The Ember Blade – A Modern Lotr In Many Ways

51asw0iub3lIn a very strange twist of events this week I ended up talking to my father, who doesn’t read much fantasy, for several hours about Lord of the Rings. He was interested in some of the characters and wanted to talk through their motivations for a project he was doing. Over the course of the conversation, I was reminded just how powerful and well written Lord of the Rings is, as well as just how high a bar it set for all the books that followed. This is why The Ember Blade, by Chris Wooding (a favorite author of Quill for his Ketty Jay series), is such an accomplished book. If you heard me mention this book before, it was probably from our “best of” list earlier this month (found here), where The Ember Blade slide into 19th place as the final book I read this year before making the list.

As I mentioned in my brief description, The Ember Blade is not a particularly innovative book. The book follows a group of adventurers, who fall into the range of classic fantasy classes (ranger, thief, warrior, druid, bard, etc.) as they embark on a quest to find a legendary sword. The book is told from a number of POV’s, but primarily follows Aren – a fairly typical “farm boy with a destiny”. The plot feels like a reimagining of The Fellowship of the Ring, where a group of unlikely companions come together to do something with a relic of power to save the world. However, despite its clear similarities to the grandfather of all fantasy, The Ember Blade never feels like an out-and-out copy. Instead, the book feels like a new epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into, while paying tribute to the series that started the genre. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head.

The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. The conflict revolves around understandable tensions between two nations: The Krodan Empire and Ossia. Ossia was conquered and colonized by a martially superior Krodan Empire and currently is occupied and governed by the aforementioned nation. The Ember Blade, the namesake of the book, is a sword that essentially works like Excalibur (conveying kingship onto whoever holds it), and our group of characters set out to steal it and start a revolution. The relations between the two nations are interesting and nuanced and both Krodan and Ossia feel like they have a well-developed identity and culture. In addition, the magic in the book is often subtle (much like LotR), but when it is present it is both imaginative and exciting. It really is a world you can get lost in, which is good because there is a metric butt-load of time devoted to worldbuilding. Have I mentioned this book is absolutely massive at close to 900 pages? We will come back to that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the cast.

I honestly expected Wooding to trope out on his cast. With such a large set of characters, it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them. Which again, is good, because they would need to be engrossing to carry your attention through the 900 pages.

The only problem I really had with The Ember Blade was its (surprise, surprise) colossal length. It is really hard for me to objectively judge if the book was too long. Longer books often present difficulties for reviews as they eat away at the time that could have been spent reading shorter books to make additional content. That being said, I do think that the first 20% of the book is a bit drawn out due to slow pacing. The actual story of the book doesn’t start until page 200 – but those 200 pages are still perfectly enjoyable chapters that establish the cast. It is really that I just found myself much more engrossed in the book for the back 600 pages compared to the first 200. However, I firmly believe that this book is worth your time despite its huge size and slow start.

To reaffirm what Wooding himself said, The Ember Blade is a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective. The book does an incredible job of melding everything that made Lord of the Rings incredible with all of the lessons the genre has learned since to create a modern classic. Mark my words, The Ember Blade will rise to a must-read on most fantasy lists in the next ten years so if you want to be ahead of the curve go check it out as soon as possible.

Rating: The Ember Blade – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The Rise and Fall of DODO – Extinction Should Be Permanent

51DmqLz01PL._SX335_BO1204203200_I absolutely detest books that feel like work. I don’t mean books that make you work to understand and finish them, but books that remind you of what it is like to wake up in the morning to go to a job you find utterly dull and unsatisfying. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (DODO for short), by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, is one of those books. At a whopping 750 pages, it demands the reader’s time and rewards them with very little. As my previous reviews have shown, I can stick through a book – but folks, this one took a toll. It has a paper-thin plot, boring characters and a grating lack of tension. DODO fails as a satire of bureaucracy as it builds to a mediocre conclusion that feels like a lead into a more defined narrative.

DODO is the story of a government agency – D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations)- that uses magic to travel back in time and create an alternate reality similar to our own present-day world. The story follows historian and linguist Melisande Stokes who is recruited by Tristan, a handsome and mysterious government agent, to do translations of ancient documents detailing the use of magic. They discover that magic existed at one-point, but vanished sometime in 1850. When the pair discover that magic and quantum mechanics are intertwined, they set out to recruit a team of witches and quantum physicists. Quickly they discover they can travel back in time, but to change the present, they must go back several times and affect different universes so that the majority of realities accept the changes they have made. As the department grows, a shadowy but ill-defined government organization begins to take control, and internal tensions grow and D.O.D.O.’s as-yet unstated mission changes.

The story is mostly told through Melisande’s eyes in a series of journals from the past recounting D.O.D.O.’s activities. Melisande, as she is quick to point out, has been sent to the past just weeks before the event that stops the use of magic as most witches know it. While this is set up as the main conflict in the story, much of its narrative tension is quickly dissolved. The reader is consistently reminded of this problem, almost jokingly every several chapters. That way when it finally is remedied, the reader could say “gee that was certainly a close one”. Luckily, this monotonous pace is broken when the journals switch between other characters recounting events, each with a somewhat distinct voice. Over time, however, the various journals start to feel more superficial and thin. Each one has an opening style that is intended to divulge something about the character, such as a diary entry, or the beginning of a letter, but rarely is it deeper than a street puddle. On top of that, all the entries essentially recount how the writer watches other characters do things while rarely participating themselves. I often felt extremely removed from the story, as though I was watching a commentary track where the reviewer filmed themselves explaining the movie while watching the real film on mute.

Luckily, the reader is spared having to read the same event in detail whenever the past has to be revisited, but they still have to read about it. It is hard to put into words how tedious it felt reading about the same event several times. Each time the characters did their job just a little more cleanly, with a little more finesse than the last time. For the video game nerds out there, it felt a lot like watching someone else play Dark Souls. Frustrating watching another player slowly get better at fighting a particular boss until they beat it, but you got to share in zero of the accomplishment. Then you had to watch that process, again, and again and again. It was almost as if the book was made purposefully big and heavy to smash your skull literally and metaphorically. Luckily for you, I did not, but boy was I close.

The characters were equally uninspiring, feeling like cardboard cutouts of stock characters. Melisande is a shy bookish type who mostly stands in the corner, and besides her first trip back in time, rarely contributes. While most of the book is written from her point of view, she mostly recounts how everyone else was doing all the work. Tristan is the gallant and muscular, yet geeky, hero who has a cute butt that Melisande and the other women unfailingly and constantly mention in their own narratives. He is gentlemanly, learns how to fence and never fails to be charming. He knows how to get the job done and has no noticeable flaws. If he does not know something, he goes away to learn more about it and comes back with a software update. Erszebet, a sassy witch from the nineteenth century, could easily be the most interesting character but she is treated like a finicky mechanical device. She is the only plot adjacent character who has a legitimate stake and power in the book. She essentially slows down her aging process to meet Melisande in the present, after being warned by her in 1850 about the end of magic, in the hopes to bring it back. But ninety percent of the time she just stamps her feet till she gets threatened with “no more magic for you” and then sends people back in time. This could have easily led her to be an antagonist with a very good reason but gets put in the backseat halfway through the book.

Unfortunately, there are also many side characters, but they do not have personalities or attributes beyond their physical description. For instance, the coffee shop barista is described the same way every time she enters the scene to the point where I wanted to skip every paragraph in the café because I knew how they would be written. The characters failed to create any of the conflicts in the book, and much of the narrative tension happens off the page. The most present antagonism to the main characters is the agitation created by the increasing levels of bureaucracy within D.O.D.O. and is almost fully ignored to the point that it feels non-existent. None of the characters change or learn anything from their time at D.O.D.O. Their experience often felt like something that happened in their lives and continues to happen, but they get no excitement or fulfillment from it. The single character who presents any sort of threat only chooses to go turncoat at the end of the book, leaving me to wonder if there will be a sequel in which things actually happen.

The theme of the book felt like it was meant to be a satire of bureaucracy and the meaningless pursuits of those who control such a system. It was less a book about time travel and its potential problems, and more about how bureaucracy can take an exciting concept like time travel and turn it into a chore. It was clear that the authors had an idea of how they wanted to portray this, using emails from the HR department detailing proper acronyms, or hidden sound recordings, and the occasional dossier. The intention was to build out a system that would allow for a backward look at the organization, but it ended up feeling overwrought with many different styles. Each iteration feeling shallower and simpler in a way that hoped to piggyback off the reader’s feelings of those systems. It could have been a fascinating look at the minutiae of real life intersecting with magic while grinding down its characters. Instead, it is a monotonous chain of procedurally planning multiple trips to accomplish one uninspired goal. While these journeys would truthfully require heavy coordination and preparation, ultimately it fails as a satire because none of the characters care about the process or how it affects their plans, let alone whether the goal was achieved. No one wanted to improve anything, and they remain complacent enough to put up with all the red tape, while never even complaining about the struggles of their job. They accepted whatever happened and moved on to the next unimportant task. It felt like the authors built a delicate Rube-Goldberg machine, and then kicked it over halfway through its cycle, and then laughed at you for caring. It just made me fatigued.

In the end, DODO was flat out boring. Honestly, I think the events of the first one hundred and fifty pages feel analogous to the whole book, so if you decide to read it you can stop there. The whole book followed a cycle of building momentum and anticipation, only to reveal a weak and uninspiring result. It is possible that that was the authors’ goal, but even if it was, it did not accomplish anything. It did not have a bite that made me think “yes, this is how it feels!”. The characters were unaffected. Unlike me, they did not become angry, depressed, or annoyed, nor did they appear to feel cheated by having their efforts amount to such paltry results. There could have been a fun book here if the mechanics were played with. The ideas were genuinely intriguing, and if the characters had more blood and life to them, maybe the realism of magic and time travel could have been a good joke against them. Instead, I felt that the joke was on me and that makes me sad and tired. Luckily for you, I already put in all the work to let you know this book is a disappointment, so you can avoid that pain for yourself.

Rating: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – I would rather take a cheese grater to my eyes than read more of this/ 10.
-Alex

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – Borderlands Meets Ready Player One

SuitsDavid Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits takes off at an epic pace and never slows down. Really, this futuristic sci-fi fever dream treasure hunt reads like one long crescendo, with some tasteful dips and peaks and some dull moments. As near-future over-the-top sci-fi goes, the novel carves its own niche and tells an interesting story, even if it’s a bit shallow. Protagonist Zoey Ashe receives news of her estranged father’s death, then immediately dives into a world of booze, crime, and loads of money. While she knew of her father–and his insanely enormous bank account–she didn’t know him. Turns out he was essentially the Godfather of Tabula Ra$a (yeah, that’s how it’s spelled), a desert city that can best be categorized as Las Vegas amped up tenfold. He was unbelievably rich and left something in a vault that only Zoey can open. She’s whisked away into the juiced-up sin city by holographic text messages and muscle cars, tracked the entire time by the feed of an all-seeing crowdsourced social network.

Her adventure to open the vault flavors the novel with a veritable smorgasbord of sci-fi wonderment that’s slightly reminiscent of Ready Player One, but without the needless onslaught of 80s nostalgia. [Mild Spoiler] The vault actually turns out to be a MacGuffin, and the crux of the novel sees Zoey coming into her own as a cog in the gears of Tabula Ra$a. Zoey’s journey after the book’s first third launches her headfirst, and with little preparation, into a battle with artificially enhanced thugs and a supervillain. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits wastes no time introducing countless action tropes with fresh twists. But Zoey and the surrounding plot are vastly overshadowed by the sheer wonder of Tabula Ra$a. The city’s starring role cannot be undersold. Wong weaves a setting of unparalleled vibrancy. Tabula Ra$a, built on the backs of criminal millionaires and fun-seeking hooligans, bursts with light, color, and life. It’s the type of world that begs to be explorable in a video game, and Wong knows precisely how to play that angle with fitting descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, buildings, and politics.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits struggles, though, when it comes to character. Zoey herself is a premier example. She cracks jokes and engages in witty banter, but that’s her whole schtick. Wong often uses his female protagonist as an excuse for lackluster innuendos, which mostly fall flat. It doesn’t help that Zoey is way out of her league relative to the trendy, cunning elite that keeps her company throughout. Her father’s former employees all ooze perfection in one way or another. They’re all dressed to the nines and oddly amazing at what they do. In fact, each is painted as so infallible that even the interesting backstory they’re given does little to flesh them out into more than one-dimensional secret agent archetypes. There are a few exceptions to this rule; Zoey’s bodyguard, Armando, is the best of them. He provides comedic relief and boasts a relatable and human backstory. Still, exceptions like Armando just aren’t plentiful enough to salvage the tepid characterization.

Like Tabula Ra$a as a setting, the book’s plot plays into the quirky nature of Wong’s oddball near-future. When robotically/surgically enhanced thugs start causing trouble and terrorizing the city during a hunt for Zoey, she and her cast of spy sleuth action heroes have to take the offensive. To be clear, the plot works and fits just fine within the world, but this book could have easily been about Zoey dealing with her Dad’s death in a completely foreign environment while adapting to a new life, and I would’ve liked it just as much. Essentially, the plot serves as a decent device and not a pillar on which the book could stand alone.

On a more genre-related level, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits yearns to be appreciated as its own unique brand of sci-fi that encapsulates elements of modern times, super-feasible near-future gadgets, and insanely advanced technology. In this regard, it clicks, and Wong’s treatment of his world and the characters within makes for a serviceable start to what could be, with some polishes and tweaks, an amazing sci-fi saga. Of course, that’s if he decides to write it as a series. For now, the novel accomplishes a bevy of sci-fi tasks and falls short on others. With an interesting world and loads of action, it’s a worthwhile romp with its fair share of flaws.

Rating: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – 7.0/10
-Cole

The Best Of 2018

The end of 2018 is finally upon us, which means it’s time to talk about the best books of the year. 2017 was one of the best years of Sci-fi and Fantasy I have lived to talked about, so it is no surprise that 2018 had some difficulty following its incredible performance. That being said, despite being a weaker year there are still a number of fantastic books that came out this year. If you need gift ideas for a friend or family member that likes fantasy or sci-fi, look no further than any of the entries on this list. As always, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 21 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. Without further adieu, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2018.

51ifgjed8sl21) The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith by Jon Hollins – When I first came across the Dragon Lords series, it was clear that I had found a diamond in the rough in need of a little polish. However, while the first book had some flaws, Jon Hollins showed massive improvement in the sequel last year, and the finale this year. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. Bad Faith has a lot of laughs, a lot of failures, and a boatload of people learn how to be slightly less garbage. Jon Hollins is improving as an author with every book that he writes and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to next.

91mf49yikml20) The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – A sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant, this unique series focuses on cultural warfare and how to crush one’s enemies without lifting a sword. Monster had some small pacing problems, but they failed to detract from the book’s increasingly complex and fascinating world and thrilling political intrigue. Despite an almost entirely new cast, Monster continues to draw readers in with characters you love to hate and hate to love. Dickinson’s prose is some of the best in recent times and his worldbuilding is both complex and compelling. The ending of Monster gives only a small hint of where the story will go next and readers will be hotly anticipating the next book until it is in their hands.

51asw0iub3l19) The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – The only book on the list we haven’t had a chance to review yet, and one of the few non-sequels, this mammoth piece of writing is a call back to classical quest fantasy. There is little innovating about The Ember Blade. It is a coming of age story of a hero with a destiny on a quest for a magic sword. However, just because the book doesn’t have a completely original plot, doesn’t mean it is bad (there is a reason things become tropes). With a relatable cast, a surprising amount of humor, and descriptive prose that brings the world to life, The Ember Blade is an easy book to get lost in. The only thing that keeps the book from placing higher on this list is its extremely slow pacing. The Ember Blade is a fantastic tribute to classical fantasy with a Wooding twist that makes it all the better.

3552056418) A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – Drama is the name of the game in this larger than life debut novel. Big characters, big fights, big magic, and a big plot – this book is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The cast starts out rough and unlikable, but is quickly chiseled down into characters you can dig into. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. The book is an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction, and I wish more people would try similar genre mashups. Big Ship is the strongest debut I read in 2018 and I can’t wait to start reading the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, when it comes out later this month.

mealing_bloodofthegods-tp17) Blood of the Gods by David Mealing – Mealing’s massive debut book, Soul of the World, was a top contender on the 2017’s best of list. He has followed it up with an equally massive sequel less than a year later that continued to knock my socks off. Blood of the Gods continues Mealing’s philosophy of go big or go home. When Mealing first put out Soul of the World I believed he had decided to focus more on telling an imaginative story than on one that was polished and streamlined. After reading Blood of the Gods, I have realized that he was playing a long con, and that he is actually somehow doing both. With over 40 magical powers, this book is chaos incarnate and I can only imagine how much planning must have gone into a storyboard and world of this scope. Mealing has managed to get me to reassess his skill as an author with his second book, Blood of the Gods. While I initially thought he was a crazy imaginative author who might need a little polish; now I think he is a crazy imaginative author who clearly knows what he is doing. You won’t find another author who can pack more magic into a page than David Mealing.

port-of-shadows_full16) Port of Shadows by Glen Cook – This might be a controversial pick, but I can’t help who I am, and who I am is a massive The Black Company fanboy. Glen Cook is one of my absolute favorite authors, and his newest entry into his pivotal The Black Company series is a welcome one. A book for longtime fans of the series, Port of Shadows answers a number of lingering questions leftover from the plot of the original books. It adds a layer of depth to characters I already loved, and I really appreciate that his book exists. Port of Shadows has all the hallmarks of a Cook classic: an unreliable narrator, a visceral brutality, a depressing tone, and more mystery than a cryptogram inside a labyrinth. Those of you who haven’t read The Black Company will likely want to steer clear of this one, but those of you who have – welcome home.

3592153615) The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – This book guaranteed itself a spot on this list by making me say the words “I really liked the love triangle”. I don’t even know where to start with The Defiant Heir. The sequel to The Tethered Mage, Caruso’s second book surpasses its predecessor in every possible way. It has a great cast, intrigue that will keep you up late reading, and a world full of magic that is fun to explore. However, what elevates The Defiant Heir to one of the best books of 2018 are two things. First, a dedication to a theme that we don’t see enough of in the fantasy genre – the idea that with power comes responsibility (#spiderprincess?). And second, a love triangle that I an genuinely invested in (something that has never happened before) and that explores the first theme I just mentioned. The two men in the triangle represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. It was a bold choice on Caruso’s part that paid off in spades and made this one of the best reads of 2018.

3888951014) Charmcaster & Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell – Fun is king. One of two double entries this year, de Castell managed to put out two books in his Spellslinger series that claimed a spot together. There is really nothing more to say about these books than reading them was some of the most fun I had this year. The series continues to be charming, imaginative, engrossing, and easy to read. Reading these books gives me the same cathartic rush that I felt when reading Harry Potter as a child, and there are very few books that can come close to that feeling. De Castell has continued to prove that he is one of the best fantasy authors of this generation and that anything he touches is almost guaranteed to be worth your time. If you haven’t managed to get your hands on Spellslinger yet there are now four great books to dig into, but be prepared to stay up all night reading them back-to-back.

51iif0eja4l13) Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron – Speaking of fun. A large chunk of my free time this year was spent burning through all five Heartstriker books by Rachel Aaron. Although only Last Dragon Standing can make it onto this list (due to when it was published) collectively reading this series was one of the best parts of my year. Aaron has made a fun urban fantasy that moves at breakneck speed and has more delicious family drama than a soap opera. Unfortunately, a large part of the appeal of these books is their fun plot – making them very hard to review or talk about. However, take note of the fact that Last Dragon Standing managed to claim the spot 13th best book in 2018 and use that as a guide as to whether or not it is worth your time.

81s4snnvywl12) Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeRevenant Gun closes out one of the weirdest science fiction series I have ever read. While the first two books in the series were extremely confusing fun, Revenant Gun finally takes us behind the curtain in Oz and shows the reader what is actually going on in the books. Lee has proven that there is method behind the madness and you can trust him to deliver an incredible reading experience, even if you don’t quite understand what is going on. Revenant Gun gives a great send off to some of the most interesting and lovable characters I have read about in the last few years and solidifies The Machineries of Empire series as a top pick in the science fiction genre.

veil-of-spears-front-cover-sm11) A Veil of Spears by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The Song of Shattered Sand is shaping up to be one of my top epic fantasies ever. Every year Beaulieu puts out a new gargantuan book and each year it delivers an excellent read. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story. The stakes are getting higher, the world is getting cooler, and I am growing more and more attached to the characters. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizarro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story.Veil is book three of six in this giant sandy epic, and the series really feels like it has hit its stride. There is no better time to jump into Beaulieu’s incredible series and I will continue to advertise it for free until everyone picks up a copy.

512phkhzbnl10) Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells – Welcome to the top 10 of 2018. Up first we have everyone’s favorite AI finishing out her last two novellas. I love Murderbot. I love her… them… it… you get the idea. Last week when we were making out list of our favorite female protagonists there was a serious discussion if Murderbot counted, because she is one of our favorite protagonists of all genders. The Murderbot Diaries have just been one delightful surprise after another. Novellas this short have no right being as powerful, fun, and poignant as full length novels – but they are. Wells has a real talent for characters, and her murder and media-loving AI is still one of the most relatable characters I read about this year. Murderbot is now getting full length books due to their rampant popularity, so if you haven’t checked out these novellas yet you are doing yourself a grave disservice.

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.indd9) Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence – Grey Sister had huge shoes to fill following our #3 pick from last year, Red Sister. While this less vibrant sequel did not quite live up to its predecessor’s glory, Grey Sister still continued the Lawrence tradition of delivering pulse-pounding action in an enigmatic and engrossing world. Grey Sister has a laser-focused plot and the pacing of a dragster with an open throttle. It introduces us to new POVs, such as Abbess Glass, that do a lot to expand the scope of the story and help the reader grow closer to the collective cast of the book. I tore through this stellar sequel in less than two days and I am counting the hours until I get my hands on the final book in the trilogy.

a19o2yo0d2bl8) The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan – All of the top ten books this year were hard to place, but The Empire of Ashes was a particular thorn in my side. Ryan has been slightly controversial for a number of years due to the ending of his Raven’s Shadow series. However, I don’t think there is a single reader who will argue with me when I say Ryan absolutely nailed the finale of his second trilogy. The Empire of Ashes delivers an unbelievably climatic end to a series that has been a rollercoaster from start to finish. Lizanne might be the most badass protagonist I have ever read about and she is only one of a number of brilliant characters that litter this series. Each book in the Draconis Memoria has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot, is a step up from his past work. The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and that’s after it started off strong.

tumblr_oi336wcpw81vla796o1_5407) Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey – As always, I like to roll the December Expanse books over into my next years list, as they are definitely one of the best books of any year they come out in, but have a hard time making it onto lists due to their release dates. Persepolis Rising marks the start of the final story arc in the Expanse series, and despite still being two books away I am not ready for this ride to end. Persepolis Rising was one of the most emotionally stressful books I have ever read. I have been reading this series close to a decade now and I am heavily invested in the characters and plot. Watching this behemoth of a series slowly maneuver into its final arc is like watching the health of a loved one slowly deteriorate. The book is amazing, but it is starting to feel like I am saying goodbye to a lifelong friend and I am just not ready yet.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb6) Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – It takes a lot of guts to take a tried and true cast of characters and throw them out the window, but that is exactly what Nicholas Eames did with his second book Bloody Rose. Eames decided to ditch his characters from his previous novel, Kings of the Wyld, in favor of a fresh cast and a new story. It is a true testament to his skill and imagination as an author that Bloody Rose is just as good as its hugely popular predecessor. Bloody Rose once again demonstrates Eames supreme talent for weaving themes into books. Each of the characters embodies a different form of relationship with their parents and they collectively speak to the many flavors of hardship that arise between parent and child. All of this is done in a magical setting, with charismatic characters, satisfying combat, and an engrossing plot that will keep you reading late into the night. With two brilliant books out in two years, I think it is safe to say that Eames is one of the best up and coming authors and a man you will want to keep an eye on in the years to come.

288110185) Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan – Another year another step closer to the top of a best of list. Wrath of Empire shows McClellan continues to improve with every book he writes. This book is the realization of all the potential that the Powder Mage Trilogy had and hopefully a herald for a new caliber of McClellan books. Wrath has flawlessly completed the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought-provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is one of the strongest books of 2018.

Foundryside RD4 clean flat4) Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett – I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. The first book in a brand new series, Bennett introduces readers to a new cast to fall in love with and a host of new imaginative terrors to keep them up at night. The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Foundryside is a really good book, and effortlessly slides into the number four spot on my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth everyone’s time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.

202009_13298883) Circe by Madeline Miller – For anyone who knows about Circe, its high place on this list should be no surprise. I have read a lot of Odysseus books, many of them incredible, but Circe is likely the best. Circe is the kind of book that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. The power of this book is in the prose, which might be some of the best I have ever read. Miller’s language is on par with the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing. Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career.

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_2) The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – Smart, imaginative, otherworldly, and a perfect commentary on society today – The Will to Battle is my second favorite book to come out in 2018. The Terra Ignota books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. The plot of these books is like a 20 dimensional onion, each new layer revealing new concepts and ideas that I have to sit down and work to grasp. Reading The Will to Battle felt like going to a job, but one that I loved and was wildly passionate about. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. The Will to Battle sets up the series perfectly for an explosive conclusion and I have no doubt that this unique science fiction series will be considered a inspirational classic in years to come.

y6481) Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – If I am being honest, 2018’s competition for best book wasn’t even close. It was always going to be Record of a Spaceborn Few. I really don’t have the space to express how much I loved this book in this huge list, so I implore you to please take a moment to read the review in the link. Record is a quiet, contemplative, and slow story about people who make their lives in space. The book moves like a beautiful symphony, each character telling a personal story that weaves together into a beautiful whole. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. There are no end of the universe threats lurking in this book. Instead, Record speaks to struggles all of us have gone, and are going, through and sets them in a wildly imaginative and engrossing science fiction setting. It has the wonder and creativity of any of the best sci-fi books I have read, with a cast of characters that rival any of the best traditional fiction I have read. This book affected me more emotionally than anything else I have read this year, smashing my heart with character tragedies and stitching it back together with victories. Record of a Spaceborn Few is The Quill to Lives’s #1 book of 2018 and I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Andrew

Fourteen Female Protagonists Worth Your Time

This week a few readers asked us to talk about our favorite female protagonists. We have always wanted to write a post about our favorite women leads in fantasy and sci-fi, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to do it. Four of us sat down and came up with fourteen of our favorite lead characters (we left out anyone from Malazan as we could do an entire post about the female leads in those books). If you are looking for powerful female leads, we promise you that this list will not disappoint. The characters are in no particular order, but we have numbered them to make this huge list easier to read.

vin-by-miranda-meeks-web-703x10891) Vin (Mistborn) Let’s get her out of the way, all of you knew she would be on this list: Vin. I absolutely loved following Vin’s storyline through the Mistborn series. She grew up facing true hardships: beatings, starvation, fighting off unwanted advances, and a harsh older brother who always tried to instill the belief upon her that you can only ever rely on yourself. If there’s one thing Vin learned from her childhood, it’s to be a survivor. But the best part of her story is seeing her evolution. After growing up with people constantly trying to take advantage of her, she falls in with a group of rogues that treat her as a full member of their team. She finally gets to experience trust and friendship and, as part of their exploits, love. In fact, Vin’s love story is one of my favorites across all the novels I’ve read.

Vin suffers from the same imposter syndrome that many of us feel, myself included, and it was extremely life-affirming to see her gain confidence in her own abilities while struggling to accept that she was worthy of the trust and love of the people around her. It’s rarely easy to feel like you fit in with a group of people you admire, and my heart ached sympathetically whenever Vin was down on herself, but that only made me cheer harder when she rises up and lets herself shine.

23548791-_sy540_2) Essun (The Fifth Season) – It’s so hard to talk about why Essun is such a great character without giving away one of my favorite eye-opening moments of The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. Considering the title of the book is the term used to describe a time of apocalyptic change that occurs semi-frequently, and the fact that it’s a three book series, it goes without saying that Essun is resilient. She lives in a harsh world and has suffered more than most in it. At the same time, she’s had moments of joy that most in her world have never matched. It’s a combination, especially when taken in whole at the end of the series, that creates a character whose defining trait is a melancholic sense of moving forward and accepting the hand one has been dealt.

I would never want to be Essun, her life is tragic and her world is harsh. I do, however, want to be like Essun in certain ways. Her sheer determination, her resourcefulness, her willingness to sacrifice for those she loves. Her story is the saddest on this list, but it’s also the most moving and it challenged me the most emotionally. The two of us here at QTL who have read the series have been badgering everyone we know to read this series just so we can have more people to talk about it with. It is worth setting the time and emotional battery power aside to read this difficult, painful, and beautiful series.

259721773) Lizanne Lethridge (The Waking Fire) – In a time where readers are looking for the next badass woman to showcase that women can be tough too, Lizanne stands out from the crowd. Having recently read Legion of Flame, I have gained a new appreciation for Lizanne as a character. Sure, she is a badass super spy with special abilities, but she is also supremely competent and confident in her skills. She prefers nothing more than getting a job done and displays one of the fiercest drives I have experienced in any character. What makes her one of the most interesting female protagonists is her conflicts rarely involve improving her ability to fight. Fighting feels like a roadblock to her, just a thing that must happen in order to achieve her goals. She is incredibly adaptable to any situation, being able to read a room and become the person she needs to be, and Ryan is a good enough writer to make you feel Lizanne trick herself into being that person.

One of my recent favorite character moments involves her, and a man, interested in her romantically, discussing who she is. He mentions that he hates “what the syndicate turned her into”, and with a quiet confidence she responds with something akin to “this had to be inside me from the beginning, otherwise they would have nothing to mold”. It was such a small moment but incredibly cogent moment. And to feel it imbued with her voice in such a succinct defense of who she was while being said to a man who had only an inkling of who she was, was so powerful to me. I only wish I could carry the same confidence that Lizanne has infused within her bones.

22876618-_sy540_4) Ashara Thivani/Komayd (City of Stairs) – Anyone who reads the site regularly will know one of our all-time favorite books is City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. No small part of this love is due to the books incredible protagonist, Shara. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history. When confronted with mysteries and challenges in the novel, she uses this historical knowledge to find answers and solutions that no one else can. She is an agent, a scholar, and a brokenhearted woman with a deep story. The more time you spend with her, the more complex you realize she is, and the more you get to see her grow. She is the niece of a man who threw the world into chaos and disarray, and so has a complex relationship with the people she works to save. She is in love with a man she cannot have, but only loves him the fiercer for it.

Shara stands out among all protagonists, not just female, as a unique and powerful character. Her strengths are a bookish intelligence, an unparalleled wit, a warm and caring heart, and the conviction to always do what is right no matter the cost to herself. She is everything I aspire to be in a person, and if I can live my life with a shadow of a resemblance to how she lives hers – I will die knowing that I have spent my time on this earth wisely.

mulaghesh03-web5) General Turyin Mulagesh (City of Blades) – Have we mentioned we love the Divine Cities Trilogy? The only series to contribute two characters to the list, these books are great for female leads. Our lead lady from book one, Shara, steps down as the leading voice in book two. In her place, a side character from the first novel, Mulagesh, takes over as the primary protagonist. An older woman in a high ranking role in the military, Mulagesh’s story in City of Blades is one of seeking redemptions. She has a brilliant mind for military tactics, is excellent in a fight, and is surprisingly funny given her rather dour disposition. Mulagesh is haunted by the sins of the past, both hers and others. She is a woman who has seen the absolute worst of war and came out realizing that no cause is worth the atrocities she has seen. So, when Mulagesh is dispatched to a city in a state of rebellion she will do anything to keep the simmering conflict from coming to a boil. In this, as with many things, she fails.

Mulagesh is a walking tragedy that shattered my heart into a billion pieces. Her story is one of repeated failure, and the tenacity to stand back up again and keep going. Mulagesh has an inner strength to her that is a wonder to behold. Her refusal to stay down, persistence in the face of failure, wonderful personality, and loving heart make her one of my favorite characters of all time.

bobbie_draper_by_jujufei-d9rnrd76) Bobbie Draper (The Expanse) – If anyone can claim the title of first love in a book, it would be Bobbie Draper. I first read Caliban’s War a few months after it came out, but only can put my admiration for Bobbie into words from a recent re-read. She is the stereotypical tough grunt female marine but brought to life. She is patriotic but pragmatic and willing to see the world as it is, instead of just how she wishes it were. There is something so immediately and organically dynamic about her. Her introduction to The Expanse was explosive and heart wrenching, and her attempts to cope with it humanizing in a way I had not dealt with at the time. The authors saw something in her that went beyond badass female with a penchant for kicking ass and opted to make her a human being with fears and anxieties from her near-death experience. But she also carries every scene she’s in with energy, exhibiting empathy for those around her.

Honestly, I could gush about her for ages, having the best traits of a longtime friend who’s always been there for you. She is admirably tough and tender and knows exactly how much force to apply, physically and emotionally. She will put herself on the line for you, and even knock some sense into you when she feels you need it. I implore you to read the Expanse and experience the thrill of being in her head when she puts on her power suit for yourself.

10510641-_sy540_7) The Lady (The Black Company) Lady, from The Black Company, is probably one of the few female characters I have a complex relationship with. Certainly, it does not hurt that she has 10 books to form that relationship, but she also starts off on the wrong foot with the reader. How can she not be when she is the evil Empress of a dark empire and uses powerful magic to oppress and control the people around her. Not only that, she is in control 10 of the most powerful sorcerers and sorceresses known as The Taken and is rumored to have killed her own twin sister. I do not know about you, but all those facts made her evil and ruthless in my eyes. I do not know if I ever would say Lady is badass. She is too cold, calculating and pragmatic to be awarded such a bombastic descriptor. However, this is where she shines. Rarely are women in her position afforded the characterization she gets. Her focus on the facts, the easily recognizable details and finding whichever ways she can to hold onto her power, with minimal damage was refreshing.

Eventually, the reader gets to see more of what drives her from her POV, and how incredibly detail oriented she is as the series continues, and over time she won me over. She is an excellent example of a humanized villain whose crimes are not forgotten, least of all by Lady herself. Seeing someone with her power, use her skills with such care and introspection to make sure her actions line up with who she wants to be, all while learning to deal with her past make her a light at the end of the tunnel. She is there to show us that it is okay to look towards the future, even if we have hurt people in the past.

threepartsdead_1508) Elayne Kevarian (The Craft Sequence) – Before I wax lyrical about how awesome Elayne Kevarian is, I want to point out that The Craft Sequence has an incredible number and diversity of female leads. Tara Abernathy the young professional craftswoman, Kai Pohala the transgender priestess, Cat the addict cop and avatar for a lost goddess. This entire post could be about the strong women in these books, but I’d like to focus on my personal favorite. Elayne Kevarian is the main reason Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series is in my Tier One category. Starting off in Three Parts Dead (published first but third in chronological order, a confusing decision Gladstone has discussed in the past), Elayne is introduced to us as a studiously professional Craftswoman who is surpassingly competent, intelligent, and cold in more ways than one. By the end of the novel we’re given a few glances past Elayne’s professional exterior and get a peek at who she really is…still surpassingly competent, intelligent, and professional, but far less cold than we’re originally led to believe.

The development of Elayne’s character from demanding boss to trusted colleague in Three Parts Dead is further explored in Last First Snow, a novel that takes place a couple decades before the events in Three Parts. This time acting as one of the main protagonists, a younger and less sure Elayne deals with extensive and detailed urban planning sessions while the city of Dresediel Lex is engulfed in plague, riots, and magical flame. The stress she is put under in this book and how she handles it is unique, interesting, and inspiring. Her reaction to the ramifications of the decisions she made truly humanizes her. I adore competent characters, and Elayne’s ability to thrive under pressure and trust in her own talents to succeed elevate her to one of my absolute favorite characters.

lighbringer2b14-162bkarris2b029) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) Another one of the warrior women on our list, Karris White Oak portrays strength, quick thinking, leadership, creativity, and tenacity. She’s a member of an elite group of bodyguards called the Blackguard, a unit basically like the Secret Service, whose job it is to protect the Prism – a powerful magician and holy symbol in the world of the Lightbringer series. Karris is particularly inspiring due to her ability to overcome hardships. She grew up in a household that left a lot to be desired in terms of familial love and care, and while she struggles with the results of those experiences, she accepts them and moves past them. While certainly not perfect, Karris shows incredible resilience to what life throws at her, and her inner strength is definitely something I admire.

Since a lot of the power of the magic system in this series is based on creativity and speed, it’s also really fantastic to see Karris at work, that is, battling off assassins and warriors to protect the Prism and the people she cares about. She throws together impressive plans, and if (or more often when) they go off the rails, it’s always fun to see how she adapts to the situation. Karris is a foreigner in the Blackguard, the only one of her people to ever be accepted into the elite force. Despite this, she earns the respect of her captain and the other Blackguard through displays of her skill and determination, and I always found myself cheering hard for Karris in almost every situation.

3021251710) Çedamihn Ahyanesh’ala (Twelve Kings in Sharakhai) – If you are looking for a lady who will have your back in a fight, look no further than Çeda. Çeda is many things: a peerless gladiator, a rebel fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful set of foes, and a girl looking for truth. Her combat prowess is exhilarating to read about and she is one of the coolest protagonists on this list. She is overwhelmingly resourceful and spends a large portion of her first novel as a one-woman army fighting against twelve terrible tyrants.

However, as the series moves forward we get to see Çeda grow, learn, and realized that she cannot do everything alone. As she comes to make friends and allies you learn that beneath her hard exterior she has a good heart and a powerful sense of loyalty. Çeda is someone who has been abandoned in a harsh world alone, and yet still somehow can see good in people. She has one of my favorite qualities in a character: a wonderful talent for making friends in unlikely places. Çeda is simply an impressive person, and a character I would be honored to have as a friend.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb11) Tam Hashford (Bloody Rose) – How do you follow up a fantasy romp about the greatest band (read: band of mercenaries) in history getting back together for one last gig? Kings of the Wyld, the first book in The Band series by Nicholas Eames, was one of my favorite books of last year and the prospect of a sequel not focusing on Golden Gabe and Slowhand seemed like folly to me. I was glad to be proven wrong by Bloody Rose, a sequel following the band headed by Gabe’s daughter, Rose. In keeping with the narrative style of the first, the story is told by someone other than the band’s frontman/woman (read: most famous member). In the first book, Clay Cooper was in charge of narration, in Bloody Rose we’re introduced to Tam Hashford. The only daughter of a pair of legendary bandmates, Tam has dreamed her whole life of going on tour and seeing the various areas and cities that make up her world. After her mother’s untimely death, her father quit the band business entirely and raised Tam himself. After some difficulty getting her father to accept her wish to join a band, she does eventually get on the road and travels with Rose and the gang. The story follows the plot of the movie Almost Famous rather closely, and Tam sees what touring is like outside of the cheering crowds and glory.

It would be easy to lose Tam among the massive personalities of the band members, but it is a credit to Eames that he managed to write such a meaningful and warm-hearted coming of age story in the midst of all the action and debauchery. Coming to terms with who she is as a woman in comparison to her mother’s legend, dealing with the fact that her dreams aren’t quite what she imagined them to be, and accepting parts of herself she never imagined are all topics that are dealt with carefully and meaningfully. Tam is a fantastic character and I hope we hear more about her from Eames in the future.

a1zmg0rj1sl12) Aphra Marsh (Winter Tide) – I was struggling for a while with how to describe Aphra Marsh. To those who have already read the story, it would seem strikingly suitable that it was in the frigid wind of the oncoming Chicago winter that it struck me. Aphra Marsh is Nancy Drew, if she were one of the last unchanged members of a race of Lovecraftian “monsters” (the Men of the Water, or Deep Ones) who had survived the genocide of her people by the American government in a WW2 era internment camp and eventually went on to become a bookseller in San Francisco. I know, it sounds like a weird combo, but it all adds up to one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in years.

Fiercely intelligent, loyal, compassionate, selfless, and possessed of an inner drive to understand herself and her stolen history, Aphra Marsh is who I want to be when I grow up. I could go on for pages about how her desire to relearn her people’s old ways of magic and decision to essentially take magical strays into what can best be understood as a combination of her family and a coven inspires me and speaks to me about the strength of humanity’s better nature shining through even when subjected to unfairness and hate. Luckily, a writer whose talent and skill is magnitudes greater than mine (Ruthanna Emrys) already did. Please go read Winter Tide as soon as you finish your current book.

red-sister-low13) Nona Grey (Red Sister) – We like “Magic Schools” quite a great deal here at QTL, so when I found out about a series that follows a group of nuns training young women to be assassins, poisoners, and spies I knew I had to check it out. I didn’t realize I’d also be getting one of my favorite recent protagonists out of the deal. Nona Grey is a troubled young woman saved from execution by the aforementioned order of nuns and brought into the fold to be trained as a Sister. It is there that she meets a diverse group of young women, most of whom she befriends despite her prickly and difficult demeanor.

Unlike a lot of the women on this list, most of whom we meet as mature adults, Nona is a young and impatient adolescent. She can be irrational, arrogant, hot-headed, and rude. Her tendency to charge into situations bullheaded because of her overconfidence in herself or difficulty in controlling her temper can be frustrating at times, but when she manages to pull it off it results in some of the most breathtaking moments in fantasy I’ve read in years. Nona is a flawed protagonist and narrator, but all blades start as rough metal before they’re forged and tempered, and it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to shadow Nona as she works out her kinks and burrs on her journey to becoming the woman she’s meant to be.

2881101614) Lady Vlora Flint (Sins of Empire) – Vlora is a protagonist with a slightly unique circumstance. Introduced in the Powdermage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan, she is initially a side character with nominal depth and not a lot of screen time. However, despite her small presence in the first three books, McClellan thought she had potential and decided to make her the lead voice in a sequel series called Gods of Blood and Powder. If you are interested in reading Vlora’s story, it will take a bit of (enjoyable) work to get to, but she is worth it. She is the general of a mercenary company and as thus, has a degree of hardness and severity that you would expect in a high ranking military officer. She is a brutal strategist and a literal powderkeg in a fight, but my favorite part about Vlora is her problem-solving abilities and flexibility.

I identify with Vlora because, at a high level, she is someone completely out of her depth just trying to stay afloat. Vlora ends up in a supernatural conflict in which she is outgunned by several orders of magnitude. She is someone who is used to being the biggest stick in a fight and intensely dislikes suddenly feeling powerless to what might as well be forces of nature. However, her aforementioned flexibility and adaptability allow her to work with the meager power she has to devastating results. She is one of the best leaders out of any protagonist I have read, female or otherwise.

Charmcaster And Soulbinder – Fun Is King

While updating my Goodreads reading status for Charmcaster and Soulbinder, books three and four of the YA Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell, I noticed an upsetting fact: Spellslinger has a depressingly small number of reviews for its high level of quality. I have already spoken at length about both book one and book two and mentioned how much I enjoyed them. Recently, Orbit publishing was kind enough to send me ARCs of the next two entries in the series (thank you to everyone at Orbit). I am happy to say that the books continue to be amazing and that I read Charmcaster in two days and Soulbinder in a single night. Now that I have spent four books in de Castell’s incredible world, I feel better prepared to talk about what makes this magical series.

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In short, they remind me of Harry Potter. When I make that claim, I do not mean to imply that the books have similar plots, settings, characters, or even magic – although both books do follow a prodigal wizard as he sets about trying to save the world from magic evildoers. When I say the books remind me of Harry Potter, what I actually mean is that Spellslinger has the same emotional urgency and investment that I felt Harry Potter had as a child. Both series have ok writing, a fairly simple plot, and lovable but slightly shallow characters. However, both series are written with some of the best pacings out of any books I have ever read, cannot be put down once they are started, and most importantly – are just a lot of damn fun.

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I was talking with a co-contributor yesterday as I tried to get my thoughts in order about Soulbinder. Essentially, my issue was I didn’t know what kind of rating to give the book. On the one hand, Soulbinder (and Charmcaster) aren’t even in the top five deepest books I have read this month. They don’t demonstrate prose that stands out in the fantasy landscape. They don’t feel like brilliant works of literature. But, they are possibly the books I enjoyed most in the entire last year. These books are simply a good time. The plot may be simple, but I was more invested in it than the various other webs of intrigue I have read this year. The characters might not be extremely deep, but dear god does Kellen resonate with me. I slip effortlessly into his shoes, understand his woes, and revel in his victories. The prose might not be on par with Tolkien in excellence, but the books make me laugh. They are extremely fun, from start to finish. And as my co-contributor so helpfully pointed out, isn’t that the most important thing about reading?

People read for a lot of reasons: fun, prestige, self-improvement, aesthetics, and more. There isn’t a better or worse motivation for picking up a book. However, I personally will take a book that is fun over any other quality any day of the week. Charmcaster and Soulbinder both deliver fun by the truckload, as do the first two books, and I would recommend them to any reader of any age. They aren’t going to astound you with literary brilliance, but you probably have so much fun reading them you won’t realize what time it is until it is 4:00 AM – and here at The Quill to Live, there is no higher standard of excellence than a book that results in irresponsible reading until the early morning hours on a workday.

Rating:
Charmcaster – 9.0/10
Soulbinder – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Monster Baru Cormorant – The New Face Of War

91mf49yikmlThe Monster Baru Cormorant, which I will call Monster for short henceforth, is the kind of book that damages friendships. The reason I say it will damage friendships is Monster is a book that some people will love and others will despise. It is a book that one friend will read, think it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened, and recommend to a second, who will think it’s highly overrated. This is not to say I have mixed feelings about the novel – I feel the book is most definitely excellent. As the second book in The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the book is one of the most anticipated books of the year and a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. However, I can just look at this book, look at the taste of some of my friends, and know that they will not enjoy it.

This review would be easier if I had reviewed the first book (which I didn’t like an idiot). The plot of these books have had so many twists and turns that it is impossible to talk about what happens in book two without ruining it – so let’s talk about the plot of book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Our story follows the prodigy Baru Cormorant, hence the mouthful of a title. She is a young girl from the island nation of Taranoke, and the plot follows the slow fall and incorporation of the Taranoke into The Empire of Masks – a huge empire that is slowly absorbing all the smaller countries around it through cultural warfare. This is particularly distasteful as Taranoke is a society that openly embraces homosexuality (Baru has gay fathers, and is herself a lesbian) and The Empire of Masks sees homosexuality as a deviance that must be rooted out. Thus, Baru is pulled away from her home and taken to a re-education school, where she is taught both how to be a model citizen and to control her “flaws”. This leads to her rising up the ranks of the empire as an imperial accountant – until she eventually begins a rebellion against them.

This is the general structure of the plot, but the focus is on Baru’s journey through a political minefield and the effectiveness of cultural warfare. There is a boatload of political intrigue, scheming, economic manipulations, conflict of ideas, and spycraft in these two books that are a blast to follow. Baru keeps you on the edge of your seat, giving you enough insight into her mind to grow attached to her, but not so much that you can predict her next move. They are chaoticly fun, messy, books that move at a whirlwind pace. In addition, the prose is also fantastic, with Dickinson being excellent at both lavish descriptions and powerful analogies. I found myself laughing out loud fairly regularly at some of the analogies in Monster. The characters are also phenomenal, even though they can be a bit confusing. All the cast feel like deep three dimensional characters you can sink your teeth into, but they can be a bit confusing due to their sheer number and the lack of textual reminders to their identities.

On top of all of this, the world that Dickinson has developed is one of the best in recent years. In order to sell the idea of cultural warfare, he had to do a great job developing the cultural identity of the players in the book – and at this, he succeeded in spades. Each of the various nations have clear identities that feel unique and original and you will find yourself burning to unlock the secrets of each location. The agents of the various countries do their best to ruin each others economy, annex colonies, introduce problematic ideas or fads, start civil wars, and create a slew of other fun disasters for each other that are just fantastic to watch. The conflicts, especially in Monster, make the series stand out in the fantasy landscape as a breath of fresh air.

So why did I say some people will hate it at the start. Well, for better or worse the book is pretty self-involved. In order to sell you on the various cultures, Dickinson goes full ham on his prose and descriptions. Everything is overly dramatic, poetic, and ostentatious. It creates a really nice aesthetic feel to the book if the reader is into it, but there is also a chance a different reader might reject it as being up its own ass. Someone out there is going to read this book, think it is the pinnacle of original excellent fantasy, and hand it to a friend who thinks it is pretentious garbage.

So where do I stand? Definitely more with the former reader. Seth Dickinson started something brilliant with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that he only improved and expanded on with The Monster Baru Cormorant. The level of attention to detail, execution of original ideas, and emotional arcs of the characters make Monster one of the better books I read this year – and one I would recommend to anyone. Although there is a small chance you may hate it, there is a much, much larger chance that it is one of the best books you have read in recent years.

Rating: The Monster Baru Cormorant – 8.5/10
-Andrew