I Hope This Helps – Non-Escapism As Escapism

Tommy Siegel’s I Hope This Helps: Comics And Cures For 21st Century Panic springs right off the what-is-2020 press, and it couldn’t be more timely. To most, Siegel’s name will be justifiably unfamiliar. But both his comics and his music have impressive followings. Siegel is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for theatrical pop-rock band Jukebox The Ghost, a band I personally love but won’t talk about anymore here beyond telling you to give them a listen. On a separate note, if I had a nickel for every time I reviewed a graphic novel or comic by a popular musician, I my total would now sit at $0.15 (here’s the first, here’s the second). During long road trips in the band’s tour van, Siegel reignited his love for cartooning. He garnered a hefty following after striking up a “500 cartoons in 500 days” project, and much of his playful cartoonery made its way into I Hope This Helps, his debut book. 

The brunt of Siegel’s inaugural collection focuses on millennial life and the subtitular “21st century panic” that has indelibly weaved its way into our collective psyche. The result is a collection of comics and short written segments that feels undeniably “2020” in a way few things can. In fact, the final pages of the book acknowledge the march 2020 onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with a hesitantly hopeful message. The preceding chapters feature written portions in which Siegel rightfully laments the terrifying encroachment of social media into our lives. He does this as he (again rightfully) emphasizes its role in creating an audience for his work. These prose segments serve as a nice framework for the cartoons that comprise the majority of I Hope This Helps, though they’re easily skippable if you’re just here for a laugh. 

And laugh you will. Or at least I hope you will. I certainly did. I Hope This Helps is, as you’ve likely intuited, neither a fantasy nor a sci-fi book. But it feels like escapism nonetheless. A mysterious quality for a book that viciously highlights societal problems like the electoral college, social media addiction, and the fearful juxtaposition of smartphone utility and command over our attention spans. It’s as if Siegel understands that non-escapism can itself be an escape. Holding a mirror up to the worst parts of ourselves can strike up a fit of chuckles and, in some convoluted way, make us forget those are our problems, our struggles. It’s a fun take on laughter-as-medicine that feels as true to our time as anything else I’ve read or consumed this year. 

All that said, the comics about social-media-induced anxiety and excessive phone usage reach a point of diminishing returns. Siegel excels as a cartoonist when he gleefully skewers the needle-point specific aspects of millennial culture. A naked man with a Pringles-mascot head escapes a Pringles can. A dissection of Kombucha playfully tells us there’s “A live mushroom in every bottle.” A caped bloodsucker slogs away in a cubicle underneath a caption that says “Vampire Weekday.” These punchlines, which cast aside the social media and smartphone angle, sparked fits of genuine out-loud laughter as I flipped through them. And I mean laughs, not that exhale through the nose pseudo-laugh we all do when we experience something funny without anyone around. This isn’t to say that the commentaries on the collective millennial obsession with social media aren’t funny or worthwhile. It’s just that the wacky left-field jokes hit me harder. 

After weeks of election-following, pandemic worrying, and The Social Dilemma-watching, Siegel’s cartoons felt like a two-hour detox. This book won’t solve all your problems, but it will shine a bright light on the frivolous torments of 21st century culture. I Hope This Helps is a welcome reprieve from the terrifying normal and a deep dive into the wacky and zany brain of an intensely relatable (and immensely talented) musician and cartoonist. 

Rating: I Hope This Helps – 9.0/10
-Cole

Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

The Shadow Of Kyoshi – Bend Me Break Me

Flameo, hotman, and welcome to the Fire Nation! F.C. Yee and Avatar co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino’s The Shadow of Kyoshi brings us to a pre-war Fire Nation riddled with political intrigue as the collaborators conclude the Kyoshi duology, which began with The Rise of Kyoshi last year. This sequel continues the story of Rise while expanding on the Avatar lore and deep-diving into Kyoshi’s growth as the Avatar. 

Shadow places Kyoshi in a precarious position. Kyoshi bursts onto the first pages with true earthbending flair as she raids the headquarters of a Ba Sing Se gang that’s been terrorizing locals. Kyoshi grapples with the trying political responsibilities thrust upon her as the Avatar while she recklessly charges into small criminal cells to disband them. Of course, every time she takes one down, another pops up. Her travels take her to the Fire Nation, where she’s reunited with her partner Rangi. As Kyoshi struggles to learn the elaborate customs of the Fire Nation capital, a strange threat from the Spirit World emerges and threatens to dismantle the delicate political tapestry of the country. Kyoshi must face the threat as she works to connect with the spirits of her past lives. If she doesn’t stop the Spirit World threat, the world could devolve into chaos and destruction. 

There are a lot of great elements in Shadow, but Kyoshi’s spiritual struggle is a real treat. Kyoshi’s spiritual journey is also intriguing and relatable. It’s reminiscent of Korra’s spiritual arc. Kyoshi is a proficient and strong bender, but she comes up against a wall when she tries to communicate with past Avatars. Her relationship with Kuruk, her immediate predecessor, represents this roadblock. Kyoshi’s perception of Kuruk is less-than-favorable, and this struggle often feels self-inflicted. Her negative opinion of him stands like a rock clogging the flow of his past-Avatar wisdom. Spiritual growth is a cornerstone of any Avatar’s narrative, and Kyoshi’s challenges mirror her attempts to resolve political quarrels. She can tip the scales to either side in the Fire Nation’s conflict, but she has to be decisive and, perhaps more importantly, ready to take action that will ultimately mean the demise of one of the parties involved. 

Throughout the book, Kyoshi’s position as the Avatar is cemented, but the world is still coming to terms with how she’ll handle the title. It doesn’t help that she seems unable to grasp what, exactly, an Avatar must do to keep the peace in both the physical and spirit worlds. One of the biggest appeals to the story, just like the prequel, is that Shadow drops plenty of lore bombs and extends the world of Avatar. It’s one of the areas where these prequel books really succeed and flourish, and it’s bound to please fans of the series. However, for me, I need more than some lore snippets to really immerse myself in a story, and this installment fell short of the mark for a few key reasons. 

The spiritual facet of Kyoshi’s story is by far my favorite part of Shadow, but it’s surrounded by a story that I frankly found hard to care about. The brunt of the story drops Kyoshi in the Fire Nation, where one clan vies for dominance over the Firelord. The Firelord’s illegitimate brother leads the would-be-usurpers, and Kyoshi exacerbates the already-tense situation by greeting the brother improperly at a reception celebrating her arrival. That’s a catalyst for various screw-ups to come, and the story unfolds on that web of political intrigue. The problem is that the web feels half-done. It’s as if whatever cosmic spider the universe hired to create the web showed up late and made a halfhearted attempt at creating it to meet his deadline. The result is a superficial game of political checkers when Avatar has previously shown that it’s capable of three-dimensional chess.

The worldbuilding has the same problem. I’ve come to expect vibrant, diverse cultures from the Avatar world, and Shadow zooms so far in on the Fire Nation that it’s hard to reconcile the story with the larger machinations at work. In all likelihood, this is a personal quibble. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sharply focused story in a well-established world. But, come on, it’s Avatar. I want a massive story with high stakes. This personal story, though serviceable, just isn’t that

The flipside of that argument is that we get hitherto unforeseen insight into the Fire Nation. Avatar gave us a glimpse of the propaganda-ridden country. Shadow gives us a compelling look at the pre-war Fire Nation and its intricate workings. Fire Nation folk value honor and integrity. Of course, when two clans define those words differently, problems arise. Kyoshi is the pebble that locks the well-oiled Fire Nation gears and sends the whole nation into disarray. And the spirit world threat (the identity of which will be familiar to readers of the first novel) exacerbates the unrest. 

To put it simply, I can’t decide where I stand on the focus of the story. I enjoyed holding a magnifying glass up to the Fire Nation, but I simultaneously longed for a world-spanning narrative that felt more true to Avatar. The characters of Shadow are well-formed and multi-dimensional, a step up from my primary issue with Rise. Kyoshi in particular is a fantastically multi-layered Avatar. Her partner Rangi and her mother Hei Ran get well-deserved spotlight moments, too. The supporting cast, particularly those who are new to the series, pale in comparison, but that felt right. The Fire Nation cast exists for a purpose, and their characters reflect that purpose.

Though I’m generally on the fence about Shadow’s components, there’s one piece I just flat-out didn’t like. The novel’s ending is rushed and features reveals that I felt were unearned. The villain, who is “meh” throughout, poses a threat, sure, but that arc fizzles. I didn’t ever buy into the motivations there, and the final encounter did little to sway me. 

All of this leads me to believe that The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi are best consumed as two halves of the same whole. I read them over a year apart, and I know there are parts of Shadow that 2019 Cole, fresh off of Rise, would have loved. For that reason, I am happy to recommend Shadow to Avatar fans. It may not be the Avatar world’s crowning achievement, but it’s still a fun story. Plus, Kyoshi is a straight-up badass. 

Rating: The Shadow Of Kyoshi – 7.0/10
-Cole

Psycho – Scares From Page To Screen

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is one of those iconic stories that summons a deluge of mental images with its name alone. It’s a flagship horror/murder mystery tale that defines its genre and earns countless homages in various mediums. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation is undoubtedly the first thing that springs to mind when anyone mentions Psycho, thanks largely to the classic shower scene, replete with nails-on-a-chalkboard-esque violin screeches and chocolate syrup masquerading as violent spurts of blood. Hitchcock’s adaptation itself is the very reason I read Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The book and its big-screen sibling were the latest topic of discussion on my Page2Screen series with Kicking the Seat founder and movie critic extraordinaire Ian Simmons. Bloch’s novel of addled minds and murder mysteries is simultaneously prescient and a surefire product of its time. If you’ve missed the book or the movie, here’s your requisite spoiler warning before I dive in. 

Psycho puts Norman Bates centerstage. Bates runs a motel on the side of a now-defunct highway that receives very little traffic. His only constant companion is his mother, who hovers over him and prevents him from truly growing into a functioning adult. Norman, as any reader will quickly discover, suffers from some undefined mental ailment. His mother has been dead for 20 years, and Norman has carried on as though she’s right beside him, and in a way she is. Mary, a beautiful young woman engaged to a hardware store clerk she met on a cruise ship, steals $40,000 from her boss and makes a run for it, hoping the money will help her pay off the debts of Sam Loomis, her fiancé. She makes a wrong turn and ends up at the Bates motel for an evening. Norman welcomes her and checks her in, but his mother’s influence takes over. Norman’s “mother” kills Mary and buries her car in the swamp behind the Bates house near the hotel. The story that follows is told through alternating POVs: Norman Bates as he tries to cover up the damage he’s done and Sam Loomis, accompanied by Lila, Mary’s sister, as they try to track Mary’s whereabouts. 

Psycho offers a chilling dissection of psychosis via Norman Bates. It’s a thin tome–my paperback copy has 176 pages–and the story moves along briskly. The plot itself is fine, and the book’s pace is surprisingly nestled between fast and slow, right in the middle. I won’t waste any space detailing the intricacies of what actually happens, because that’s the crux of the book. Instead, I’ll discuss a few aspects of Psycho that left me uncertain about whether it’s worthy of a recommendation. 

I’ll start with the good. Psycho’s treatment of authorities is hauntingly relevant to our current social climate. Lila believes from the start that Mary’s disappearance bears signs of overt criminality. She finds Sam Loomis and asks him for help, but he is hesitant to bring in the police. A private investigator joins the hunt for Mary and asks for 24 hours before they contact the authorities. Sam and Lila agree. It’s fine to shrug this off as a plot device. But when the 24 hours expires and Sam and Lila do contact the sheriff, he does virtually nothing, sweeping Bates’ crimes under the rug. I actually found this the most haunting aspect of Psycho: the police are unwilling to solve a clear issue, instead choosing to fuel the fire by completely ignoring the problem altogether. Self-interest reigns supreme, especially if it means the guy with a badge doesn’t have to answer for his wrongdoings. I’ll leave it there to avoid delving into more social commentary, but I enjoyed Psycho for its honest look at authoritative complacency and its consequences. 

Psycho faltered when it came time to truly scare the bejeezus out of me. Norman Bates? Terrifying, but as a concept. The things he does? Horrific. His mental impairment (which is explored later in the book)? Tragic, with chilling results. Psycho has all sorts of fodder for a terrifying and suspenseful experience, but I think it’s too much a product of its time to offer any real jump scares or true tension. When I read a book billed as “Icily terrifying!” on its back cover, I want hair-raising horror moments. I want to be scared to head downstairs to my unfinished basement just to do a load of laundry. I’m no horror connoisseur, but I think Bloch’s writing comes from a time when “telling” was the norm and “showing” hadn’t quite snuffed it out as the dominant storytelling device. It’s hard to say this, though, because Psycho excels in many areas, and I appreciate it for its place among influential literary achievements. I just wasn’t bowled over by the prose.

This problem peaked at the novel’s conclusion, when loose ends are tied up neatly with a few pages of blatant exposition. Again, likely a product of the book’s time, but I left unsatisfied. On the other hand, the final pages brought me the only jump-scare-worthy moment of the entire book. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one many first-time readers will likely predict and enjoy despite expecting it. 

From a genre point of view, Psycho seems to teeter between horror/thriller and the slightly supernatural. For me, Psycho felt like a precursor to authors like Stephen King, who blend the mystic with the real and package it all in a tight story. Psycho does just that, though with a few hiccups along the way, making it a worthwhile read for SFF fans. 

Psycho first published in 1959, and Hitchcock’s cinematic retelling released in 1960. I highly doubt a 2020 review will do much to sway newcomers one way or the other. Psycho exists in a weird sort of limbo where the horror elements age poorly but the social issues contained within can still resonate 60 years later. If you’re a horror/thriller or murder mystery fan, Psycho is worth the read if only to understand how it influenced the genre. If you want a modern and tense thriller, you may be better off finding a different read. 

Rating: Psycho – 6.5/10

-Cole

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole

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 Trevor 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