Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew

The Burning White – A Light(bringer) At The End Of The Tunnel

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_Ending a big series is always an experience that creates a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s nice to finally know what happens after thousands of pages of build-up and investment. On the other hand, there is a strange comfort when there are books still unpublished – and when you realize that no more are coming, you can be left feeling a little empty. In those moments, I often find myself asking “were the hours I invested in reading this story worth it?” When I asked this question of The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks, the answer is a conditional yes.

Last week saw the release of the fifth and final installment of The Lightbringer series: The Burning White. The series has been a tumultuous rollercoaster of emotions, both in terms of story and my reviews. If you were paying a weird amount of attention to our content and rankings you might have seen things like A thought piece by Will Klein talking about how book one, The Black Prism, taught him not to judge books by their first 4th. On the recommendations page, you might have seen the series land in tier one many years ago, tier three for a short period of time, or that it now has found its final resting place in the tier twos. It’s a divisive and evocative story that I have a lot of opinions on, and I’m lucky that I have a platform on which to voice them.

Although we have referenced the series in about 10 different lists and thought pieces, we haven’t actually reviewed one of the books properly until now. A part of this is because it is really hard to talk about the story without giving anything away. For those of you completely unfamiliar with the story of this five part epic, it goes a little something like this:

The Lightbringer Series follows five key POVs (Gavin, Kip, Liv, Teia, and Karris) in a fight to save their world from annihilation. Author Brent Weeks’ world is governed by light where individuals are occasionally blessed with the power to ‘draft’ one or more colors of the rainbow and turn the light into solid matter of the corresponding color. Each color has a unique well-developed identity, and drafting them causes changes to the drafter over time. Drafting is a powerful and dangerous magic that ends in the death of the drafter once they reach the limit of their magic. Once that unknown limit of a color is reached, they are consumed by that color and become a monstrous wight. The one exception to this law of nature is the prism, a full spectrum drafter who is given the responsibility of ensuring the colors are balanced in exchange for unlimited drafting. Color imbalances result in catastrophe, so the role of a prism is pivotal to the survival of the world. The prism is the head of Chromeria, a governmental body that exists as both a bureaucracy and university to govern and educate citizens from all over the world. To protect the prism, an elite core of bodyguards called ‘The Blackguard’ protect them at all times – for the premature death of a prism could mean the end of civilization. Our story follows POV’s that range from The Prism himself to members of The Blackguard, students of Chromeria, and members of the ruling council.

One of the nice things about reviewing series is it’s often easy to talk about books as a group because of how many similarities they share. With The Lightbringer, that is impossible because their biggest shared quality is how different they are. Will, in his aforementioned piece, talks about how the first book, The Black Prism, has a very slow start – but once it finds its momentum it becomes a carnival of delight. Book two, The Blinding Knife, flawlessly takes the baton and serves the reader a cornucopia of twists, political intrigue, action, cool worldbuilding, and excellent character building. Then we hit book three, The Broken Eye, and things change again. Multiple characters you were invested in get sidelined, others you only knew in passing are thrust into the limelight, and the direction and tone of the book take a very large turn. The pacing slows down, the twists become so frequent that things start to get confusing, and the book ends in a very strange place. Then we have book four, The Blood Mirror. Originally, Weeks wanted to write a quartet of books to tell this story. However, when he finished the series he found that he needed more space and time to really do it justice – and expanded it to five books. Accordingly, there was a large delay between when The Broken Eye, The Blood Mirror, and The Burning White (book five), came out. Book four was… confusing to me. I no longer felt like there was a driver behind the wheel, and the story seemed to careen off into a strange new space that I didn’t understand. While I still enjoyed the fourth installment, it was nowhere near the same level of passion that the earlier installments evoked and I was ready to write off the series. Then I read The Burning White.

Looking back at the saga, I think that future readers are going to feel confused as to some of my impressions of the series. The reason for this is because The Blood Mirror and The Burning White are very obviously a book that was split– poorly, in my opinion — in half. So many strange choices about book four make sense when you reach the end of the series and you see Weeks very much stick the landing. While all of the books in this series feel like wild rides where you don’t understand what is going on, The Blood Mirror is the only one that feels like it isn’t a self-contained story. This plus the fact that I had to wait for large periods of time to read The Burning White severely damaged my investment in the series. However, I think that new readers who can read all five books back to back likely won’t have the same problems I had. That being said, I do think that Weeks was a little self-indulgent (which is his right as an author) in what he included and padded the story with. I feel there was a good chunk of content that could have been cut and streamlined to make the books better overall. However, The Burning White does do a lot of things right. The majority of the characters have satisfying endings – Gavin, Kip, and Teia in particular. There are a set of final twists that feel so very good, and make you feel like you finally got the settings on a lens correctly and can see clearly for the first time. The final battle of the series is sufficiently epic with tons of pulse-pounding action and excitement. Finally, there is a lot of emotional pay off that made the faltering journey through these five books feel worth it.

At the end of the day though, The Burning White found the holes in my psyche left by the talons of the first books in the series and dug itself in. Despite going in with low expectations and a resigned sense of duty to finish a series that I had already invested so much time in, I was pretty blown out of the water. The Burning White is a brilliant conclusion to a strong series with some minor flaws. The Lightbringer is unpolished, one of a kind, a rollercoaster with no brakes, and worth your time. Weeks should be proud of what he has accomplished, and in the hollow wake of finishing this massive story, I find myself excited to see what he is going to do next.

Rating: The Burning White – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Little Hatred – If The Shoe Fits, Drop It

35606041Reviewing A Little Hatred, the first book of a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, from the perspective of “should you read it?” is a waste of everyone’s time. If you have read The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings you absolutely know this will probably be the best book that comes out this year, so you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read these books, or don’t know who Joe Abercrombie is, then you should get out of here and go read them. Seriously, please do not keep reading for your own good. As with everything involving Abercrombie, it is best to go in as blind as possible and you will thank me later. So instead, I am going to do something a little different with this review. Without spoiling anything, I will be talking about the emotional gauntlet it put me through. But first, some general bookkeeping about the novel.

If you want to know about the plot, all you need to know is that it takes place a good number of years after the first trilogy and is focused mostly on the children of our characters from the previous series. The characters and action are best in class for the genre, possibly for books as a whole. The worldbuilding is good but might be the weakest part of the book; however, there is a nice focus on the current political climate that will likely resonate and stir up a lot of emotions in readers.

Jumping back to feelings, I would describe the emotional experience of A Little Hatred as ‘harrowing’. Imagine you are trapped in a beautiful room, with lots of nice furnishings and cool gadgets to play with. It creates some nice nostalgia in your brain and you feel warm and happy in the room – like you could live there forever. Then imagine that you are told there is a bomb in the room somewhere with an unknown timer, and after a bit of panicking, you try the door only to find yourself locked in. That is the emotional experience of reading A Little Hatred. At this point in my experience with Joe Abercrombie, I am familiar with the drill. Joe writes something that seems pleasant from one angle but is horrific from another. What I have enjoyed about his books is that even if you know the shoe is going to drop, it’s still incredibly hard to see the foot wearing it.

A Little Hatred knows all of this and leans into it. There is a really clever dichotomy between the older generation who know how the world works, the new cast who are filled with naivete. Abercrombie cleverly writes it so that the reader sitting perfectly between the two generations, is pushed and pulled between them. The novel is a prescription for anxiety that I didn’t want but couldn’t help but be addicted to. One of the things about Abercrombie that is so frustrating, in an intentional way, is his commentary on “progress”. Abercrombie turns his dark meditations towards the ineffable march of human technological progress and the stagnation of human emotion or intellect. It is a depressing paradox that he is unfortunately good at illustrating. One of the things that I want from these new books is for the world to finally see some progress – for humanity to finally improve and grow and get better. A Little Hatred does an amazing job of showing a possible light at the end of that tunnel. But, as only the first of a three-part story, we have no idea if that light will turn out to be a new dawn or a meteor coming to cause an extinction-level event to my trust and love.

A Little Hatred is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, probably the best book I have read this year.

Rating: A Little Hatred – 10/10
-Andrew

Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

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So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew

The Bone Ships – Bone, Brine, Bonds, And Brimstone

43521682._sy475_Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. Fresh off the finish of his assassin-centric Wounded Kingdom series, Barker has launched a new fantasy series about a crew of condemned who are given one final suicide mission to save their country. However, these sailors are anything but, and if they are going to stand a chance they will need to get in ship-shape quickly.

The Bone Ships takes place in a large archipelago, called The Hundred Isles, and the two nations that reside inside of it. Being an island nation, the primary form of warfare is nautical– waged in giant ships made of the bones of sea dragons. Although these ships are incredibly powerful, especially compared to those made of lesser material, the sea dragons have been hunted to extinction so their construction is finite. Without the ability to construct new ships, open warfare between the various islands grinds to a halt as the various groups fear losing their precious ships. However, a hundred years after the final sea dragon was presumed dead, an enormous shape is spotted on the ancestral migratory path of the sea dragons. It seems the dragons aren’t as dead as everyone suspected. Now, with a literal floating treasure trove of war resources on the horizon, The Hundred Isles enters a race to be the first to find, kill, and harvest this beautiful sea creature. Every boat on the sea is after this magical prize. Well, all except one – the Black Ship captained by Lucky Maes who sees an opportunity to end a generational conflict. As the captain of a Black Ship, a bone vessel that has decayed to the point of obsoletion and crewed by criminals, Maes will set out to protect, not hunt, this final dragon. If she can keep it alive and out of the hands of any one nation, she might be able to keep war from reigniting.

Despite my plot summary above, our protagonist in the book is not actually the aforementioned Lucky Maes. Instead, we get to witness the story from her first mate, Joron Twinner. Joron provides an interesting lens from which to experience the story. He starts as a sad sack of worthless poo, and we get to watch as Lucky Maes slowly whips him into a capable and inspiring leader over the course of the book. It is a time old trope that I am not even slightly tired of, and Barker nails the execution pretty fantastically. Once the story hits a “training montage” of Maes teaching the crew of the Black Ship, called The Tide Child, how to work together, you won’t be able to put it down. Unfortunately, the first part of the book drags like a corpse behind a carriage. Despite the worldbuilding being excellent overall, the intro to the book involves a ton of exposition just being dropped on you like a pile of bricks. Captain Maes also feels uncharacteristically shitty as a person (compared to her persona in the book as a whole) in this first bit. She is intensely unlikable, and although I knew she was going to make a turn towards lovable at some point, I almost put the book down.

Although I have some issues with the delivery methods, I am absolutely in love with the world of The Hundred Isles. Sometimes small pieces of the worldbuilding didn’t make sense to me, like I didn’t really get what the purpose of the Black Ships was. However, for the most part, both the larger worldbuilding concepts and the smaller details that support them are delightful. For example, there is some genetic profiling that proliferates the islands as people try to breed the best sailors. Status is conferred to women based on how many children they have birthed, and status is conferred to men based on their physical might and stature, to pass on the best genes. Men must compete to be placed into the slave, warrior, or breeder casts. Although it is fairly bleak and upsetting for both genders, Barker does an impressive job making it feel ‘right’ in the island setting, and that this is a culture that has evolved out of necessity instead of a luxury. BUT, my favorite little detail about this whole situation is what I will forever call the ‘penis pants’ that the highest cast of men wear to show off their fertility and prowess. They are essentially glorified leggings with hundreds of bedazzled arrows pointing to their dick to objectify the crap out of the guys, and I think the pants are amazing. You cannot convince me that they aren’t hilarious.

Yet, while the book can be funny and fun, it also has a grimdark streak that might not be to everyone’s taste. The magic and lore of the world are original but terrifying. Many of the bone ships have ‘ghost lights’ that hover above the decks protecting the vessels. These lights are made by smashing newborn babies, prisoners, and captives against the hull until they die and are absorbed by the bones. Fun. There are also these incredible bird people who can control the wind (which is invaluable on a sailboat) at enormous cost to their personal health. They often end up accidentally killing themselves while trying to force the wind to help their ships. These are just a few of the magics and creatures that Barker shows you in the book, many of which mesmerize and horrify. All of these things have a high level of intensity thanks to Barker’s excellent prose. He has a way of writing with a sense of momentousness that makes every action feel intense and gritty. When he describes sailors loading the ships’ bows, or seeing the sea dragon for the first time, you get these small moments of genuine awe through his writing. He has evocative prose that is an absolute joy to read.

While Joron is our sole lead, the book has an eclectic and dysfunctional cast of misfits that will warm your heart. The Tide Child is a big ship and accordingly has a very large group of people to crew him. Barker introduces you to what feels like fifty individual crew members, makes you start to love them, and then sends them into an unwinnable fight with zero plot armor. You learn pretty quickly that characters you like are not going to make it to the end of the book, and it adds a level of tension to the plot, which I really appreciated. Several of the cast have satisfying character arcs, and if watching people improve is your jam, then this book will hit all the right buttons.

The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that spoke to me on several levels. This book was one of the only escort quests I have ever enjoyed and it was a privilege to watch Lucky Maes forge an incredible crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Rating: The Bone Ships – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Gideon The Ninth – Murder On The Space Wizard Express

gideon-the-ninth-coverI wanted to call this book my sleeper pick for the best debut of the year, but seeing as the book isn’t even out yet and already has a subterranean press version being made it seems like I am not the only one in the know. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, was one of our dark horses for 2019 and a book we have been paying close attention to – mostly because it features necromancers. I feel like necromancers are mages that everyone thinks are cool, but don’t have enough books to scratch my lich. I was super pumped to see a new story about raising undead minions hitting shelves, and the fact that it’s a kickass action-adventure is the icing on the cake.

Gideon the Ninth has an ambitious and complicated premise, so bear with me. If I had to describe it in a single sentence it would be: Triwizard tournament meets murder mystery dinner in space. The setting is a galaxy-spanning empire run by a necromancer so strong he might as well be a god. This “necro lord prime” has nine houses underneath him, each with their own culture, specialty necromancer magic, and noble family. Our protagonist is the titular Gideon, orphan, swordswoman, and slave of the Ninth House. Gideon is an interesting character with a strong sword arm and a foul mouth. She has a bombastic and humorous personality that will have you laughing out loud and rolling your eyes (in a good-humored way). The book as a whole is extremely funny, but I found the humor more present in the first half as book gradually takes on a more serious and emotional tone. She is also a queer protagonist if that is something you are looking for in a book.

The first part of the book details Gideon’s frustrating life as a servant of Harrow, the noble daughter of the Ninth House. After trying to escape from Harrow’s clutches and repeated abuse for years, Gideon is offered a deal: team up with Harrow in a special tournament of champions, help her win, and go free. See, the lord necromancer is looking to build a new council of lieutenants and the selection process is shrouded in mystery. All the characters know is that it involves eight of the noble houses (numbers Two through Nine) sending a swordsperson and necromancer duo to represent them in a competition of sorts at the First House. So, Gideon of course accepts, and the majority of the book takes place in a giant mysterious tower with an eight-way battle royal between sixteen contestants.

God, I still have a lot to talk about and we are already almost five hundred words in. For starters, the characters in this book are stellar. A really good way to tell if a book has interesting characters is if you can remember, and differentiate, twenty-seven god-damn archaic names thrown at you all at the same time. Muir does not make it easy to remember who is who, with the reader meeting 10+ people all at the same time and casually rotating between referring to them by their first and last names depending on who is talking. But, she made it work. Every character is interesting, complex, memorable, and evocative of their unique identity on each page, which both helps you keep everything straight and get invested in the story. Shout out to Septimus, the enigmatic and studious royal of team “Eighth House” for being my crush – he’s super cool. However, all the characters were enjoyable and there wasn’t a single one I would change. In addition, Muir gave each of the houses a different take on necromancy, which was very exciting. It was like getting eight entirely different necromancer books at the same time.

Mum’s the word on the actual competition in the book, as figuring out what the competition actually entails is half the fun. The characters are left in this giant magical ‘Tower of Babel’ type structure, with no guidance, and told simply to go to town. This does a great job to stoke the reader’s sense of curiosity and urgency while reading the book, while also creating this tense atmosphere of distrust between all of the characters as no one understands the rules of the “game.”

The worldbuilding in Gideon The Ninth is a complicated and nebulous topic, as I think it is a strength and a weakness of the book. As a strength: Muir has some really cool and interesting ideas. Necromancy, in my humble opinion, is hard magic to make fun and exciting – as it traditionally just involves raising undead minions. Muir manages to make classical takes on necromancer magic fresh and exciting, as well as invent several cool new takes on the magic. In addition, she does all of this in space, which just adds another layer of complication to the subject. The houses are all interesting and felt like they have complex histories that are breeding grounds for conflicts. The tensions between houses in the book feel organic, and you get a nice feeling of this huge space empire where each house takes on a different role.

However, while I think all of the above positives about Muir’s worldbuilding are true, I also think that the world-building can feel extremely piecemeal at times. While houses feel unique and well fleshed out, this is only true about the houses that Muir takes time to talk about (which is about half). The other houses are left completely unexplained, and it can leave the reader frustrated. While you will get these nice little details on how this space empire runs, a lot of what is going on is left completely unexplained and the reader needs to be comfortable with being left in the dark. I got the sense that Muir built out this very intricate and well-realized universe, but then didn’t explain enough of how her world works in the book so that you get this sense that you are missing a ton of information. It can also create this sense of “false depth,” where the worldbuilding seems deep on the surface but lacks the small details to really breathe life into the world. I think a lot of these worldbuilding problems stem from plot relevancy. It often feels like Muir wants to keep how her world works secret, and the only details you can pry out of her hands are the worldbuilding that is immediately relevant to the story. In the end, it gives the sense that Gideon the Ninth is less the first book in a series, and more the first half of a really good incomplete book.

All things considered, Gideon The Ninth is an ambitious, engrossing, creative, hilarious romp that stands out in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has some issues, but they do little to detract from the pure unbridled joy I felt as I tore through this debut. Gideon The Ninth is likely the strongest debut of the year and is one of the funniest books I have read recently. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly. Don’t sleep on this dark horse, go check out one of the best books of the year.

Rating: Gideon The Ninth – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Rivers Of London – Fine, I Will Read The Rest

61r8uqibqcl._sx324_bo1204203200_So it’s basically Dresden, but British.

That might seem reductive and lazy to say, but honestly, if you like the very popular and well known The Dresden Files, and you like British stuff, you will love this. That is not to say that Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, is in any way a rip-off or a copy. Rivers of London is an original, extremely British, urban fantasy about a cop solving supernatural crimes in London. It just shares so many strengths, and weaknesses, with The Dresden Files that it felt worth pointing out. But enough with the comparisons, let’s talk about Rivers of London on its own merits.

I was hesitant to jump into the Rivers of London series as its currently ten-ish (hard to say with all the side stories) books long and seems to show no signs of slowing down. As a reviewer, that represents a huge time sink, especially because reviewing sequels in a series gets progressively harder. However, I picked up a signed copy of the first book the last time I was in London (thanks Forbidden Planet) and it finally came up in my reading queue. This might seem like the annoying life story before an online recipe, but I promise I will come back to this paragraph and you will see its importance.

In the meantime, the plot of Rivers of London is fairly simple: our cop protagonist, constable Peter Grant, has just finished his training and is awaiting assignment into a London police specialty division. While investigating a strange murder in the center of the city he has an encounter with a ghost and finds out he has an affinity for magic. Thus, he is assigned to a somewhat secret paranormal magic crime division that only has one other member – his new magical teacher. The rest of the book essentially bounces between two focuses: slowly solving the murder mystery and exploring the world of magic in London. I honestly found the murder mystery to be a bit of a letdown. The plot didn’t really feel like a true murder mystery, where I had a chance to figure it out on my own, but instead was more of a series of unrelated magical events that lead to the characters explaining to the reader what was going on. It didn’t feel very satisfying or compelling and is definitely one of the weaker aspects of the book.

On the other hand, the worldbuilding is incredible. As I read through the book I found myself dreading every time the narrative shifted back to the murder and away from establishing the lore and magic of London. The book is incredibly English in its mannerisms and attitudes (most people’s reactions to learning ghosts are real is something along an emotionally suppressed “alright then”). We get to interact with legends and lore from London’s history, meet cool ghosts, visit iconic locations, and watch Peter start to become a magician. Peter spends a decent chunk of the book training and learning new skills in a Hogwarts meets night-school setting, and I love it. It’s a slow burn and you really feel the emotional payoff as Peter starts to dip his feet into the ocean of mages.

Speaking of Peter, he is an interesting protagonist. We spend the whole book inside his head, but there is a strong support cast. His personality is an interesting mix of mild incompetence, wanderlust, curiosity, and innovation. He is also a black lead if you are looking for a book with a non-white protagonist. There are about ten reoccurring side characters all with fun and varied personalities, but the support cast MVP award definitely goes to Peter’s superior and mage master: Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. He is an older mage with a cultivated air of mystery and works as a perfect foil to Peter. Nightingale is old school, and you get the sense he has been doing this police work a LONG time, and Peter does a good job providing value to the duo by being more familiar with modern police techniques and technology. They make a fun mash-up of science and magic that makes Peter feel useful while he slowly learns magic.

However, the book does have some issues. As I mentioned before, the monster-of-the-week mystery in book one is a bit boring and unintuitive. Hopefully, this is a problem that is simply confined to the first book and the next crimes will be more captivating. Additionally, there didn’t feel like there was much set up for an overarching narrative across the books so I hope there is more of that in book two. Rivers of London is also definitely… written for men. I don’t know if I would call it sexist, as there are women with agency and complex roles, but it certainly objectifies them to an exhausting amount. Seriously, if I have to read about another character casually “pressing their breasts” against another part of Peters’s body I will scream.

Here is where I circle back to that earlier paragraph. When I finished Rivers of London I had a decision to make: was the book interesting and fun enough to set aside the time to read its pile of sequels when I have limited time? Well if you have read the title you will know my answer is yes. There were some problems with the book, but the foundations and foreshadowing that Ben lays down in book one are extremely promising and the world alone was enough to get me to reserve book two at the library. So congrats Ben Aaronovitch, you successfully got me to commit to a tantalizing and huge series in a packed release season. I hope you are happy with yourself.

Rating: Rivers of London – 6.5/10
-Andrew