around. Zelazny’s story problematically favors men over women – so overtly that it’s impossible to miss. Multiple times throughout the Corwin Cycle, characters (including the women themselves) offhandedly mention that Oberon’s daughters simply aren’t fit to rule, despite the fact that they…demonstrably are. Nary a reason surfaces for these claims. During our reading of Amber, there were multiple points at which we stopped and thought “Actually, it might be better if Fiona ran things…”

Let’s be ultra-clear, however. There are strong female characters throughout The Great Book of Amber, and many spring to mind as favorites. We won’t say too much here because many of said women feature prominently in the latter half of the story. 

All this is to say that Amber is undeniably a fantasy of a different era, and the widespread sexism that ran rampant during Zelazny’s heyday (and still absolutely poisons our culture today) permeates many of the book’s pages. The problem improves noticeably as the books progress, but it is not wiped away. 

And for what it’s worth, we think most of Amber’s female leads are infinitely more fit to rule than the vast majority of Corwin’s dumb-as-rocks brothers. If you’re prepared to trudge through the problematic themes that ensue, there are still a few more things you should know. Let’s continue.

Stop 5: Big Book, Short Spurts – Handle Amber With Care

The Great Book of Amber feels constructed to be consumed in small pieces. We know, we know, them’s big words for two guys writing a guide about a 1200-page book. BUT (that’s a “but” as big as the book, FYI) Amber lends itself well to short spurts. The prose itself is light. So light, that you may breeze through 30 pages before you even realize how far the story has advanced. 

With that light and breezy effect, though, comes a challenge. Zelazny and, by extension, Corwin, might speed right past you with nary an invitation to eat their dust. Revelations beget new mysteries in Amber, and Corwin will hop from one to the next as if he’s 10 steps ahead of you in a multiverse-spanning game of hopscotch. 

This results in a need for intense focus. Zelazny isn’t overly flowery with his language. Amber is easy to read by most standards. But you could dub one line an easy throwaway, and it could come back to bite you. The Corwin Cycle in particular is a series filled to the brim with details. Page 30 may offer a reveal that only becomes important on page 300. As you’re readying yourself for a journey through Amber, make sure you’re amply fueled to connect the dots. 

Simply put, you need to be on your guard 100% of the time. There’s no napping until the next rest stop on this road trip. Because Amber reads breezily, it’s deceptive in its detail. Come into the story willing to track a vast amount of information and broad-strokes ideas without too intense a focus on one thing in particular. Bring the minivan; the smart car doesn’t have enough cargo space.

You might realize that you stopped for gas when you still had half a tank left, only to find a cheaper option just a few miles up the road. Zelazny seems to delight in sparking these foibles, which brings us to our penultimate stop on our Corwin Cycle road trip. 

Stop 6: The Portal of Imagination – Zelazny’s Catalyzing Text

If you’ve reached this point and are feeling confused…good. That’s exactly how you should feel. Amber has a goal. It’s brimming with ideas. But it requires effort on your part to let Zelazny drive from time to time. You are at times a passenger and at times the driver, and you don’t necessarily get to decide the shifts for yourself.

Corwin’s story is a journey through the mind of Zelazny in a raw unfiltered form. Polish level: low. Guardrails? Few and far between. For the unwitting reader, this means a wild and unstructured ride through imaginative stories and fantastical setpieces. This particular road trip offers some once-in-a-lifetime views and some awe-inspiring pit stops. But you’ll also drive from a cornfield to a mountain range to a deep, dark ocean within a few pages. The Corwin Cycle has underdeveloped plotlines. For every amazing stop-off, there’s an underdeveloped side plot or a painfully slow section. 

Simply put, Zelazny’s Corwin Cycle feels like he wrote it on the fly rather than meticulously planning every single detail. Writing on the fly is by no means a bad thing (Game of Thrones and Kingkiller Chronicle are two good examples of this), but it can result in a disconnected narrative. 

If you’re along for the ride, our advice is to let Zelazny take the wheel. Take note when he changes the tune on the radio or points out a landmark. Listen to the discussions between characters that he recounts to you. Do that, and you’ll feel like you’re riding with the top down on a fantasy highway at 100 mph. 

Stop 7: Center of the World – Corwin’s Last Stop

And here, we slow to a stop and rest for the night, hopefully in some Shadow realm packed with whimsical sights for you to enjoy. Our road trip through The Corwin Cycle showed you the dangers ahead and the wonders you might encounter along the way. Amber’s first five books are equal parts treacherous and jaw-dropping, and now you’re ready to fire up the engines and set out on your own.

As for us, we’re resting to prepare for the second leg of our Amber road trip in Part 2: The Merlin Cycle. 

Buckle up. 

The Silence of the Lambs — Fantasy Villainy In A Crime Thriller Mask

“Clarice.” Two bone-chilling syllables, monotonously uttered by a verifiably insane Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The power doesn’t lie within the name itself. Rather, it’s how “Clarice” pops up throughout Thomas Harris’ seminal thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. When FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling interviews the mad doctor, the name beckons, practically begging to be pronounced. Start with the hard “C” and lilt gently into the “reese,” ending the name with a hiss. It’s within this singular name, so vividly pronounced by a bonafide monster, that this time-tested thriller encases its appeal to fantasy readers. Silence of the LambsIf you poke your sci-fi- and fantasy-obsessed head out like a surprised prairie dog at any mention of reading, you’ll find immense, disturbing joy in hearing Dr. Hannibal Lecter say those two syllables. The more lit-fic or crime drama-minded readers may appreciate the overly formal “Starling,” spoken with an air of authority and finality by those who outrank the novel’s protagonist. The “Clarice-ity” of The Silence of the Lambs bubbles to the surface when you read it through the fantasy lens, lending Thomas Harris’ work a distinct flair that gives every reader something to enjoy. At times, it feels as if Hannibal’s “Clarice” breaks the fourth wall, welcoming speculative fiction buffs into the crime narrative with an intensely disturbing character who may be the only person capable of stopping a different serial murderer. 

The Silence of the Lambs is so ubiquitous that a plot summary feels like overkill. But just in case you need a primer, the story follows FBI Academy student Clarice Starling as she’s called up to interview cannibal and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The FBI believes that Hannibal has clues to the identity of Buffalo Bill, a murderer who kidnaps and kills women in the midwest and the southern United States. The hunt for Buffalo Bill brings Clarice back to Hannibal for multiple interviews, and she develops a strange rapport with the doctor, even as he says her name with vicious resolve. 

Thomas Harris has crafted a story that stands the test of time, even producing Oscar-winning performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in the film adaptation. The Silence of the Lambs is a polished and pristine work. And although it’s a crime drama, fantasy readers can reach the end of the novel having had a blast from cover to cover. And for that, we have Harris’ character masterpiece, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to thank. 

Clarice Starling’s chemistry with Dr. Lecter sticks out when they first meet. But it’s not the “will they bang?” chemistry forced upon us in every young adult fantasy in existence. It’s a strange understanding that stems from Hannibal’s training as a forensic psychiatrist. Hannibal strikes to the heart of Clarice, and she responds with just the information he seems to seek. All the while, Clarice gains crucial case details from Lecter in exchange for personal stories from her past. By the book’s climax, you almost wonder if they’ve become…friends? Not quite, but Clarice and Hannibal harbor some grudging respect for one another. Hannibal is a reflection of the thing Clarice hunts, and Starling is the very thing Lecter sought to destroy in his murderous rampages. They both exist as predator and prey, creating a truly unique relationship between two incredible characters.

When these two characters speak, it’s like watching two fencers duke it out with brilliant verbal flourishes and parries. Clarice’s clinical mind searches the battlefield (in this case, a glass wall between them) for something to give herself the upper hand, something to make a break in the Buffalo Bill case. Hannibal, meanwhile, knows he is in a position of power and only cedes ground when he knows it will benefit him. He doles out tiny details about Buffalo Bill that culminate in a terrifying revelation early on: he knows exactly who Buffalo Bill is. And he will only divulge the information in pieces, knowing he can leverage the knowledge for a more comfortable (or perhaps less secure) cell. On the other hand, Hannibal genuinely doesn’t care whether Buffalo Bill kills dozens of victims. To him, the mystery of The Silence of the Lambs is simply a game, and he’s playing with loaded dice. 

This Clarice-Hannibal dynamic effectively creates a supervillain whose powers are completely ordinary in nature. Lecter’s impact, however, is extraordinary. The way he says “Clarice” (watch the movie for a pitch-perfect delivery of this single word from Anthony Hopkins), the way he parcels out information for seemingly trivial benefits, the way he can know everything about a person after they speak only a single sentence. These powers, paired with his murderous inclinations, make him a monster. And although he can’t slash or bite or stab in his heavily protected cell, his mental prowess still gives him enough fuel to become a force of nature hellbent on acquiring the freedom he feels he deserves. 

In short, Hannibal Lecter satisfies in a way that many villains do not. He is a monster because that’s who he is. He kills because he wants to. He reaches into the psyche of anyone he meets and throws their emotions into a blender, hoping for a brain-mush smoothie both literally and figuratively. So many stories try to create a villain who is evil just because. And they fail. Hannibal Lecter, reflected by the pure-hearted but troubled Clarice Starling, is evil just because, and he flourishes as a character in ways that many antagonists simply don’t. 

Rarely does a character feel so deliciously terrifying, so vicious and monstrous, simply for the sake of being a terrible, vicious monster. If you’re a reader in search of no-holds-barred villainy in an eloquent and frightfully intelligent package, Hannibal Lecter is your fix. 

Hell, even if you want a fast, thrilling crime story, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Silence of the Lambs

Rating: The Silence of the Lambs – 8.5/10
-Cole

 

Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars – Up Up and Away

Nearly three years ago, I read Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender Volume 1 Descender, starting with a reread of Tin Stars. The bad news: it’s not quite as polished as 2018-me remembers. The good news: Descender still stands out as an excellent sci-fi story. Descender Volume 1Tin Stars opens with a panoramic shot of a far-future society governed by the United Galactic Council (UGC). Nine planets comprise the Council, and they’ve achieved some semblance of peace between them. The serenity we see as readers only lasts for a short time, though. Nine gargantuan robots (later dubbed “Harvesters”) appear out of nowhere, and each one unleashes a devastating attack that razes the nine UGC planets before disappearing. Relations between the UGC planets largely dissolve, and the survivors carry on living as best they can. 10 years after the attacks, a child companion bot awakens from a long “sleep” on a mining colony. Tim-21 finds all residents of the mining colony dead and begins to explore the place he once called home. The UGC registers Tim-21 as an active bot once he awakens, discovering that elements of his codex (essentially robot DNA) match the codices of the Harvesters. The UGC sets out to recover Tim-21 alongside Dr. Quon, the purported inventor ot the Tim series, but they aren’t the only faction tracking him. 

Tin Stars opens the Descender saga with a hard-hitting question: how does a far-future society deal with a mass genocide? Further, how does that society respond when the enemy is seemingly indestructible and unidentifiable? This volume asks these questions early on, but it doesn’t answer them outright. Instead, Tim-21’s story begins to shed light on the civilization that existed pre-Harvester attacks. As Tim-21 reboots his memory, we are treated to vignettes of his past interlaced with his discovery of the present. Lemire and Nguyen are a hell of a pair, leading us along this tight-rope narrative even as the scope of the story bursts open to encompass galaxy-spanning conflicts. In the graphic novel format, this approach works extraordinarily well. We need a way to unlock those worldbuilding elements without being force-fed, and Tim-21 is an excellent educational device. Learning through the eyes of a naive character is no new SFF trope, and others have done it (sometimes even better). But it works so well here because there’s only so much a creator can do with limited word count and space for art. In this way, Tim-21 is both the main character and the chief avenue for worldbuilding. He serves both roles well, guided by the deft artistic hand of Dustin Nguyen and the narrative prowess of Jeff Lemire. 

Tin Stars features a diverse cast, most of whom are riveting. Lemire and Nguyen showcase a masterful grasp on what it takes to create a meaningful character. They inject juicy details into the story that essentially fast-forward the time it takes to become invested in a character’s story. Dr. Quon stands out here, as he seems reluctant to get involved in discovering the Harvesters’ history despite inventing the unit with which those Harvesters share robo-DNA (deoxy-ROBO-nucleic acid, as I’m calling it). Captain Telsa (NOT Tesla, as she’ll tell you), fills the hard-headed, all-business military role. But when we discover her father leads what’s left of the UGC, she becomes a softer, more relatable character who is bogged down by parental expectation. Then, of course, there’s Driller, a dumb robot who proclaims himself to be a killer on more than one occasion. He’s just plain fun. The characters at work here are the crowning achievement of Tin Stars, and they’re all masterfully portrayed by two clearly experienced storytellers. 

I felt all of this when I read Tin Stars in 2018, and in my head, I remembered it as a near-perfect story. I didn’t feel that way this time. As I read through Descender’s first volume, I noticed a few errors that jerked me away from the story. For example, the UGC is referenced at least once as “UGC Council,” which is effectively the same as saying “ATM Machine.” Captain Telsa corrects people’s pronunciation of her name more than once, but in some segments it is misspelled without the context of another character saying it wrong. None of these gripes spell doom for Descender in my mind. It’s just that in a world so artistically vibrant and narratively polished as we have here, those little details stand out.

Tin Stars clocks in at 160 pages, and if you’re like me, you can breeze through it in an hour or two. For that reason, it’s not super worthwhile to discuss the overarching plot for fear of spoilers. I will say, though, that the end of Tin Stars left me hankering for the next installment. Luckily, it’s sitting on my shelf now awaiting me. And this time, it won’t be three years before I jump into Volume 2

Rating: Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars – 9.0/10
-Cole

Across the Green Grass Fields – Series Meets Banality

Yet another wayward child discovers a world beyond her wildest dreams in Across the Green Grass Fields. Seanan McGuire’s sixth novella installment in the Wayward Children series hobbled across the finish line, leaving me to draw a personal conclusion: it’s time for me to part with this series. It may not be that time for you, though, and that’s okay. 

But before I dive into the “why” of it all, feel free to peruse my reviews of the previous five installments:

Maybe you’ve been around for a while and have already seen those reviews on the site. Or maybe you read them for the first time just now. Or maybe you clicked them and scrolled to see how I rated each installment. Whichever method you chose, you’ll have found that I generally enjoy Wayward Children, at least enough for those scores to average out to an 8. I stand by those scores, and I think there’s something very special about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children universe. It’s just not special for me anymore. 

We’re here to talk about Across the Green Grass Fields, though, and this is the book that finally sparked some much-needed introspection about the series. 

Regan is different. The other girls in her school are growing up faster than she is, blossoming in ways her body doesn’t yet comprehend. Her “best friend” Laurel sets forth strict limitations on what it means to be a girl, and anyone who does something too weird or boyish gets ostracized and isolated thanks to Laurel’s heavy restrictions. Regan has been able to fly under Laurel’s radar while keeping her intense love of horses relatively separate from the relationship. But as the other girls start to hit puberty, Regan’s differences from the other girls appear more starkly, and she asks her parents if there’s something wrong with her. They reveal that she is intersex, and that she won’t experience puberty in the same way that her classmates will. Regan confides this in Laurel, who immediately turns on Regan and calls her a “boy.” Regan runs from school and stumbles into another world through a forested doorway. In the Hooflands, Regan’s beloved equine friends rule: centaurs, kelpies, perytons, and unicorns inhabit the world. She falls in with a pack of centaurs for five years all the while slowly allowing her former life in our world to fade. 

This narrative arc shares many similarities with other Wayward Children installments. “Misfit child finding a gateway to a new world” is quite literally the premise of the series, though there’s always a healthy portion of “everything isn’t what it seems.” All of this rings true in Across the Green Grass Fields, but for me it felt like a veil had been lifted and I saw the series in a different way. 

Regan’s adventures in the Hooflands didn’t hook me. The world is packed with equine beings, and beyond simple facts and limitations (Centaurs and other hoofed creatures can’t climb trees, for example), they don’t feel any different from humans. You can read this as a commentary, a revelation that differences make us unique and lovable rather than lesser. But in Across the Green Grass Fields, this results in the Hooflands feeling more like a slightly altered reflection of our world rather than a completely new one. That aura cements itself even further as more of the world is revealed. McGuire does a lot of telling: there’s a Fair where centaurs sometimes meet with their husbands. You can buy pies and food and other treats at the Fair. You can trade goods. But precious few details actually serve to flesh out the world. The Hooflands becomes a half-complete fill-in-the-blank. I had the same issue with In an Absent Dream to a lesser extent, but Across the Green Grass Fields just didn’t sit right. 

I felt the same way about Regan. Talk about wasted potential. She’s an intersex protagonist who is obviously struggling to cope with her identity, but as soon as she reaches the Hooflands, much of that storyline disappears and she instead fully immerses herself into the world of the Centaurs and unicorns. All the while, there’s mention that Regan, as a human, must see the Queen, but only when it’s time. Humans only come to the Hooflands when the world needs saving, or so the legends say. But Regan and her flock of centaurs simply hide from the Queen for five years. After that time’s up, Regan seeks an audience with the Queen, who nobody has ever actually seen, and knots are tied up with rather hilarious speed. The novella rushes to a conclusion faster than any of its predecessors, and it left me wanting. 

Some of these gripes will inevitably be personal. If you’re enamored with horses and similar beasts, you may positively love this story. If you enjoy McGuire’s quickfire novella approach to the series, you’ll likely want to keep reading. But for me, Across the Green Grass Fields highlighted problems that I was previously content to overlook in the previous books: slow/minimal worldbuilding, compact narratives, and thin characters. That’s not to say all of those things are true for every Wayward Children book. But one or more of those problems appears in each one. The simple but big realization that happened for me was this: I’m reading these to add to my total book count for the year and not because I actually want to. And when that’s the feeling you get from a series, it’s time to migrate to greener pastures. 

An unconventional review? Absolutely. And I did that on purpose to make it abundantly clear that if you’ve enjoyed Wayward Children up to and including this book, you should by all means continue. There’s some fantastic work from McGuire here, and the book community’s love for this series is often well-earned. I’m no longer the audience for these books, though, and for that reason, it’s time to head back toward the epic fantasies I adore the most. As McGuire’s doorways all say, you have to “Be Sure.” And in this case, I am. 

Farewell, Wayward Children, and I wish you all the best. 

Rating: Across the Green Grass Fields – 6.5/10
-Cole

 

Dark Horse 2021: January Through July

Welcome to 2021 everyone! Another year means another dark horse book list. 2021 boasts a boatload of promising SFF debuts, and we have plans to read a whole bunch of ‘em. It is always fun to dig in and highlight new authors to help them in their journeys to greatness. Like last year’s list, though, this year has such a huge selection of debuts that the only way to manage it is to split it into two halves. So, without further ado, here’s our dark horse list for January through July, 2021. 

As always, stay tuned for reviews of each book, then keep an eye out for our first half wrap up in July! While we will make every effort to cover all of these books our list is always in flux. So don’t be surprised if the round-up is missing some and or has some new inclusions. 

Last thing before the list: Alex already reviewed H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke, marking our first dark horse review of the year. Read his review here

The Quill To Live Dark Horse picks, H1 2021:

  1. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
  2. Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
  3. The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
  4. The Forever Sea by Joshua Philip Johnson
  5. Reset by Sarina Dahlan
  6. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
  7. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
  8. The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes