The Seventh Perfection – Septacular

49247320This is a weird novella, and I am here for it. The Seventh Perfection, by Daniel Polansky, sits somewhere between a full novel and a novella at just under 200 pages. But what a 200 pages it is. The story’s main gimmick is it is told completely from a second-person point of view, and it makes for a strange and fascinating tale. However, there is a reason that most books AREN’T told from this perspective, so did Daniel Polansky manage to use an original narrative technique while telling a compelling story? Yes, yes he did.

The Seventh Perfection tells the story of Manet, but you won’t know that for a while. Manet is a historian of sorts who has mastered the seven perfections. Each perfection represents a difficult skill, including things like perfect pitch and perfect memory. The perfections get harder as they climb in level, and Manet is one of the few who has mastered all seven. Manet is trying to track down the hidden stories of how the current God-King ascended the throne and overthrew the previous tyrant. When her chase starts to overturn stones that were better left unturned, she finds herself on the run from the law – yet consumed with the need to find out what happened.

While the story feels a little tried-and-true, Polansky’s narrative style breathes fresh life into the tale. Because the book is in the second person, we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. Since the entire book is dialogue, the pace is lightning fast, and I managed to finish the entire story in about two hours – every minute of which I spent glued to the pages. It felt like I was reading the book version of a video game speedrun. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing.

The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.

I can’t say too much more about The Seventh Perfection without giving away some large spoilers. Suffice to say, I very much recommend this book to anyone looking for something short and different. Its tiny page count and lack of bulky descriptives mean you will blast through it in about a day, but what a day you will have. Polansky has created something clever, rich, and fun, and I think everyone should check it out if given the chance.

Rating: The Seventh Perfection – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The First Sister – A Little Bit Of Everything, Not Enough Of Something

the-first-sister-9781982126995_hrThe First Sister, by Linden Lewis, is an impressively ambitious debut, and one of our dark horses of 2020. Part space opera, part social commentary, part feminist power piece, and part character-driven narrative, this book has a lot of moving pieces in a fairly small page count (350). It feels like a tiny explosion of everything that makes the science fiction genre a joy to read. But, when you have a book with a low page count and so many ideas, there is only so much you can cram onto each page. The result is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The First Sister is good at a lot of things, but great at almost none of them.

The First Sister tells the story of war across the solar system. Earth and Mars went to town on each other for a long time until all their AIs got up and left to found a more peaceful civilization elsewhere. This left the two planets exposed to the technologically superior outer planets who began to prey on their previous long-time inner planet bullies. Earth and Mars banded together and the solar system found itself in a two-territory conflict with the asteroid belt as a border. But our story isn’t focused on the big picture. Instead, The First Sister tells a very personal story of three characters and how their experiences bring context to the issues humanity is facing.

The biggest protagonist is the titular First Sister. She’s a sort of pseudo nun/sex slave of the Earth/Mars side and she is forced to live her life on one of the capital ships, servicing the troops spiritually and physically. Her voice is taken from her so that she may not complain about what is done to her, but she is allowed some boons. The First Sister is a highly sought-after rank among the slaves and it means that she may only be claimed by the captain of the ship – minimizing her torments. However, we join our First Sister in the midst of a change-up in the leadership of her vessel and her role is in jeopardy – and she will do anything to keep the small privileges she has gained.

The other two POVs consist of Lito and Hiro, a bonded pair of outer planet spies who use neural connectors to link brains. Their link allows them to think and fight in tandem for greater strength and efficiency. When an operation they are conducting goes south, Lito is dishonorably discharged. But, Lito is recalled to service when Hiro goes rogue as the best person to track Hiro down and eliminate them. Lito’s sections involve him tracking Hiro down in the present, while Hiro’s sections take the form of an audio diary that flesh out the duo’s past and why they defected.

The characters of The First Sister are its strong point. All three leads go through an enormous amount of growth over the course of the book and it really helps you get invested in the protagonists. Their stories are interesting and refreshing – plus they each have a lot of personality and depth which makes them feel rewarding to root for. I also have only praise for the supporting cast, which contains a plethora of side characters that do a great job of moving the story along with exciting set pieces and providing a canvas for the protagonists to paint themselves on. Unfortunately, this is where my unfettered praise ends.

The worldbuilding and storytelling in this book is a mixed bag, which is why I transitioned away from them so quickly at the start of the review. The world of The First Sister is awesome, but I constantly found myself struggling with some of Lewis’ new ideas and inventions due to a lack of context. A perfect example of this is I think I correctly described to you which planets are on the two sides of the war, but I am not 100% sure because the sides of the conflict are only talked about once or twice, and even then Lewis uses very vague terms that left me unsure who was who.

Other times, the ordering of information in the book confused me. Lito and Hiro are both masters of these really cool mercury swords that can change shape and style at will. A huge portion of the start of the book shows you how training with these swords is a vital part of how soldiers are trained in the outer rim. But, you are also consistently shown that most combat at the beginning of the book is done with long-range guns that end fights in milliseconds. Thus I found myself wondering “why the heck do they care about swords so much when they have super guns.” Well, near the end of the book it is shown that resources are so thin since the AIs up and left that neither side of the conflict can afford to blow ships out of the sky. So, almost all space battles involve boarding maneuvers to attempt to capture other ships and repel boarders from your own. Thanks to the tight, cramped, and winding ship passages, mercury blades are the most powerful weapon a soldier can use. This turns out to be only one of multiple reasons the reader is shown that the swords are important, but I spent the majority of the book confused about their purpose.

The story itself poses as this massive galactic conflict – but it struggles to make you care beyond the confines of the leads… because the personal stories of the leads are so interesting. The First Sister feels indecisive if it wants to be telling you a macro, or a micro, story – so it tries, and struggles, to do both at the same time. I think the microstories were a lot stronger and the book would have been better served to stick with the smaller tank of the protagonist’s struggles over the fate of humanity.

Additionally, the themes of the book were interesting, but a bit too undefined. The role of the First Sister was fascinating, and her struggles to survive spoke volumes of commentary about the struggles that some women face in the modern world. Yet, the reader is never really given any justification as to why the inner planets have shipbound sex slaves in the first place other than “it would be a horrible thing that bad people would do.” The result is a theme that feels a little divorced from the book because to a degree it feels forced in and foreign to the ecosystem that Lewis developed. For example, we see tons of evidence that homosexuality is open and accepted in the book and gender is fluid. Yet, we are only ever shown women Sisters, even when there are examples of soldiers who desire men. This diminishes the impact of otherwise smart themes, and while I suspect that future books in the series will address some of the worldbuilding issues I had with The First Sister, I needed these answers now to fully enjoy the first book.

Despite its unfocused nature, The First Sister is a captivating read with interesting characters and new takes on thoughtful ideas. I wish Lewis would try to narrow down the scope slightly going forward, or expand the page count to let the multitude of ideas the book contains have room to breathe. The climax of the first book is fantastic and absolutely dug its hooks into my curiosity as to what happens next. Despite a couple of problems, I still recommend The First Sister as a strong debut and one of the better dark horses I have read this year.

Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Emperor’s Wolves – Something Out Of Nothing

51cdzyavlalAlright, so this is mildly embarrassing. The Emperor’s Wolves is the start of a spin-off series by Michelle Sagara. It follows some of the side characters from her sixteen book Chronicles of Elantra series. I did not know this when I picked up The Emperor’s Wolves and somehow didn’t figure it out until I had completely finished the book. Thus, I will be reviewing Wolves as a stand-alone independent novel, but please know that it is part of a much larger world. I have no familiarity with the original Chronicles of Elantra series, but now that I have finished Wolves I am tempted to pick it up.

Wolves has a strong premise that leapt off its back cover and drew me in right away. The book takes place in a magical empire ruled by a dragon emperor. In order to keep the peace between the myriad of magical races that live in his domain, the emperor has a number of specialized forces that handle unpleasant business that crops up from time to time. One of these groups is The Wolves, a band of legally mandated pseudo-assassins that are deployed to bring in, or cut down, dangerous beings who believe they are above the empire’s law. It’s a dangerous job with little upside and a horrible recruitment process – but someone has to do it.

The book is an extremely character-focused story about a young Severn Handred, newest recruit of the Emperor’s Wolves. The story follows his progression from promising street rogue, to the interview process to become a Wolf, and finally to his first case. The story is centered around Severn, and in hindsight is clearly an origin story, but it is mostly told from the perspective of the other veteran Wolves around Severn as they comment and judge his behavior and first days as a Wolf. By moving the focus to outsiders observing Severn, instead of hearing his internal thoughts, two effects are achieved. First, Severn is written to be a quiet and private character, and this narrative style does a fantastic job of reinforcing that. It allows Sagara to have a character who doesn’t like to talk, likes to listen, but still has consistent and meaningful agency to the story. It’s really nice as we don’t often get quiet and thoughtful leads in fantasy, and it made Severn stand out in the larger genre landscape. The second effect this narrative style has on Severn is that it makes him seem really cool/clever/awesome really quickly and very naturally. By never having Severn state his own greatness, and having most of the positive reinforcement come from external characters around him, he organically starts to seem brilliant and mysterious. I was a big fan of the effect.

Something you need to understand about The Emperor’s Wolves is that it is a book about nothing. The entire plot of the book revolves around Severn just walking around and talking to people. While there is a ton of character growth, fantastic worldbuilding, and fun themes around the human condition – nothing really happens. The cast doesn’t do anything other than chat – and that’s fine. I still really enjoy the book and had a blast exploring the world. However, I know that there are some readers who will feel that this story doesn’t have enough meat on its bones and will be bored by its character-focused narrative. The one place I struggled with Wolves is that it has the occasional tendency to be a little too self-absorbed to keep me immersed in the story. I suspect this will be less of an issue for those coming from the original core series, but there were times in the story where the book failed to sell me on the gravity of events and I was momentarily pulled out of the book and it felt over the top. But, these moments were few and far between, and in general, the book was very engaging.

The Emperor’s Wolves is a very enjoyable book on its own, and I suspect that fans of the original Chronicles of Elantra series will love it even more. Severn is an interesting character to focus a narrative around, and the world of Elantra is fun to explore with its variety of original magical races and creatures. The dialogue is fun and snappy, the characters experience meaningful growth over the course of the book, and I had a good time. Although I have no idea what the greater series has in store, I still recommend The Emperor’s Wolves.

Rating: The Emperor’s Wolves – 8.0/10
-Andrew

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – A Bridge To Greatness

81llcanwmulNo no, not this time. I am not letting another book in The Thorne Chronicle series slip under my radar. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge (called Revenge going forwards) is the sequel to How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (Rory) by K. Eason. I somehow missed the first book when it came out last year and I refused to commit the same crime twice. You can find my review of Rory here, and you can find some bonus thoughts on it in our Best of Science Fantasy List here. It’s a wonderful story about female empowerment, everyone empowerment, creative problem solving, and how to use words and diplomacy to solve problems. The sequel lives up to the high bar that Rory set, with some minor change-ups that are worth talking about.

Revenge picks up a little while after the ending of Rory. One of my only complaints about the first book was how Eason handled the ending of the story. In essence, at the end of book one Eason waves her hands, lightly summarizes a number of big events that change the status quo of the universe, and announces that the remaining cast of characters from the book disappears into the void. It felt like a hard reset of all the progress the characters had made in Rory, and I am not a huge fan of major off-page events being quickly summarized in epilogues.

However, this reset did do a great job setting up the stakes for Revenge. Revenge’s narrative is split into two stories, each focusing on a different group of people. One follows Rupert (Rory’s old teacher) and Grytt (Rory’s old bodyguard), which I am calling team parental, as they receive a nebulous message that Rory is in danger and they should try to help her. Their story revolves around locating where Rory has gone, building an alliance to go help her, and trying to avoid igniting a war between different races that have a lot of friction. The second storyline follows Rory and the remaining side characters from book one. After too much time in the spotlight, they have decided to carve out a quiet life as salvagers – until they run into salvage that multiple galactic species are fighting over. So in one story, you have Rory and the crew fighting to stay alive while protecting their dangerous find. And in the other story, you have Rory’s parental figures marshaling the troops to come to rescue her.

It’s a really interesting story with a fun fusion of different science fiction and fantasy concepts that kept me engaged the entire time. The plot is generally satisfying, but the ending once again does the thing where it has a large number of major off-page events announced to you in a few pages. This is a bigger problem for me in Revenge than it was in Rory because it exacerbates the second book’s biggest issue – there isn’t enough there. I very much like Revenge, and the paragraphs following this one will talk all about the amazing things the book accomplishes. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I was cheated out of a full book. While the plot of book two was very engaging, there doesn’t feel like there was enough of it for a single book. I didn’t feel like the story had progressed enough to devote one of three books in a trilogy to this story. I found myself feeling starved of content and really wishing that Eason had explored almost everything in the book more. It was pretty disappointing. I get a distinct feeling that this is a classic “bridge book problem,” where the second novel in a trilogy spends too much time setting up the finale and loses some of its own identity.

Yet, all of these feelings are born from the fact that what is there in Revenge is so good. In Rory, Eason focused primarily on the titular character, and the themes revolved around female empowerment, solving situations that feel like they require violence with words, and exploring the idea of diplomacy more than all parties being unhappy with a compromise. These themes are all there in Revenge, but Eason shifts the focus primarily from Rory and her personal growth to the full cast. She elevates the supporting characters and builds a fleet of protagonists with Rory at the helm. This is a wonderful experience because much like Rory all five side characters that got elevated are amazing. In addition, Eason brings in a whole new set of side characters that fill the void left by the old. The result is the chance to read about a ton of meaningful character growth from six (Rory still grows herself) different personalities. It is a buffet of excellent character writing.

Thanks to the expansion of the character focus, we also get a much larger diversity of themes in Revenge. Rory is still dealing with the problems of being a woman in a man’s world, but she also has a whole slew of new problems that divide her focus. One person is coping with the idea of being loved as a person instead of as a possession. One person is coping with the complete loss of their identity and looking for new meaning. One person is coping with the pressures of duty vs friendship. And everyone is dealing with themes like the first contact, the value of lesser evils, and weighing personal loss against the greater good. On top of all of this, Eason does a fabulous job exploring the nature of friendship. There are a number of interesting relationships and dichotomies between different characters that I never see explored, and it was so refreshing to see a more diverse set of connections.

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic book that checks all of my boxes for something I highly recommend. In my opinion, its only failing is how short it feels, but given the pressures of working in a plague riddled world, it is easy to forgive the book for its singular issue. This series is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, and I highly recommend you find the time to read it. Its heartfelt and emotional take on the bonds between people helped me feel more connected to those around me despite being locked inside to socially distance.

Rating: How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – 8.0/10
-Andrew

A Deadly Education – Learn To Love It

41hu2u1muhlA Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, is a super interesting and clever book. This first installment in her new Scholomance series is a refreshing take on the classic wizard school trope. Novik made a lot of choices in the structure of the book that initially seemed very strange, but actually give Education a lot of character, identity, and differentiation. Novik is a seasoned author, and it’s great to see that she is still able to produce original and imaginative story ideas. Although Education has a couple of missteps, overall I think it is a stunning success and the start to a very promising new fantasy series.

A Deadly Education tells the story of El, short for Galadriel, in a school that is actively trying to kill her, in a good way. In the world of Scholomance, most people can do magic and the world is filled with these horror manifestations that try to murder mages. In order to noticeably lower the death rate among children, a bunch of people came together to build a magical school that serves as a training gauntlet of sorts to make students stronger. While the school still is filled with monsters that try to knife you, it’s treated as more of a learning exercise to prepare you for the real world – where the monsters have much larger knives. I could write an entire review based just on the fascinating mechanical working of the school (the Scholomance), but all you really need to know is that freshmen come in at the top level, the school slowly rotates downwards over four years, and that seniors need to battle their way out of the school at the end through all sorts of demons that have been building up over the years to jump the graduating class.

Not a lot of worldbuilding goes into why the world is this way, but I get a distinct impression that these juicy details are going to be explored in future books. In the meantime, the primary focus of book one is not dying – which is somewhat of an issue for El. Each mage has an affinity, which means they attract and learn spells of a sort more easily. Learning to use your affinity to its greatest potential is how you survive – but El’s affinity is a little unorthodox: she has a natural affinity for apocalyptic spells. While the ability to make a tactical nuke sounds incredible, it’s not super helpful against a lone person with a knife. So while most of El’s classmates are trying to learn how to pack more power into their arcana, El is trying to learn how to downsize almost anything she learns.

El’s problem is a really interesting one and not one I have encountered in fantasy so far. In essence, Novik has built this wonderful paradox where the protagonist has untold power and feels incredible – but her strengths aren’t relevant to her problems. The issues that El faces, namely “not getting shanked,” are clearly defined so that while she feels enormously strong she also feels like she has real difficulties she needs to work through. It’s a wonderful balance that leads to some really interesting problems with unorthodox solutions. Novik never goes too far and makes El feel unrelatable in her strength, and El is satisfying to project yourself onto.

The other really unique quirk of the book is that it contains an enormous amount of exposition. The dialogue is occasional, and the vast majority of the book is composed of El explaining events, magic, people, the school, politics, history, cultures, and anything else you can think of in a running monologue in her own head, diary-style. The book is primarily tell instead of show, which normally would be a recipe for a low score. The thing is, it works for the narrative style of the book. El’s inner dialogue takes a little time to get used to, but it rapidly becomes clear that her cyclical roundabout storytelling has sharp points and that everything she is telling the reader is relevant in clever ways. The narrative feels like Novik drops a giant puzzle onto the table and starts slowly putting it together. It doesn’t always work. Some of the sections feel glacially paced and weighed down by tangents that could have been cut down. But most of the time the narrative all comes together nicely.

The world is grim, dark, and delicious. The Scholomance is kickass, the spells are cool, and the monsters are terrifying. Novik puts a lot of thought and detail into the minutia of her world and it builds to a very well-realized environment that has clear rules. It’s a very different path to the more whimsical styles of other magic schools like Hogwarts. The Scholomance has forms and rules that will be obeyed or it will yeet you into the void. I love this more rigid take on magic that makes it feel closer to studying science or language. The Scholomance feels like an actual school, the reverse of which is a surprisingly common problem with magical school books.

The characters are also interesting. El is an angry, bitter girl who lacks friends. Her penchant for apocalyptic magic has alienated her and makes her life extremely difficult. El starts out pretty unlikable, but as she moves past her anger and frustration and builds connections with others in the school she changes into a lovable rascal. The supporting cast is equally memorable and collectively they transform from a group of strangers into a lovable group of rapscallions that steal your heart.

Novik has drawn some criticism for her takes on various cultures in Education, and I have mixed feelings about it. There is a small selection of passages that contain some racially insensitive ideas. Novik has apologized for these and is having them changed in future copies of the book, which is all we can really ask for as readers. On the other hand, I think these mistakes were made in an attempt to make the book feel as inclusive and as multicultural as possible – i.e., with good intentions. Education takes place on Earth, and Novik goes into detail about how the various countries, and the wizard enclaves that run them, are dealing with hostile monsters. Generally, I really enjoy Novik’s attempt to pull in less used cultures to the book but it seems as though Novik made a few missteps on the way to try to include as many people as she could.

A Deadly Education is a fresh take on one of my favorite tropes and I really hope that Novik turns it into a long-reaching several book series like her Temeraire story. The problems the characters face are unique, and their solutions are thrilling to read. The characters show real growth, the world is fascinating, and the plot is engaging. This book is pretty much the full package.

Rating: A Deadly Education – 9.5/10
-Andrew

P.S. The book as a physical object is gorgeous, so this is one you will probably want to physically own if you are a mixed media reader like me.

Phoenix Extravagant – A Common Fowl

phoenix-extravagant-9781781087947_hrYoon Ha Lee is a science fiction writer with a penchant for the strange and the imaginative. His Machineries of Empire series came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed the pants off of myself and many other reviews. His work has a tendency to be surreal and confusing but with clever guardrails built in to get the reader invested long enough to understand what is going on. Since finishing his first trilogy, he has been a part of a number of different projects, one of which is a brand new stand-alone novel called Phoenix Extravagant. But while the premise of the story initially felt extremely strong, the book’s lack of substance eventually turned me off.

Phoenix Extravagant tells the story of Gyen Jebi, a young person in Razanei who is studying to become a painter. Normally this would be an admirable pursuit on its own, but in Razanei painting is a form of magic. Seals, enchantments, and simulacrums can all be created with the stroke of a brush. Jebi hopes to score well on the national placement exam and test into a strong government position to set them and their family up for life. This causes friction with their family as they are a part of a native ethnicity that has been oppressed and subjugated by the Razanei. However, as long as Jebi can earn a living and survive, they are happy to do whatever the Razanei asks of them. That is until Jebi catches the eye of an experimental division of the government. The group kidnaps their family as hostages and forces Jebi to work on a weapon of mass destruction (a fully animated dragon). Jebi must wrestle with their loyalties, discover what is important to them, and find a way to escape this predicament.

This premise has legs. I really liked the idea of exploring painting as a medium for magic. The first part of the book, which focuses on Jebi studying for and taking the placement exam, is great. The stakes are clear, the objective is relatable, and the painting is fascinating. Where the book starts to fall apart is after Jebi is kidnapped to work on the weapon. I just feel like nothing really happens. There is an interesting subplot between a growing relationship between Jebi and a soldier assigned to monitor them – but the majority of the book felt slow and directionless. The dragon simulacrum is exciting at first, but the plot line doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere. Phoenix Extravagant feels like it is trying to do too many things at the same time and only manages to half-ass most of them.

Jebi is also just a boring character. They have no real personality or identity that I could find, and their actions are mostly dictated by dealing with what is directly in front of them. Their importance to the story feels unearned, and the book’s tendency to continually reveal that Jebi is even more special than originally thought feels cliché and boring. The supporting cast isn’t much better. We spend a ton of time trapped in small rooms with individuals who are uninteresting, so I never really got a good feel for the culture – let alone the differences between the groups at odds. The people and places were generally just unengaging.

I was pretty disappointed with Phoenix Extravagant and have a hard time finding many redeemable features other than its clever premise. After reading a number of Lee’s other works I have the distinct feeling that he could do better than this. If you are desperate for a fantasy book with a mechanical dragon and a focus on art, you might enjoy this – but I honestly think there are better pieces out there for even this niche combination. I, unfortunately, do not recommend Phoenix Extravagant.

Rating: Phoenix Extravagant – 4.0/10
-Andrew

The Vela: Season One – Didn’t Quite Come Together

51-5yjqg17lThe Vela is a (fairly) new serial story that can be purchased in seasons from Serial Box or in collections from Amazon. As a concept, the idea of serials is interesting: the book is written and released one chapter at a time. Instead of having a single author, serials are often written by a group, with a different author handling each chapter. We have also actually covered a serial that we really enjoyed called Bookburners – you can find the review here. The Vela: Season One is written by a group of authors composed of Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers Solomon. All of these authors are individuals whose work I have previously greatly enjoyed, some of whom appear on our yearly best-of lists. This made it surprising when I didn’t really like The Vela.

The Vela is a science fiction drama that reframes how the rich treat the poor through an interesting futuristic lens. The narrative takes place in an original solar system, but to explain it more easily I am going to use ours analogously. So science has progressed, all of the worlds of the solar system have been colonized, but faster-than-light travel is impossible. Mercury and Venus were terraformed early, and they’re home to the wealthiest individuals. Meanwhile, Uranus and Neptune are more problematic and result in a poorer way of life. Then the wealthy of Mercury start to mine the Sun for Hydrogen. This goes on for a long time without issue, until they realize too late that they are diminishing the power of the sun. By the time they figure it out, the people of the furthest planets have essentially had their death warrants signed by the 1%. The planets are cooling and soon will reach lethal temperatures. Given the limitations of space travel, only a few can escape on refugee trips inward – while most will have to sit and freeze to death. The story focuses on a single refugee ship, The Vela, that somehow gets lost on its way towards safety. Our protagonists set off on a humanitarian mission to find and save it, but they find a lot more than they bargained for.

The story starts strong with some very interesting ideas, and I was extremely invested from page one. One of the best things The Vela does is capture the human condition in these refugees and those who are left to die. It is an impressive glimpse into the minds of people in a truly awful position, and it did a great job of reminding me of refugees in the actual world and how we need to help them and how the actions of a single group can have far-reaching implications that we don’t consider. However, while the premise and atmosphere were both fantastic – the story, characters, and writing didn’t really come together.

First off, the story doesn’t really live up to its grand premise. The pacing is a bit clunky, plot points are fairly predictable, and there is a lot of time spent chasing MacGuffins. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the extremely beautiful moments told through diaries and interviews of people doomed to die. They are deeply touching and crystal clear fragments of human experiences – but they don’t actually push the narrative forward. It results in alack of direction that hampers the investment in what is happening.

Second off, the characters feel a bit flat. We have two major POVs, Asala and Niko, and a smattering of minor POVs. Asala is a mercenary hailing from one of the dying planets on the fringe of the solar system. She is contracted to find the Vela, and through her we are supposed to get a glimpse into the psyche of these poor doomed people. Niko is the privileged child of one of the leaders of an inner planet. They join the mission out of a crushing amount of guilt for what their people have done, and a desire to make the world a better place. These two make an interesting duo, but they don’t feel like they have a lot of depth and personality beyond what I have already listed. I did like some of the secondary characters a lot, like the authoritarian dictator who is pulling together her planet after a brutal civil war, but they just don’t represent enough page space to make up for the momentum lost by the two leads.

Third, the writing of the four authors doesn’t blend together well. In Bookburners, I could barely tell when a different writer swapped in. In The Vela, it was extremely evident who was writing at any given time. The different authors have very different foci and voices, and it builds to this inconsistency in the narrative that pulls the reader out. I really liked each of the writers individually, but the end result was a sum that was less than its parts.

The Vela has a strong premise, and it certainly isn’t terrible, but it fails to meet the high standard I have for the authors who wrote it. Each of the authors is fantastic on their own and does a great job creating these pockets of quality work, but the combined product feels uneven and poorly blended. I am mildly curious to find out what happens next in The Vela, but it would take a strong recommendation from someone I trust to get me to pick up Season Two at this point.

Rating: The Vela: Season One – 5.0/10
-Andrew

The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

Dead Man In A Ditch – Jump In

61ei-m9ghjlOrbit was wonderful enough to send me a review copy of Dead Man In A Ditch by Luke Arnold. It is the second book in the Fetch Phillips Archives, and you can find my review of book one in my fantasy cop throwdown here. I was going to hold off on reading Ditch because I was a little lukewarm on the first book, but the absolutely gorgeous cover got to me, and I ended up diving in earlier than expected. In a nice turn of events, Ditch is a better book than its predecessor and mostly leaped beyond my expectations.

If you read my review of the first book in the series, The Last Smile In Sunder City, you would hear me talk about a decent book that had great potential but a bad focus. Sunder tells the story of how Fetch Phillips inadvertently broke the magic in the world, hideously deforming most magical creatures and generally making life worse for everyone. The problem with the first book is it was really telling two stories – one about how Fetch broke the world in the past, and another about how his crimes related to a missing person case in the present. The divided attention of the narrative is problematic as it resulted in neither plotline feeling fully fleshed out. Splitting the reader’s attention made it harder for me to be invested in either story. Ditch lacks this problem.

With the backstory of Fetch established, Ditch is a much more present-focused book that picks up right on the tail of book one. It focuses more on how people are trying to cope after the loss of magic and how they can solve the new problems they are faced with. Fetch ends up with another case, but this time it is revolves more around how the humans (who weren’t affected physically by the loss of magic) are capitalizing on the apocalypse and showing the reader how the world is evolving. There is more of a sense of progression in Ditch, and I found myself more present and engrossed than I did with the first novel.

In particular, the cases that Fetch finds himself in charge of are more interesting and focus more on mystery elements than the tragedy of the apocalypse. Which of these foci readers prefer is likely a matter of personal preference, but I definitely enjoy a whodunit much more than wallowing in the pain of magical creatures 24/7. The one thing I wasn’t a fan of in Ditch is (mild spoilers ahead) that a portion of the book’s plot revolves around an artificer inventing guns. The book treats this as a mystery when it is pretty obvious what has happened immediately after you see the aftermath of a murder. To me, this element of the story felt a bit cliché, and I am fairly tired of reading about “what would happen if a fantasy person invented guns?”

Overall, I definitely do recommend Dead Man In A Ditch – and it was so enjoyable that it makes me want to retroactively recommend The Last Smile In Sunder City more. Ditch shows me that Arnold is going somewhere I want to go with this story, and it makes the slower set up of book one feel more worth it. Ditch was a captivating, well-paced, and exciting story that scratched my itch for mystery and intrigue. I will definitely read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Rating: Dead Man In A Ditch – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew