Pornokitsch – End Of A Titan

This week we got some very sad news in the reading world. Pornokitsch, one of the largest reading blog/sites around and site that constantly feels dangerous to have in your google history at work, is shutting down. PK has been a valued resource for readers and other reviewers for years, and is part of the reason I decided to get into reviewing in the first place.

Jared in particular, the PK member who handles most of the fantasy content, is one of the best reviewers out there – bringing tons of insight and wit to all his reviews. I regularly disagree with him on his assessments of books, but think that all of his opinions are well argued and worth listening to because he takes a ton of time and effort to formulate them.

The reasons cited for PK shutting down is that it just wasn’t fun enough to do anymore. I can definitely understand that mentality, we were unable to get a post out this Tuesday just due to how busy we are, and having to deal with that sort of impact on your life for the 10 years that PK ran must have been exhausting. However, while I wish them the best of luck and understand why they are closing shop I will still miss them dearly, and maybe The Quill to Live can make the best of a sad thing and shamelessly steal part of their reader base.

In honor of PK, we wanted to highlight some of their posts from over the years we liked in no particular order. If you haven’t every checked out PK, now is as good a time as any and we hope that people still use the existing content for years to come:

-The QTL Team

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Age Of Assassins – A Blade With A Little Too Much Edge

33296298As per usual, I often spend a good chunk of the start of a year catching up on books I missed from the year before (which causes me to miss more books this year, it’s a vicious cycle). Up next in my 2017 cleanup is Age of Assassins, by R. J. Barker. Assassins are a tricky subject to tackle in fantasy. In the past I have gone into assassin novels expecting constant action and murder, but assassination has typically been more of a waiting game than anything else – which can leave me disappointed. So when I realized that this book had all the soul of other classic assassin novels, with great pacing, I was quite excited to dig in. But first, let’s talk plot.

Girton Club-foot, apprentice assassin, still has much to learn from his master (Merela) before he can strike out on his own. However, thanks to a past she can’t outrun, Merela strikes a bargain with a queen to hire Girton as an assassin/bodyguard to kill the other assassins after her son, Aydor. So a sheltered Girton is thrust into knight training and must navigate the perils of friendship, mystery, and political intrigue. If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a coming of age story about Girton. The book primarily follows the first person POV of Girton and follows him as he essentially shifts from assassin homeschool, to knight public school. On top of this, there is the mystery of who is trying to murder prince Aydor, and a lot of political intrigue around the noble families of the world. The three elements of storytelling (coming of age, mystery, and political intrigue) pair with a fast pace for a thrilling read, but there are also some issues.

First let’s talk about Girton. Right off the bat, let me say that I think Girton is an incredibly well written character that does a very good job placing you in his shoes. The problem is sometimes his shoes are terrible and I don’t want to wear them. I would describe Girton as that socially awkward friend that every person has, where nine times out of ten they are wonderful to be around, and one time out of ten they are a cataclysm of awkwardness. I honestly think this is a realistic portrait of a boy who basically never had a friend until the age of 14 and spends most of his time learning the most efficient way to murder people. However, that doesn’t make his extremely awkward or edgy passages fun to read. Generally Girton is a fun and endearing boy to read about as he awkwardly makes his first social steps. However, his secret assassin background enables some internal power fantasy monologues that shattered my empathy for him like throwing a mark through a window. The appeal of the characters in general was very varied. My favorite group of characters was the “suspects”, or the various individuals around the castle that Girton investigated to see if they were behind the attempts on Aylor’s life. This group were varied, well fleshed out, and had a lot of personality that really brought the mystery to life and made you wonder who was behind the assassination attempts. On the other hand, Girton, his master, Aylor, and a few others fell flat for me. Aylor in particular, clearly trying to embody the “jackass prince who will become a spoiled terrible king” trope under delivered. I was initially worried that he would be an over the top asshole, but I instead found I was generally apathetic about him and not invested in him getting his comeuppance.

Along a similar line, the plot also felt like it varied in quality. The pacing was very fast, which was both good and bad. In some chapters I found myself on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. In others, I found myself metaphorically shot from a cannon through world and character development, so that the payoff of story arcs was smaller than it could have been. For example, there were a few small passages that talked about the origin and structure of Girton’s assassin organization, but they are so few and far between that they left me wanting. In addition, it was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the “horses” of Age of Assassins were a cross between elk, tigers, and boars and I am super disappointed the book did not spend more time talking about these rideable death machines. The mystery and political intrigue elements were much more solid, remaining strong almost throughout the book. There were a couple of small twists that a blind man could have seen coming from the horizon, but as a whole the core mystery was extremely well done and I found myself deathly (get it? Because assassins) curious about the identity of the culprit until the final pages. Finally, Barker has a real talent for action writing. The action sequences in Age of Assassins were definitely a highlight, and they satisfied my desire to see a well-trained assassin murder large groups of people.

Overall, Age of Assassins was slightly disappointing. The book felt like a long prologue that could have been a lot better with a little more depth. However, the bones of something excellent are here and I am going to stick with the series and give the second book a shot. If you are in the market for a coming of age story about assassins, and are willing to forgive a little awkwardness, you should give Age of Assassins a shot.

Rating: Age of Assassins – 6.0/10

The Tethered Mage – Restrained Fun

34219880I received a copy of The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This book was sold to me as wizards in Venice, which I honestly don’t think is quite right. Another reviewer I spoke to described it as “YA Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I think is closer to the truth. The Tethered Mage both over and under performed in certain areas, but overall was an enjoyable read. However, let’s first start with the plot.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of a large empire based in the city of Raverra. The primary driver of this peace is that the empire controls the Falcons, powerful magic users that range in ability from warlocks that can control the elements to artificers who can build amazing magical machines. Due to the volatility and danger of the Falcon magical power- children who show marks of power (eyes that gain an extra colored ring) are press ganged into magical service for the empire. It is not as bad as it sounds, the Falcons live lives of opulence and comfort, but they are not free people and must come to terms with that fact. To control the Falcons, each magic user has a corresponding Falconer that can turn their magic on and off – which is where our story begins.

Our protagonist is Amalia, a fairly sheltered aristocrat girl with a penchant for adventure and a taste for artifice. The book begins with Amalia taking a trip to the ghettos of Raverra in search of a rare book. While on said trip, she comes across an extremely rare fire warlock, Zaira, losing control about to burn down the the city. Through a stroke of luck, Amalia is able to put a metaphorical collar on Zaira, and shut down her magic – but this raises problems of a different sort. Raverra is a highly political city, where several aristocratic families vie for power. As such, none of them are allowed to be tied to a Falcon, especially if they are as powerful as a fire warlock. This rockets Amalia to the center of a number of city intrigues, will she be able to navigate them and come out alive?

If the plot seems a little over the top, that’s because it is. The set up for the premise felt like it stretched my suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to give The Tethered Mage a pass due to how fun it is. It is largely a book of political intrigue, and the politics and twists are a blast. The world and culture of Eruvia revolve around powerful city states, and are very fleshed out. The cities all have their own unique feel, and it was fascinating to see how they all interplay. While the cities had a lot of depth, the characters (in particular the leads) left something to be desired. Amalia and Zaria are fairly one dimensional, though the supporting cast was surprisingly not. They did improve in depth as the story progressed (in particular as certain romances progressed), but the start of the book was rather rough. The magic was entertaining though, in particular the take on magical artifice. The various magical tools that the Falcons created added a lot of originality to the books and did a lot to distinguish The Tethered Mage in the current landscape. In addition, I enjoyed the twist on the enslaved magic user trope with collared mages living in opulence.

The Tethered Mage was not perfect, but it did enough right to earn a recommendation. The cast warmed on me while I wandered the captivating city states and I found myself very interested in what happens next. Amalia first halting steps are political intrigue are fun to watch, and I am excited to see how she comes into her own in Raverra’s complicated political landscape.

Rating: The Tethered Mage – 7.5/10

The Murderbot Diaries – Never Stop Murdering

32758901We are wrapping up the pile of short book reviews, and have saved the best for last: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. I had heard of Martha before this for her larger fantasy series, The Cloud Roads, and her Star Wars novels, but had not ever gotten around to checking her out (which is unfortunately true for several authors on my mountain of to-be-read books). However, after reading her short novels All Systems Red, and the sequel Artificial Condition, I will likely be bumping her books up the pile significantly.

In my opinion, the perfect novella has the following things: memorable and lovable characters, a fast plot with a narrow scope, and a clear theme/idea with excellent execution. I am actually less forgiving with a short book than a long one because I feel that when you have less space to work with, you need to maximize the impact of each page more than when you are writing an 800 page epic. And when using these criteria, there was one clear winner of the novellas I have recently read – The Murderbot Diaries. The series follows the titular Murderbot, a security robot who has hacked her governing module. This module suppresses her free will and would normally place her under human control, but after hacking it she controls her own destiny. Wells has written a science fiction setting in the far future where humanity is a galaxy spanning empire where cheap and greedy corporations are still in charge. As mentioned, Murderbot is a security robot who is loaned out to researchers who need protection in the field. Thanks to a mysterious incident, Murderbot finds her… its?… governing module disabled. However, in direct opposition to rogue AIs in most sci-fi novels, Murderbot decides to simply keep doing her job of her own volition, instead of trying to murder all humans. The first book All Systems Red, follows Murderbot doing her regular job of protecting researchers while also showing how she constantly has to hide the fact that she is rogue. She of course does not keep her free will hidden for very long, and finds herself in complicated situations she must navigate her way out of. The second book, Artificial Condition, is about Murderbot fleeing the events of the first novella and trying to discover the origins of the event that gave her free will.

murderbot2I say her because I get the distinct feeling that she is written to be female, but that might just be because I have a massive crush on her. Going back to my three pillars of a good novella, Murderbot is both extremely memorable and utterly lovable. There is something wonderfully charming about a powerful rogue AI just wanting to do her job and watch a lot of TV (which is her #1 favorite thing to do) just like anyone else. The first novella has Murderbot mostly interacting with humans (all of which will endear themselves to you), but the second has her spending some time with other AIs to amazing comedic and poignant effect. The characters in this series are wonderful, and you will find yourself caring deeply about their fates after a few pages – one of the hallmarks of a great novella. On top of this, The Murderbot Diaries nails my second and third pillars perfectly. The plot is simple, book one – find out who is trying to murder Murderbot clients and don’t reveal she is a rogue, book two – find out why she went rogue and don’t get caught. However, just because the plot is simple does not mean it is bad. The pacing and flow of the books are amazing, and I found myself unable to put them down from start to finish. I was heavily invested in the mysteries of both novellas and it resulted in me burning through them in a few hours. Finally, I like novellas to have a clear theme with great delivery. In this case I have already spoken about the series theme, a rogue AI defying typical sci-fi tropes, and the execution is flawless. The idea of an AI who just wants to do her job and watch media makes Murderbot seem incredibly human, while Wells’ descriptions of Murderbot’s emotional responses to basically everything simultaneously make her feel inhuman. These two emotions warred within me throughout both books and resulted in Murderbot coming off as an utterly unique character that I cannot wait to read more about.

I have no criticisms of this series other than I wish the books were longer and that there were more of them. Martha Wells achieves in 200 pages what most books struggle to grasp in 500. Murderbot is relatable, alien, adorable, badass, and wonderful all at the same time, and I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t like her. If you have not checked out All Systems Red yet you are making a mistake, and be sure to grab Artificial Condition when it comes out in May (thank you Tor.com for sending me an advanced copy).

Rating: All Systems Red – 8.5/10
Rating: Artificial Condition – 9.0/10

-Andrew

The Armored Saint – Big Power In A Small Package

armoredsaint_revI have been reading a number of short books this month, and it’s making it fairly easy to compare and contrast their strengths. Among the short novels I read, I found a dark horse that I want to draw some attention towards: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole. Some of you might know Myke from his Control Point series, a story about soldiers with superpowers. I really enjoyed Control Point, and Myke’s writing in general, but the subject of the books was not my forte. So I was thrilled to see that he has gone in a new direction and written a story I would describe as part slice of life, part low fantasy, and part Warhammer 40K.

As mentioned, The Armored Saint is a bit of a genre mash up. The book follows the story of Heloise, a young woman trying to get by in a fairly messed up fantasy world. Like many fantasy landscapes, The Armored Saint’s has been ravaged by demons and sorcerers. Out of control magic has wasted away the landscape, and mages are targeted on sight by everyone to prevent additional damage to the surroundings. To deal with the possibility of rogue magic users, the world has an order of inquisitors who ride around and put down those accused of magic use. The plot revolves around Heloise and an interaction she has with one of these roving bands of inquisitors, and the fallout from this interaction. The plot isn’t the powerhouse of the book. In fact, once or twice the plot could be annoying – like when it drew out the power armor reveal that is both in the cover art and title of the book.

However, while the plot might not be my favorite, the book scores unbelievably high marks in character and atmosphere. Let’s start with the characters. Myke Cole’s prose, and vivid writing, does an incredible job establishing the characters in a very short time and draws you straight into their struggles. Character emotions feel real and raw and create a very tense atmosphere where you are concerned for the fate of all of them. On top of this, the crown jewel of the book might be its atmosphere. Heloise is a fairly young, innocent, and naive girl (at least initially). She is thrust into several situations she does not understand, but is smart enough to sense that something about them is off and to be terrified of them. This emotion is mimicked by the book itself as you read it. As you progress through The Armored Saint, you will get the distinct feeling that something is off. Things seem like they are going ok, but you will have this sinking feeling in your stomach that something is about to go very badly. When these terrible moments reveal themselves they capitalize on the build up brilliantly and make for some truly memorable scenes.

The Armored Saint packs a lot of raw emotion and storytelling in a tiny package. While it falls slightly short on story, it is an experience I would recommend to anyone and is one of the best short books I have read this month. Myke Cole is an extremely talented writer and continues to prove he can knock it out of the park with whatever he sets his mind to write.

Rating: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Dawn of Wonder – Dusk Of My Interest

51ffxlj4tvlHello everyone. I apologize for the missed day this week, but I am changing to a new job (as a researcher for the New York Public Library, which is super exciting) and I found myself a little short on time. Accordingly, I wanted to talk about something I rarely mention in my reviews: a book I did not finish. It is uncommon for me to drop a book, as I usually vet my reading material enough that books I won’t enjoy don’t often slip through. However, every so often I find myself reading a book and dragging my feet so much that I realize I should put it down and read something else. Dawn of Wonder, by Jonathan Renshaw, was one such book.

I actually have a lot of good things to say about Dawn of Wonder. The story tells a coming of age fantasy centring around the young Aedan. Aedan and his friends live in a small farming town, making trouble and being generally boisterous. Their lives are turned around when slave traders try to take the town and upheave Aedan’s life. This event ultimately leads Aedan to start training at an academy for mercenaries, hellbent on revenge against the nation that let his homestead be attacked by slavers.

The story is a bit slow at the start, but picks up significantly once Aedan starts training at the academy. Aedan’s unique and defining personality quirk is an aptitude for strategy and tactics that sees him matching wits with seasoned generals in his ability to plan battles. Additionally, Aedan is struggling with some inner demons left from an abusive father that has emotionally crippled him. Watching Aedan attend the academy and pass various trials and tribulations, overcome his inner demons, and plan his revenge is a joy to watch. In fact, in abstract everything about this book is exciting, fun, and has the markings of a great read. However, there are a couple issues with it in practice.

For starters, the biggest issue I have with Dawn of Wonder is the exposition about Aedan. There are constant passages of written exposition about Aedan’s skill and greatness that are awkward, rip me out of the story, and make Aedan feel like an unrealistic ‘Gary Sue’. In one of the earliest chapters, two retired war vets comment aloud (with no context) that Aedan is one of the smartest, coolest, greatest, strategic minds in any book ever, and he’s only a teenager! (I am hyperbolising but this is what it felt like). These aggrandizements soured me on Aedan really, really quickly and made it hard to get attached to his character in any way. Additionally, the inner demons segments of the book are really heavy handed and handled in a melodramatic way that I thought was over the top, further distancing me from Aeden.

These writing problems dissociated me from Aedan as a character so much that I found myself having no interest in continuing to read a book that was otherwise a lot of fun, With a little more show, and a lot less tell, this could have been a favorite of mine. There was no reason that Renshaw couldn’t have just used the academy and the various trials to show Aedan’s brilliance in a much more natural setting. If you can move past the initial bragging, this book might be a home run for you, but I unfortunately got about 40% through before I put it down.

Rating: Dawn of Wonder – 4.0/10 (DNF)

On Ursula Le Guin – Forever Dreaming

On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.

esea-pe-woe

“I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” 

I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.

lathe-heaven

“You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” 

There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.

ursula_le_guin_left_hand_dispossessed_cover

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” -The Dispossessed

It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.

-Andrew