The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes, manages the impressive feat of being, and not being, a military science fiction story at the same time. It has all the trappings of a military science fiction: age-old alien threat to humanity, the grizzled old general who kicks ass, a new recruit who is complete garbage but shows potential, and more terminology and army buzz words than you can shake a rifle at. But, it’s actually about a group of soldiers doing their best to man a lifeboat and retreat from an oncoming calamity. Against that backdrop, the military aspect feels like window dressing. This makes the book feel very refreshing and the exact kind of hot take that I look for in one of our Dark Horse debuts.
The book follows two POV characters: Rake, the grizzled kick-ass general (called a Titan in this instance), and Cavalon, an exiled prince who has been thrown into involuntary military service as a fresh recruit. Both of them are members of the Sentinels, a group of universe gatekeepers made up of banished criminals whose job is to sit at the edge of the known universe and watch for attacks from hostile alien species. The book starts with Cavalon showing up on the Argus, the giant defunct capital ship that Rake commands. They go through the usual new recruit tropes (insubordination, creative punishment, moments of distinguishing valor, and slowly building respect on both sides). However, the wrench thrown into the formula comes when the universe starts to rapidly contract and begins eating all of existence. Now this crew of criminals on a busted ancient ship must find a way to save themselves before reality around them ceases to be.
The meat of The Last Watch sits upon a tripod of foci: Rake’s backstory, Cavalon’s character growth, and the mad sprint for survival from the shrinking edge of the universe. Rake is a decorated war hero who has been banished to the edge of the universe to babysit a bunch of criminals. Obviously, she has done something spectacularly awful to end up in this situation, and Dewes parcels out the juicy details at a glacial pace (in a tantalizing good way) over the course of the book. Some of her story beats are a little too trope-y for my taste, but she generally is a great character with a fascinating past that I was on board with.
Up next we have Cavalon, who was a mixed bag. He’s a spoiled brat, and a rake (which is ironic, given the other character’s name), which works nicely as clashing personality points to make him interesting. He is also desperate for Rake’s approval, which was an interesting character growth hook that I liked a lot more than I expected. But, I found that a lot of his sections felt extremely contrived and it often sucked me right out of the story. First, we have the fact that we have a derelict spaceship that suddenly needs to outrun the edge of the universe – so it’s so lucky that Cavalon, with his 3 spaceship repair degrees, arrived the same day. Then we have the fact that he is obsessed with “cutting the shit” – a request Rake makes of him early in the story. She essentially wants him to stop creating problems and just be a productive member of the team, but Cavalon makes being unproblematic his entire personality. There was a particularly unpleasant series of events where Cavalon gets tortured to the point he almost dies by another squadmate, and he doesn’t report it because he doesn’t want to be difficult?!?! WHAT? It just goes a little too far to be believable, and I wish his entire deal had been reined in a bit.
Finally, we have the mad dash for survival – and this is actually where the book shines the most. The escape from the boundary of space is exciting, and the various set pieces that the crew jumps around in their escape keep the book moving at a great pace with a lot of memorable scenes. The one problem I ran into a few times was struggling badly with understanding Dewes’ descriptions of actions. Despite rereading some scenes 5+ times, I just could not figure out what was happening in certain space maneuvers. I was left scratching my head when I was supposed to be exulting in moments of character triumph, which could be frustrating.
All in all, I definitely liked The Last Watch and recommend that you check it out. There are certain pieces of it that I struggled with, but the sum is definitely more than the parts. Its strange combination of characters and plot creates a wonderful vehicle for a wild and memorable ride and the character stories have me fully invested and excited for the sequel. I just hope that between now and the next book I find a way to better understand how to read some of Dewes’ big moments.
The Helm of Midnight, by Marina J. Lostetter, is a book with a lot of ideas. The first entry in The Five Penalties series, I find myself at a loss as to whether to recommend it or not. On the one hand, Lostetter has built a world just brimming with interesting rules and magic. On the other hand, getting into that world felt akin to wading through concrete. While I ended up wanting to continue the series by the time I finished Helm, there were a ton of instances where I almost quit the book and relegated it to my DNF pile. Yet, through clever writing, compelling mystery, and plot lines that I just had to see come together, Helm managed to keep its grip on me to the last page.
The back of the book will tell you that Helm is a story about chasing a killer who has donned a mask of one of the world’s most infamous mass murderers in order to gain his powers of destruction. Once I got into the book and started digging around I found this preview to be laughably oversimplified. Helm is a world of rules. The first page you will read shows the dictates of the five gods who rule over reality and what they expect of you. Violating any of their decrees will result in a horrific penalty, which is where the series gets its name. Existence in the world of The Helm of Midnight is more malleable than our own. The magic of the world allows people to store abstract concepts and emotions in physical objects. For example, emotions like joy and despair can be imprisoned in gems and then worn to evoke the desired feeling. When a person dies, their skills and abilities can be captured in a death mask that allows a wearer to recall their abilities. Oh, and the entire world exists in a giant bubble dome that keeps out apocalyptic flora and fauna that would obliterate humanity in a heartbeat if it got in. The only thing the barrier doesn’t keep out are the vargs – which are sort of like werewolves with special abilities depending on their breed. Some can teleport, others can read your mind, others can turn invisible. Vargs represent the largest threat to the world as they can’t be killed, only reduced to a mist that is then captured in bottles and stored in vaults. All of this just scratches the surface of the minute detail and whimsically grim nature of Lostetter’s world, and on top of all of this we have an intricate plot.
The story is split into three POV’s in three different time periods. We have Krona in the present, a cop who is trying to track down a lost mask of a serial killer and stop whoever is wearing it from killing more people. We have Melanie in the near past, a young girl who is trying to save her mother by wearing the masks of healers. Finally, we have Charbon in the distant past, the aforementioned serial killer who is living his life as a successful doctor.
The three timelines act as set up, catalyst, and execution of the mystery of the book. In Charbon’s period, we see a talented and kind doctor trying to save everyone and we wonder how this man became the mass murderer we know him to have been in the present. In Melanie’s period, we see new elements and rules introduced that start to change how we perceive the world to work and open up new possibilities. In Krona’s period, we get to see the payoff of all of the setup, but mostly we get to see her talk to her CI about nothing for a whole lot of pages. Maybe I just don’t like cops, but I struggled to be invested in Krona’s story – which is a bummer because her POV is easily the one with the most page space. I felt like nothing ever happened in her segments, while with Charbon and Melanie I was constantly learning more about the mystery that permeates the story and about the world that it takes place in. All three plot lines eventually do all come together, and I felt the book picked up massively at this point. However, this nexus is deep within the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if people dropped out halfway through.
Part of the problem is that while Lostetter’s worldbuilding and themes are fantastic, the prose can feel lackluster. She excels at grim imagery and violence but somehow seems to struggle with imbuing her worlds with excitement and feeling. Many scenes were objectively horrifying in their nature but had little resonance with me as I struggled to empathize with multiple members of the cast. The characters are wonderfully complex with a ton of potential, but it can feel like a lot of that potential is left on the table thanks to the language.
The Helm of Midnight is certainly a unique read with a lot of new imaginative ideas. If you feel bored by the current sea of fantasy offerings and want something off the beaten path, this book will definitely scratch the itch. But, beware of the slow ramp-up speed. The series is definitely going somewhere, it just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The first book provides an interesting blueprint, but I mostly see the potential of something to come instead of something concrete I can hold onto.
I have to tell you, kind reader, I am kinda over Arthurian retellings – or at least those that don’t have anything new to offer. There is an absolute butt-load (technical term) of books that tell the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Personally, when it comes to classic iterations of this tale as old as time, I think you can just read The Once and Future King by T. H. White and call it a day. I just think that the classic iteration of Arthur is kinda boring and we don’t need 45 books about how he yanked a sword out of a rock by virtue of cosmic destiny. But, interesting new takes on the Arthur legend with big spins, well now I might be game.
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, as the astute of you will have guessed from the title, is a grimdark retelling of the legend of Arthur with a focus on brute force being how he earned and kept his throne, not the divine right to rule. I suspect/hope I don’t need to give you a rundown of the plot of the book, By Force Alone follows the lore of Arthur more or less but with a couple of fun twists along the way. Where Force differs from other books in the genre is its focus on Merlin and Uther as the primary points of view. From this position, it serves as a major critique on divine right, stating that force alone and a tyrant’s willingness to use it secures the power of kings.
A focus on Merlin isn’t revolutionary in Arthurian tales, but this Merlin is certainly different. Tidhar paints Merlin as an “eldritch parasite” and I honestly could not come up with a more fitting description. Instead of your usual wise older teacher, this Merlin is young, shifty, manipulative, and obviously self-centered. He feels less like a mentor and more like that advisor character in Disney movies that is clearly the actual villain. When I started By Force Alone I was concerned that it might just be another grim-washed clone with hollow characters and I am happy to say that the cast has great depth. Merlin is an awful human, but he has layers of mystery and complexity that make him a fascinating POV to ride with. Merlins segments were by far the best and it felt like reading a new book whenever he took center stage.
The other character who steals the show is Uther, Arthur’s bombastic father who is often not talked about. Arthur actually doesn’t show up until a good way into the story and we begin our tale under the iron grip of his father. Uther is an awful tyrant to his core and builds the foundation upon which Arthurs criminal empire of knights will rise from. Uther doesn’t quite have the complexity of Merlin, but his POV is something I really haven’t had much time with when it comes to Camelot stories and it did definitely add a new dimension that I enjoyed.
As to the themes, I like them but I don’t think they are particularly poignant. I approve of the idea that the divine right of kings is bullshit and that history likely has painted conquerors with a golden brush when their legacy is actually stained by blood – but it’s not exactly a revolutionary take. While it’s fun to explore the idea of Arthur as a tyrant I don’t know if I needed a 400-page book making a detailed argument I think a lot of people would already agree with in this day and age.
Arthur himself, as always, is pretty boring as sin. In this instance I think that was the point, demonstrating that Arthur is nothing more than an idiot that was put on a pedestal, but that doesn’t actually make a very compelling character to follow. I don’t derive a lot of pleasure from seeing awful people bring about their own undoing with no outside agency, but that is a personal preference and I am sure that many will enjoy watching Arthur own himself.
In the end, By Force Alone does a great job distinguishing itself from other Arthurian tales through great characterization and original themes. But, the book didn’t give me a lot to think about or contemplate and that made it end up feeling a little shallow at the end. Still, if you are looking for a fresh take on the Knights of the Round Table then this could definitely be up your alley. It is probably worth reading for Tidhar’s brilliant Merlin character alone, but I am a hard sell on yet more stories about the jackass who yanked some metal out of a rock.
Welcome back to another curated special list of hidden finds that will dazzle and delight. This piece is a follow-up to the hidden gems of fantasy which you can read about here. If you find yourself tired of reading the great and famous minds of science fiction and are looking for something a little more on the DL and with some fresh takes, I have some books for you. Below is a list of science fiction series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. These books are criminally underrated and have a ton of great ideas and stories that deserve to see the light of day. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big.
The Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – I don’t usually go in for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one stands out among the pack. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Puzzlers are people with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like caches of technology that are scattered across the world. These boxes are hidden away in dangerous mazes and dungeons and contain treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. Diving into dungeons for lost technology became one of the major forms of progress in the new world, which made puzzlers extremely important as they are the only ones who can unlock the nodes. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube, and I liked that a lot. The book is grim and dark without being depressing and it knows how to keep you coming back to puzzle out its many questions.
Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – If you are looking for an irreverent laugh, this might be the entry for you. The plot of Mechanical Failure revolves around a disgraced engineer being continually placed in fish-out-of-water scenarios. The book reminded me strongly of a whole slew of post-apocalypse/tragedy games where you try to figure out what happened to create the huge mess you are presented with; except instead of horror, Mechanical Failure reaches for humor. The book is quite funny, with a sense of humor along the lines of the classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The characters are constantly being placed in humorous paradoxes with terrible outcomes. In addition, the book has no problem making fun of several sci-fi tropes and can be refreshingly original in many places. While the mystery of what is happening in the book is fairly obvious, the real power of the comedy comes from the hilarious detective work the characters produce as they discover it for themselves. The characters are all original, relatable, and interesting, and the prose was simple and clean. The book is very easy to read and I found myself losing track of time as I flew through it.
How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon, and a genre that is often overlooked. It’s about a fairy princess that eschews being rescued in order to save her family’s galactic empire. Thorne leans more towards science fiction, with the fantasy sprinkled in for some magic realism…in space. The formula works well for the book as the magic always feels like a subtle catalyst that keeps the plot moving and keeps things interesting without overstaying its welcome or stifling character achievement. Its pacing, storytelling, tone, and genre-blending are all uneven, but they serve to enhance the power of the narrative instead of detracting from it. Rory is a relatable and endearing protagonist that you would need a heart of stone not to like.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – If I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly meets Fast and Furious meets National Treasure. Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic spaceship crew with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. They are searching for a lost ship worth more money than a person can spend. The book just radiates energy and action. It feels like being locked into a cocaine-fueled nitro boost in a drag race. It has this blockbuster energy that paints the story set-pieces as these vivid events you can picture with perfect clarity and I cannot wait for it to be picked up for a visual medium. Grab yourself a copy if you want to be able to say you read it before it got big.
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman – The Half-Made World is a book that is fundamentally about order and chaos. Taking place in a world reminiscent of the American West that is quite literally only half-finished, we are introduced to a conflict between the Line and the Gun – representatives of order and chaos. These two forces are embodied by demonic spirits who use human emotions to enslave operatives to their service. The Line are housed in great Engines that push forward the ideas of industry and progress. They build monumental rail lines that cover the West, flattening anything in their path in order to build orderly stations and factories. The Guns prefer a more personal anarchy-driven approach and like to inhabit the weapons (guns) of their bearers, whispering into their ears like a warlock’s patron. They shape their operatives into killing machines, with both regenerative powers and speeds faster than the eye can follow. Between these two awful sides are the innocent people of the world that get caught in the crossfire as the two sides fight for dominance. The Half-Made World is a bombastic ride from start to finish that uses hyperbole and intensity to add new life into an age-old conflict. If you are looking for something loud and gritty, look no further.
Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter – German philosopher Immanuel Kant explains the “noumenon” as a thing in itself or something that exists beyond the realm of human experience, whereas a phenomenon is something that can be explored and related to through our senses and emotions. Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is a novel as intricate and thought-provoking as the idea from which it draws its title. From the very first chapter, she plays with the reader’s sense of right and wrong. The characters especially help to sell the ideas at play in the book. They feel incredibly human. Their lamentations and inner thoughts felt relatable as they opened up to themselves or others around them. Every character feels imbued with the author’s own experiences of sadness, shock, anger, ambition, hopelessness, and ultimately with her curiosity. It’s a deeply moving book that more people should give the time of day, and it’s a definite hidden gem.
Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe – Reading Velocity Weapon is joy synthesized with breakneck thrills, and it’s a drug that does not lose its potency upon repeated use. The story takes place in the far future of humanity, centered on a single star system (called Ada) that seems to reside on the borders of a greater human civilization. It has a single jump gate that leads to a wider universe populated by humanity, and two planets that are competing for control of the gate. Our narrative revolves around two siblings that are central to the conflict but are separated in time by thousands of years due to an accident. The story is about how the past informs the present, and how these two individuals can find a way to change the timeline to make a better future for everyone.The book is a non-stop roller coaster that just never ends. O’Keefe slams the throttle to ludicrous speed from the opening chapter and does not let up. I found myself constantly amazed with O’Keefe’s ability to weave back and forth between the two stories and hanging on the edge of my seat to see how they came together. I am confident that this book has what it takes to pull you in and never let you go, check it out.
Recently I had a strange conversation with a gentleman on Twitter. We had posted an update about what our reviewers were reading, and one of the selections was The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This gentleman got upset that we were giving attention to such a well-known series. What this random person didn’t realize is that it’s important for people in our position to read the big popular series to make sure we have topical context when reviewing other things. However, while I was informing the rando politely that he should shove off, I found myself thinking, well why don’t we also put out a piece on series that should be getting more attention than they currently do? So, below is a list of fantasy series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big. Links to our reviews are in the titles.
Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund – Blood of an Exile is a book with powerful characters, a rich world, and a fairly inventive plot. While Blood of an Exile is also very much an action-packed adventure fantasy, it is primarily a story about amateur scientists desperately trying to keep humanity from destroying the Earth for fiscal gain – an angle I was not expecting and loved in equal parts. It’s an eco-fantasy exploring the effects of carelessly damaging parts of the natural world through a versatile cast of memorable individuals. It brilliantly combines exciting action, sympathetic characters, smart themes, and a deep world to create a coherent and unique story. It is always rare when you find a book that is both smart and fun at the same time, and Blood of an Exile has both in spades.
Soul of the World by David Mealing – They say when you write your first book you should start small, which is apparently a saying that Mealing completely ignored. Soul of the World is a huge epic fantasy and just the opening chapter of a complicated and interesting world. The book is set in a semi-alternate history American revolutionary war, except that the English and the French have switched places in the story. The book is initially very confusing with regards to what is going on, but it is still a blast to read as you try to get your feet on solid ground. Our plot follows three protagonists, each a paragon of one of the three magic systems and a window into three different factions in our story. On top of having just a ridiculous number of magic systems, our characters gain an absurd number of powers as the book progresses. In most fantasy novels I have read, you might have a protagonist find one or two new powers in a story and then spend the entire book contemplating how it changes their lives. I kept a counter next to me as I read Soul of the World, and by the halfway mark the protagonists had collectively gained over twenty new powers. It is a magical book, almost overflowing with originality.
Bookburners by Max Gladstone and Company – Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self-contained story that plays out like a TV episode. The story follows a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half-hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. It’s written by a group of authors, and they did a great job unifying their voice. While I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end, it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Serials are a bit of a new thing on the reading scene, and this entry is a great place to start.
Swordheart by T. Kingfisher – Look, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line: “Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.” Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. The book is the story of how a woman who has no joy in life falls in love with a cursed eternal warrior bound to a sword, and it’s hilarious. I don’t know what more you can ask for.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – Alright, this one in particular really bothers me. Not only is Guy Gavriel Kay a popular and well-regarded author, but this particular book of his was also our #1 book of 2019 – yet it is criminally underread. Brightness is one of the best character stories I have ever read. It is my second favorite Kay novel, behind Sailing to Sarantium, and only by a little bit. It might be my favorite stand-alone story of all time, so go read it already. If you are curious about the plot you can find a write-up of the story here in my review. This one is certainly worth your time.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Each year, like clockwork, Bradley P. Beaulieu puts out an enormous, detailed, and dense epic fantasy about an original Arabian-inspired world. And each year, like clockwork, I tell people to go read it – but only a select few follow my advice. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out, with the sixth coming this year) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. There are not many authors who seem to love writing their series as much as Bradley P. Beaulieu does. His passion for his books bleeds through every single page, and I frankly don’t understand how he has the stamina to put out this many books so quickly. He has published one book per year(ish) and each one has absolutely no filler. These books are nothing but thousands of pages of plot and story; there is literally zero downtime. I don’t even know how he managed to track all of this when he was writing it. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era.
The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – Chris Wooding is one of our favorite authors here at QTL for his popular Ketty Jay series. However, Wooding recently started a new series that has flown completely under the radar. The Ember Blade feels like an epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into while paying tribute to the series that started the genre, Lord of the Rings. 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. There is a large set of characters, and 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.
The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley – The Heart of Stone (tHoS) follows the story of Task, a war golem and the last of his kind. Task was built for a specific conflict roughly 400 years prior but has outlived the war, and even the people waging it. The last of the war golems, he has drifted from owner to owner and conflict to conflict until he has arrived at a new land embroiled in a civil war where our story begins. Task has a lot of personality, and frankly, I love him. He is ironically a very human character and it will not take long for you to grow attached to him. After seeing essentially centuries of war and subjugation, Task is understandably quite jaded when it comes to his opinion of people. His thoughts and commentary on human nature and reactions are excellent and bring a lot of thoughtful psychology to the story. Adding to this is Task’s supporting cast of characters that all bring just as much to the table. Whether it be a young girl who is surprisingly wise, a drunk knight whose actual fighting skill is never clear, an armchair general trying to prove his father wrong, or a spy who seems to be on no one’s side but her own – the cast brings a lot of life and excitement to the book. The combat is thrilling, the world is interesting, and The Heart of Stone is a great gem that deserves more appreciation.
After the absolute tour de force of Winter’s Orbit, I had high hopes for my second Dark Horse debut of the year: The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark. This book is all about picking sides and watching characters choose between a rock and a hard place. It has a colonial African setting, which is delightfully refreshing, and an interesting premise. With all of this information bouncing around in my head, my expectations were extremely high. So, when I finally got my hands on an ARC of Clark’s debut, I was mildly disappointed to find that my impressions of the book were mixed. There is nothing enormously problematic with this piece of fiction, but it feels like it’s just slightly off in a number of small ways that add up over time to a middling experience.
The plot of The Unbroken centers around two characters: Touraine and Luca. Touraine is a Qazali native, and slave conscript of the Balladairan empire. Balladairan feels like a pseudo fantasy France allegory (given its naming conventions and culture), and Qazali feels like a representative of France’s African colonies. Touraine was shipped off as a youth, stolen from her homeland, and forced into an experimental colonial regiment of the Balladairan armed forces. She rose up the ranks to lieutenant and has now been deployed as a peacekeeping force back in her home country. This has left her understandably conflicted as she wrestles with her allegiance to an overwhelming power that has given her a token of authority despite their constant mistreatment, and her actual homeland who resent her as a Balladairan lapdog and want nothing to do with her.
The second lead is Luca, a Balladairan princess. She has been shipped off to the colonies by her scheming regent uncle to keep her out of the way and reduce her influence. Luca, being a brilliant and cunning woman with her sights on early ascension to her throne, decides to use this semi-exile to cement her power outside her uncle’s control by rallying the colonies to her banner. After an unfortunate series of events that leave both women in a bad position, they decide to essentially team up and see if they can navigate the complicated political morass of the situation together. Unsurprisingly, a romance begins to brew between them.
You might notice that I have devoted a lot more review space than usual to the plot of The Unbroken. That is because it is easily its strongest point and what kept me coming back to push through a number of other issues that erected barriers in my path. The Unbroken’sbiggest issue, which compounds all its others, is that it just feels too vague most of the time it is telling its story. Motivations feel undefined, locations feel unfinished, and sometimes dialogue feels like there are pieces of the conversation missing from the page. Here are some examples. Luca tells you that she needs to use the colonies, and their unknown mysterious magic, to offset her uncle and win back her throne. But for a very large portion of the book, Luca never explains why she needs these things, how she expects to use them, and what the end result will be. You are just expected to take these statements at face value and run with them. The main event that causes the two protagonists to fall into league is the court marshaling of Touraine for a crime that she obviously didn’t commit. There is absolutely no evidence, no motivation for the crime, a crystal clear alibi, and no clear reason why she would be accused in the first place. It feels like a moment of plot convenience to catalyze getting the two POVs on the same team – but I can’t tell if Clark just expects me to be fine with a bare-bones justification of why this is happening or if this is a comment on how corrupt the Balladairan court process is to colonials that I just missed because of how underdeveloped the cultures can feel.
Let’s talk about worldbuilding. Early on in the series, you get a glimpse of the mysterious magic of the Qazali. It is part of the driving reason why Luca wants to use the colonies as a base for her power, and that is pretty much all of the worldbuilding you get for an entire half of a book. It is agonizingly frustrating because the book noticeably ramps up in descriptives as it moves into its back half, but I don’t understand why I had to slog through the first half without a clear grasp of the world I was exploring. A point in the book’s favor is that both protagonists are actually great. I felt they were nicely complex, their romance is very believable (despite some slightly awkward dialogue here and there), and they are very different from one another in a way that compliments each other. Then we have the antagonists, such as Rogan, who feel like ridiculous caricatures. Rogan is a noble officer of the Balladairan armed forces whose entire purpose is to continually say he is going to rape Touraine with no repercussions to show you how poorly the colonial soldiers are treated. It feels absolutely absurd and instead of railing against Rogan, I found myself waiting for a more interesting antagonist to present themselves.
On the other hand, the themes of choice in the book are very nicely realized and kept me coming back despite my misgivings. I felt a lot of emotional investment in the complicated situation Touraine finds herself in and I found myself hungering to see if she could find a way to find an answer to her problems. Her story picks up significantly once the two POVs team up about 20% into the book, though the first fifth is very slow. Luca is more consistently interesting from start to finish. Her scheming makes her feel more like a treacherous royal advisor archetype and it was fun to see the troupe as a protagonist we are routing for instead of an antagonist.
Ultimately, my thoughts on The Unbroken remain unclear even after finishing it and thinking about this review. The premise and story have massive potential, and some of it is very clearly realized. However, there is a lot of energy lost thanks to the overwhelming sense of vagueness that the narrative exudes that sometimes smothered my interest in pressing further into the book. I think I still recommend this series and think Clark has a lot of promise, but The Unbroken is certainly not a flawless masterpiece.
Hello everyone. Today we are excited to bring you a special announcement: we have a new reviewer joining us! I am pleased to introduce Brandee, who will be starting with The Quill to Live as our newest writer. She will introduce herself later in this post but we wanted to take a moment to announce an exciting event at the QTL – Brandee week. This week, starting tomorrow, all of the posts will be by our newest writer to give you all a strong taste of her writing and style. This is just another of the new great changes we will be made to the site in the coming days to tune up the Quill to be a more fresh and fun place to get your fantasy and science fiction content. But without further adieu, please meet Brandee:
How does an awkward person introduce themselves? Poorly, I’ll admit. But I’ll give it a go! The name is Brandee, and I love to read just like you. I grew up indulging in fantasy and always enjoyed it. However, something clicked into place when I read A Song Of Ice And Fire, and I don’t think I’ve stopped dreaming of dragons since. The fantasy genre is a wonderful companion and has shaped me into the person I am today. These books are the foundation of my most treasured relationships and have always created avenues to meet someone new. It was the thread that wove my friendship with Cole, which was spun even further to lead me to Andrew, Alex and Julia.
QTL has shaped my TBR and exposed me to several fantastical series, so it truly is an honor to join the group that has influenced my reading evolution. I’ve been swirling in young adult fantasy for a long time, and there’s a lot of uncharted SFF out there for me to discover. It’s exciting, and my growing TBR shows no signs of slowing down. I hope you’ll join me on my journey and fall in love with some books along the way.
Welcome to part 2 of The Quill to Live’s roadmap to Amber, a guide to reading The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny. If you are just joining us for the first time, we highly encourage you to take a look at part 1, which covers the first five installments of The Great Book of Amber, the Corwin Cycle. Today we will guide you through the sights and terrors of the second half of the series, named the Merlin Cycle. Despite the fact that this series is often sold as one large unit, the second half of the story takes us through very different terrain with a different focus. If the Corwin Cycle was a tour guide randomly pointing out the window to show you cool things in the landscape, the Merlin Cycle is a person regaling you with the full history of everything you travel past, for better or worse. Which you like better is going to depend on how you like to travel.
But, both have positive and negative qualities, and both have sights that are worth the trip. So once again, we’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the second part of the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. Today, we cover books 6-10, known to Amber fans as The Merlin Cycle.
Get back in losers, we’re dying on the pattern.
Stop 1: The Courts of Chaos – The Plot of Amber Part 2
The second set of Amber books tells the story of Merlin, which is where the series gets its pseudonym – the Merlin Cycle. Merlin is Corwin’s son, who is our protagonist from the first five books if you haven’t been paying attention. Merlin lives on our Earth, which as we all know is actually a shadow of Amber. The first thing we learn about Merlin is a strange fun fact – every year on the same date, someone is trying to kill him. Such a fun and harmless ritual, Merlin even somewhat starts to look forward to these murder attempt. But it’s all fun and games until someone actually succeeds and there is a murder. On one of these murderversaries, Merlin finds his ex-girlfriend dead in her apartment. If you find yourself slightly perturbed by the mention of an “ex-girlfriend” in this trippy fantasy universe, you are not the only one, but roll with it.
Shortly after finding the body, an old friend of Merlin’s, Luke, resurfaces and intimates that he has some knowledge of this mystery. As Merlin attempts to discover his would-be murder, he is ensconsed, like his father, in the various machinations of Amber. Part of this mystery is that his father, Corbin, has been missing since the events at the end of the last cycle and Merlin would like to know where he is. However, this plotline surprisingly takes a somewhat backseat to the murderversary quest. While trying to solve the mystery, we learn that Merlin is actually only half ‘Amber-ese’ and actually also has the bloodline of Chaos – the Yang to Amber’s Yin – running in his veins. We get to spend some time really digging into the clockwork that makes Zelazny’s world run. Various plots and schemes unfold, including one centered in the ‘Keep of the Four Worlds’ which is purported to be a very important place that everyone but the reader has known about forever. As usual, noone is who they say, especially Luke. Merlin, being both of Chaos and of Amber, finds himself in the center of an eternal battle between the two forces.
Stop 2: Zelazny-tecture – The Worldbuilding of Part 2
One of the more noticeable changes in scenery between the two cycles is worldbuilding style. While the Corwin Cycle has a certain scrappy quality to it, its emphasis is much more on whimsy than on rigid structure. The locations Zelazny takes us to in part 1 are all to explicitly serve the plot and they tend to feel like a video game with bad rendering – everything around the protagonist feels real, but look into the distance and things start to get pixelated quickly. However, in the Merlin Cycle, we get a much more well-defined setting. The number of places the story jumps to decreases (slightly), but in exchange they feel like actual places that exist outside the character’s needs. In theory, this more concrete grounding should have appealed to us more (given our reading preferences), but there is definitely something lost from the series as a whole. A lot of what makes this story interesting is its ephemeral nature. No, the places we visit in the first cycle aren’t well defined, and that can be frustrating. But it serves to paint a picture of a universe with Amber at its center. By tying down the worldbuilding with more concrete places, the second cycle feels less inherently “amber-y” somehow.
Stop 3: The Pools of Seeing – A More Clearly Defined Protagonist
An interesting and divisive shift in the second Amber cycle is the change in density of our protagonist. As we mentioned in the first half of this guide, Corwin is a blank slate of a character designed so that the reader can insert themselves. Corwin has a vague generic description, no strong character identities other than his core of “win the throne,” and is a perfect platform through which to see Amber for the first time. It makes the Corwin Cycle more akin to an experience, a portal to a new world. On the other hand, the Merlin Cycle is much more of a story.
Merlin is an actual character with definition. He has gumption, drive, and an agenda. Zelazny does the work to flesh him out as a character and this makes the second cycle less of a fun playscape for the reader and more of an actual narrative about a person’s life. There are pros and cons to this, but in this instance, I think it is generally positive. Five books was enough time to tear about Amber exploring and it’s nice to read a set of books in the setting that feel like they have more to say than “I just can’t wait to be king.” That being said, even though Merlin has a lot more personality than Corwin doesn’t mean he is a work of art – the bar was on the ground. Merlin feels very much like the classic fantasy academic who doesn’t get out and about much. He also feels like he has a little more complexity given his dual citizenship in both Amber and Chaos. His strange parentage feels like it gives him a lot of insight and unique perspective through circumstance, and its a nice way to elevate a character’s importance in the story without pushing how “cool and badass” he is. At the same time, Merlin feels like the perfect character for this story, but don’t expect him to stick in your mind long after you finish the series.
Stop 4: The Tavern of Camaraderie and Animosity – Fate Of The One Over Fate Of The Many
The Corwin Cycle is the story of a throne, and the impact it has on the future. It is a story that is always about big stakes and a large cast of characters that we view at a distance to see how they affect the fate of the world. The Merlin Cycle is about Merlin and his pals.
There is a distinctly more human focus in the Merlin Cycle. The stakes are still large, but it’s much more a personal story about a small cast of characters — good and bad — than one about a cosmic throne that dictates reality for trillions of worlds. It almost feels like Zelazny made the conflict in the first cycle too big and all-encompassing and found that the only place that he had left to go was inward. Generally, I think the story benefits from a more human element. It puts things in perspective and makes them much more relatable, despite the fact that Corwin was a blank slate for the reader to insert themselves. The only problem is that some of the character motivations of the cast can feel a bit pedantic and petty in the greater scheme of things – especially when you just got finished reading about a fight for godhood. After that, reading about how you are sad that your relationship is having communication issues can be a bit of a backward step.
It’s not all bad, though. The cast of the Merlin Cycle (thought still quite large) shrinks compared to its predecessor. As the focus narrows, you’ll be treated to some exciting character moments. Merlin’s journey is one of discovery, and even the people he knows best have secrets locked away in their depths. The back half of Amber as a result feels less like a full game of chess and more like a series of quickfire fencing bouts. Merlin has time to interact with everyone, and he has his own mysteries to solve in relation to his cadre.
Regardless, I think it is generally a net positive change and would have like to see more humanizing in the Corwin Cycle.
Stop 5: The Enigma – Leaning Into Mystery
It could be said that the major question that permeates all of the Corwin Cycle is How? How does the magic work? How is Corwin going to take the throne? How will he find the willpower to survive this latest trial? But the question that suffuses the Merlin Cycle is Why? Why are these things happening? Why is someone trying to kill Merlin? Why has his father disappeared? The shift goes from exploration to mystery and it changes the very nature of the story.
The fact that the Merlin Cycle is couched in mystery serves to further distance it from its more whimsical predecessor. In order to solve puzzles and crimes, you need to have hard facts that you can rely on, tangible pieces of a puzzle that don’t shift when you look away from them. As a result, Zelazy starts to lay the groundwork for a much more rigid and clearly defined world, which, as we mentioned in the earlier section, is a bit weird to put at the end of your ten-book series. And yet, the mystery sections work surprisingly well. Understanding how Amber works is really fun and it is a great stepping stone into some fairly captivating whodunnits. The mystery also serves well to tie the two cycles more cleanly together and make them feel much more synchronized. It was a surprising but excellent idea that differentiates the Merlin Cycle while also bridging the two cycles at the same time.
Stop 6: The Final Stretch – The Pacing of Part 2
An aspect that does feel like a net positive change between the cycles is the pacing. Part one suffers from a very erratic sense of pace. Some of the books involve non-stop action, and others involve Corwin describing what the wall of his jail cell looks like for fifty pages. This is the nature of a series that was written in installments, as Zelazny didn’t plan out and pace the narrative. Instead, he just shepherded it in the direction he wanted.
The Merlin Cycle conversely feels like a set of stories that Zelazny sat down and planned out. The books are much more even and continuous than the first half of the series. This does have the surprising effect of making them slightly less memorable in our opinion. While the first cycle has its ups and downs, the downs fade from the mind while the ups remain clear and vivid. The Merlin Cycle is more difficult to remember with its flatter, more gradual slope. I am sure at the time the change wasn’t easy to notice. These books came out of the course of many years and the shift is gradual. But, to someone reading all of the books in a block the differences in style is very rapid in appearance.
Stop 7: The Visitor Center – Our Final Thoughts on Amber
The Amber Chronicles are a complicated beast to tackle and a little difficult to recommend. There are definitely interesting historical aspects of the series that left their mark on the development of both the fantasy and science fiction genres. It also feels quite unique, with its ephemeral writing style, ten short story installments, and creative mix of science fiction and fantasy. For a series that began publication in 1970, it feels surprisingly ahead of its time.
And yet, though it feels ahead of 1970 it also doesn’t quite live up to some modern classics. There are definite issues to address in the story writing, and some of the more unique characteristics of the storytelling didn’t catch on for the obvious reason of not working that well.
Nowadays, The Great Book Of Amber is published as a massive single volume. Sure, it’s a convenient purchase, and $30 gets you some otherwordly bang for your buck. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to consume Amber. As you start your venture into the one true world, remember that Zelazny wrote it by the seat of his pants, and nobody will fault you for reading it in the same way.
At the end of the day, though, Amber is an intensely personal trip. The tome is packed with so many fantasy tidbits that almost any reader will find something to enjoy. Enter Amber with an open mind and a wide net, and you’ll come out the other end better for it.
And, once you’re done, head back here and let us know what you thought. Thanks for joining us on this journey, and happy reading.
Rotherweird, by Andrew Caldecott, is a fascinating book that fights you every inch of the way. The story spans over 400 years, but only a few square miles in location. It does an impressive job building a quaint and homey English village that feels like the perfect place to put your feet up, while also leaving you to drown in the middle of a sea. The book is a master of atmosphere and a fool when it comes to narrative structure. Whether you like it or not is going to come down to how much patience you have and how much you like quiet English towns. Rotherweird is slow. While the page count is around five hundred, the text is small, the pages are large, and the prose is dense. It’s also the first book in a trilogy of the same name, so there is a lot of story to dig into. The problem with this smorgasbord? It’s a buffet that Caldecott put at the top of a tall mountain – you need to work hard to get it.
Here is the plot of the first book, as I understood it after finishing it, laid out in clear terms: Rotherweird is about a strange isolated town in the English countryside. In the 1500s, a number of children with magical powers were found and it was determined that they should grow up in an isolated setting to keep them pure from negative influences. These kids were shipped to the town of Rotherweird where no one is allowed in, no one is allowed out, and people aren’t supposed to even talk about its existence. Unfortunately, isolating a lot of children with god-like powers and no adult supervision leads very quickly to a Lord of the Flies situation. Things start to go very bad, and then we fast-forward four hundred plus years to see Rotherweird in present day. The town is still standing, despite the ensuing apocalypse you saw approaching, but things don’t seem quite right. We then start to follow the POV of a pair of outsiders, a rare occurrence in Rotherweird, who come to the town with hidden agendas. Both of these characters are trying to dig up the town’s past, hoping to piece together what happened all those years ago.
This is how Rotherweird could have read, but instead, we get a jumbled mess. The pacing of the story is erratic, to say the least. Chapters will jump between three different time periods (the way past, the recent past, and the present) seemingly at random. I never got a strong grasp of why there would be an unexplained chapter that lurched us 400 years into the past for exposition that didn’t seem relevant for what was currently happening in the present. It slows the momentum of the book to a glacial pace and changed a book that should have taken me a few days to read, to a two-week affair. It almost feels like Caldecott heard secondhand that flashbacks make books better, so he just spun a wheel and inserted them. The book is also broken up into “months” as chapters, with each chapter telling the events that happen in one month of the year. It was a novel concept but suffered from an uneven hand. Some months result in chapters that comprise almost a fourth of the book and others have single pages detailing a few key events. By itself, it wouldn’t be that problematic, but when combined with the erratic time jumps, it forges an anchor that weighs the text down.
But, if you can look past the pacing issues and the narrative whiplash, there are some good elements to sink your teeth into. Rotherweird’s greatest strength is its sense of atmosphere. The town that gives the book its namesake feels like a real tangible place that I have been to. The shops are adorable, the neighbors annoying, and the streets can be pictured down to the bricks. While the prose is dense, it does build comfortable layers of immersion over time and makes Rotherweird a place worth exploring because it has secrets worth finding. There is this strange slice-of-life quality to the story where characters are rushing around trying to save the world, but also stopping to compete in a town-wide game of capture the flag. It somehow blends very well and feels extremely British. There is also a nice streak of dry humor that wrung a few laughs out of me.
One of the other things I really liked about Rotherweird is its strong sense of mystery. The book is pretty brazen early on in indicating that there are things going on under the surface in this strange town. This sense of mystery is further enhanced by the fact that Rotherweird is a place that mixes the ordinary with the occult in order to disguise what is happening. Everyone has secrets, some people are having affairs while others are immortals chained to the stonework until the end of days. This mixture of the mundane and the magical makes it a lot harder to ferret out answers and makes the puzzles a lot more fun to solve.
If you have patience and tenacity you can squeeze water from the stone that is Rotherweird. The narrative fights you at every turn in a way that is counterproductive to enjoying the book, but there is an interesting story under the pacing issues. The book’s strong sense of place made it one of the more memorable books I have read recently and despite my frustrations, I am still curious to see where the series goes next. If you are wondering if this book is for you, it will likely boil down to how much English period pieces and mysteries are ‘your thing’. But if you are looking for a fast-paced jaunt, I would look elsewhere.
Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files has always been a complicated subject for me. On one hand, Butcher has a special knack for melding lore that is modern, ancient, well-known, and obscure into a giant melting pot of exciting action that gets the blood pumping. On the other hand, the series has a number of issues including the consistently poor treatment of female characters, the inconsistent quality of the books, and the fact that although Butcher does a great job combining all of the lore of the world, there often doesn’t feel like there is a lot of substance that he is adding. However, despite the flaws, I would have still considered myself a fan of The Dresden Files… until I read Battle Ground.
For those who aren’t followers of the series, Dresden is a huge ongoing urban fantasy with seventeen core novels under its belt, seven more planned, and a ton of spinoff content. We used to get a steady stream of content from Butcher, and books would come out almost once a year – until recently. The last Dresden novel I enjoyed, Skin Games, came out in 2014. Afterward, Butcher announced that he needed to take some time to transition the series into its next iteration, and he was going to take some time to create the biggest and best Dresden story yet. A book so awesome, that a single volume couldn’t contain it. So we waited six years, 2020 rolled around, and I read both of Butcher’s masterpieces. If you skim my review of Peace Talks from last year, you will find I was wholly unimpressed with the novel. But, when I finished Battle Ground I turned to my co-reviewers and said, “this is the worst book of the year.”
You might be asking yourself why I am spending so much time explaining the goings-on around this book without actually explaining what is wrong with it. That is because I needed you to have context so I could talk about all the ways this book is bad. It is bad mechanically, thematically, conceptually, logistically, subjectively, objectively, and contextually. The series has always walked a fine line on a cliff face of being too problematic, and this book yeeted itself along with the whole series into the sea.
So let’s stop beating around the bush and actually talk about what’s wrong with Battle Ground. First off, this isn’t actually a book. It is one long drawn-out action scene where all of the action is happening off-screen. I have absolutely no idea why, but Butcher decided the best way to convey a sense of awe and grandeur was to have most major events happen off-page and have Dresden turn to the reader and say, “wow there are some truly indescribable things happening outside right now, I can’t even talk about them, I bet you wish you could hear what is happening, instead I am going to talk to an irrelevant person at this bar.” This is just a terrible narrative choice, and Butcher used “indescribable” so many times in lieu of description that I almost had a stroke. The prose, in general, is terrible. Butcher is not a good action writer, a fact he has managed to hide for a very long time by making this series primarily a mystery with a few action set pieces. The prose feels like watching a trainwreck on repeat until it melts your brain.
The entirety of the book is predicated on the idea of solving questions that were left unanswered in the previous novel, Peace Talks. The singular job that Battle Ground had to accomplish in its 400 pages of ‘content’ is to explain one or two problematically unanswered questions about what motivated a character from Peace Talks. This character made a few seemingly irrational choices and we never found out why. It doesn’t even come close to doing this job, making Peace Talks an even worse book retroactively, which is impressive given my already low score. This book reads like an appendix in both of its connotations, and it should have been ripped out of the body of works like the bloated, poisonous, vestigial list of useless information that it is.
Up next, we have the fact that Butcher completely shatters his magic system and worldbuilding for no clear reason. Dresden’s power level in this story is exactly whatever Butcher needs it to be for the situation he is in, which means it varies wildly to the point of completely obliterating immersion. Sometimes he is strong enough that Odin himself bows to his greatness. Other times Dresden is so weak, because Butcher wants you to always feel like every second of this book is a life or death exchange, that he struggles to fight a metaphorical stray dog. I rapidly gave up trying to understand how strong Dresden was or what his powers were because it is a losing battle from the outset. Part of this issue is the fact that Butcher is trying to transition Dresden into a ‘higher weight class’ of power with these books. Ostensibly, the series is moving from Dresden solving small crimes in Chicago to battling interdimensional horrors that threaten reality. The problem is that Butcher really likes writing about how Dresden is an underdog and is as stubborn metaphorical dog with a bone who can’t drop it. So the fun scrappy underdog premise that sold the previous iteration of the protagonist is getting in the way of him stepping up to the big boy table.
In addition, the very little bit of actual story we get in this book is there to paint Dresden as the ultimate Gary Sue of all time. Not only does the reader have to suffer Dresden whine about how unfair his life is, and how unimportant he is to the cosmos for seven hundred pages, they are subjected to the knowledge that this whole interdimensional war, which involves the deaths of DEITIES, was carried out to make Dresden look bad. It reads like someone was trying extremely hard to empower incels and tell them that “don’t worry, the world really does revolve around you no matter what other people say.” I want to claw the flesh off my face.
But, we still haven’t gotten to the crowning achievement of Battle Ground, and the reason that I absolutely will not be continuing on with the series. Unfortunately, this is a spoiler and you should walk away if you are somehow still interested in this novel. This book takes a female love interest that has been built up for 16 novels and has finally started to move away from “Dresden’s sex hole with feelings” to “likable complicated character,” and kills her for nothing other than shock value and to make Dresden feel bad. Her death is so meaningless, cliche, and unimportant that I honestly refused to believe it happened. I thought it was a “Rey killing Chewy” situation. It is not. It’s done so that Dresden can have some sort of motivation to keep the world from dying, which apparently wasn’t enough for him, and so he can reach inside his own ass and find some deus ex machina power to be even cooler and more self-centered. And to just absolutely salt the wounds, the book ends with Dresden finding out that he is being “forced into marriage with a harem of sex demigods” in the next book, and is really sad about it so the reader should feel okay that Dresden is still a good person. I am still livid thinking about it as I write this review.
This is the worst book I have actively reviewed in the entirety of the time I have been running The Quill to Live – though there have been worse ones I haven’t reviewed. The only reason the score of this book isn’t lower is because it didn’t incite violence against minorities, so it isn’t the literally worst book of all time, though it throws its hat in the ring. There are actually a number of additional sins I haven’t even covered, but I have spent enough time being angry for a single review. Extremely do not recommend.