The Best Of Science Fantasy

I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.

So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.

So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:

  • Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
  • Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
  • Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.

Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.

71td5pweetl1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.

81g3gpska-l2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.

gideon-the-ninth-cover3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.

red2bsister2bcover5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.

355205646) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.

threepartsdead_1507) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.

514r1y8fc6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.

51zeepnspsl._sx331_bo1204203200_9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.

812bsf2bbnqul10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).

978057508516911) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.

51oul60c3fl12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.

Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.

-Andrew

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Fantasy Cop Throw Down – A Triple Review

I’m switching things up today and reviewing three books at once. Why? Because I accidentally read three fantasy cop stories in two weeks and I don’t think I have it in me to review each one separately, but I want to talk about all of them. So the question of the day is this: which of the following fantasy cop novels takes home the golden gumshoe? Is it a) The Last Smile In Sunder City by Luke Arnold, b) The Last Sun by K. D. Edwards, or c) Titan’s Day by Dan Stout? For full transparency, Sunder and Last Sun are both the first book in their respective series, while Titan’s Day is a sequel to Titanshade, a book I have already reviewed. It’s possible that because of this I came into this showdown with a favorite, but let it be known that I attempted to curtail my bias to the best of my ability.

Next, let’s establish some judging criteria. I want to keep this clean and easy, so I’ll judge the books on three categories: worldbuilding, plot, and characters. For worldbuilding, I am looking for reasons this story couldn’t just be a cop drama – show me a cool world that adds something to the story and tension. For the plot, I am looking for a mystery or drama that is exciting and keeps me guessing. For characters, I am looking (begging) for a cast that breaks out of the bottomless pit of cop tropes and tired cast members you can find in any cop show. Now, let’s meet our contestants.

Sunder City is about a former soldier turned PI named Fetch Phillips. He is searching for repentance in a ruined world that he had a hand in destroying. Years ago he was part of an army that accidentally ripped magic out of the world, badly disfiguring and killing the majority of fantasy creatures that lived in it. Now he tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined.

The Last Sun is about Rune Saint John, the last child of the fallen Sun Court. John is the last remaining member of an aristocratic Atlantean family. The Atlanteans are essentially high tech magical elves who resurfaced the continent of Atlantis to live alongside humans because they were bored (I am not doing it justice, but it’s complicated and not well explained). There are TONS of magical families in Atlantis with different powers, and John is hired to search for a missing son of one of the most prominent ones.

Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and tells the next chapter of Detective Carter – a good cop who isn’t afraid to do the right thing no matter what. This book follows the discovery of a new source of energy in an oil town that is desperate for something to restart its dying economy. While political factions squabble over the new lifeblood of the city, Carter single-mindedly pursues a seemingly unrelated murder case of a “candy”. He is forced to navigate political pressures and resist becoming a pawn in the struggles tipping the city toward anarchy. But when more innocent lives are lost and time runs short, he’s forced to decide if justice is worth sparking an all-out war in the streets during the biggest celebration of the year: Titan’s Day.

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Category one: worldbuilding. Worldbuilding (to me) in a fantasy cop story is more important than in a normal book. The author has to justify placing the story in a fantasy setting instead of just writing a piece of fiction. In addition, the best fantasy cop stories tie the investigation/crimes to the magic while making the worldbuilding clear enough that the reader can use it to solve the crime themselves. What I don’t want, is to read a cop story in a cool world where the magic is just a backdrop.

Sunder City starts us off strong by killing it with the worldbuilding. Luke Arnold has crafted an impressively detailed magical world then pulled the rug out from under it. He does a fantastic job of showing the reader how magic was a foundation that his society was built on – and how it crumpled, was rebuilt, and evolved once the magic disappeared. The worldbuilding is brilliantly interwoven with the mystery, and he empowers the reader to solve it themselves. Sunder City gets 4 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

The Last Sun, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. On the good hand, the world and magic are cool as heck. Each house has a different set of powers and there is a fun and inventive magic system involving the use of trinkets called “crests”. On the bad hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t quite feel coherent. It constantly feels like Edwards is giving the reader just enough information to get them through the current scene and that the world beyond the current situation is unfinished. I didn’t really believe the world was a real place. And while the magic was integral to the mystery of the plot, I didn’t really feel equipped to solve it. The Last Sun gets 2 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Titan’s Day likely had the strongest worldbuilding of the three, but I need to ding it slightly. If you read my review of the previous novel you will see that the series has an impressively well-realized world. Stout put an agonizing amount of detail into how his magic and worldbuilding are fused into the world and the story. The rules and restrictions of the magic are set down like laws and it empowers the reader wonderfully to enter the mind of the protagonist and solve the crimes. However, one thing I was unimpressed with was I did not feel like Titan’s Day did a good job expanding the world past the road that Titanshade paved for it. Titan’s Day gets 3 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

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Category two: plot. This one in my mind is the most subjective. I don’t have crystal clear criteria for the plot – but what I am hoping for is a story that isn’t predictable, is exciting, and has some good twists.

Sunder City has a perfectly serviceable plot, but it didn’t really impress me. The story focuses primarily on how the case takes Fetch through a cavalcade of situations that are difficult due to his involvement in the destruction of magic. The plot feels more like a vehicle for character growth than a good murder mystery. At the same time, it isn’t terrible, and there were a few good twists. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for plot.

The Last Sun was my frontrunner for plot. Despite the fact that the book didn’t set me up to solve the mystery myself, I was extremely invested in what was happening and urgently turning pages to find out what happened. In some ways, Edwards’ loose worldbuilding helped the book here as it provided a stronger sense of mystery and intrigue. In addition, The Last Sun has excellent combat and action scenes that put it at the top of the group in terms of excitement. The Last Sun gets 4 out of 5 for plot.

Titan’s Day continues to make this competition difficult by being complicated. On some level, I actually think Titan’s plot is phenomenal – but I am the wrong audience for it. Titan focuses on hyperrealism and trying to make the book feel like it uses real police work. I am sure there is someone out there who will really appreciate this, but it is not me. I found Titan’s Day’s plot boring — a rehash of the same exact story as Titanshade. The book felt like it had almost no growth whatsoever, and I didn’t like where it started. Titan’s Day gets 2 out of 5 for plot.

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Category three: characters. With characters, I am looking for all the usual hallmarks of good character design: depth, growth, relatability, and originality. In particular, I was hoping to see something beyond the usual tropes you see in every cop drama on TV.

Sunder City has good characters that pull you into the story. Fetch is a complicated person with some very believable demons. The slow reveal of his past over the course of the story is a masterclass example in how to control what information to give the reader when. On the other hand, the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sunder City is the Fetch show and it doesn’t feel like there is much room for anyone else. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for characters.

The Last Sun does well on characters. John is fun, relatable, original, and deep enough to stand out in this crowd. In addition, there is a plethora of supporting cast members who stand well on their own and do a lot to enhance the story. I was invested in almost every character who made it onto the page and I think Edwards killed it on their character writing. The Last Sun gets 5 out of 5 for characters.

Titan’s Day has terrible characters. I don’t know how else to phrase it. They are box standard tropes of the timeless cop identities. The characters have almost no depth. They demonstrate little to no growth over two entire books. I didn’t really like or care about any of them. After two books of no one growing or evolving, I found myself frustrated with the cast and considering giving up on the book entirely. Titan’s Day gets 1 out of 5 for characters.

Final Scores: The Last Sun just barely edges out The Last Smile In Sunder City to take my top spot of cop books I have read within the last two weeks – which is clearly a prestigious victory. Coming in way beneath both is Titan’s Day, which struggled to do anything with the excellent groundwork that Titanshade built. If I had compared Titanshade to the other two books I think the competition would have been a lot closer to a threeway tie – but I don’t think it would have taken the crown. Though each of these books has its strengths and weaknesses, The Last Sun is my recommendation for any of you looking for a good fantasy cop drama right now.

Rating:

The Last Sun – 7.5/10
The Last Smile In Sunder City – 7.0/10
Titan’s Day – 4.0/10

-Andrew

The Flight Of The Darkstar Dragon – Flight Of Fancy

51qrje8hdulAlright, let’s reveal a fun, embarrassing, personal fact. Ever since I was a young boy I have usually used the same moniker when playing videogames. As you might imagine, being a boy of about seven when I first came up with it, I was not particularly creative. I went with “Darkstar” because I thought it sounded cool as hell. Well, here we are decades later, and I still think the concept of a star made out of darkness sounds cool as hell. The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is a new self-published book by Benedict Patrick – who is better known for his other self-published book with a really long title: They Mostly Come Out at Night. When I saw a book with the word “Darkstar” in the title, I bought it without reading the back because of a) how bad could it be? And b) look at that kickass cover. This was the largest case of “judging a book by its cover” I have ever experienced… but you know what they say about that…

… That sometimes you make a fantastic decision. Flight is a portal fantasy, a genre I naturally gravitate away from. For those unfamiliar, portal fantasies are stories about individuals going through magical portals to other worlds and strange lands. Usually, they focus on the protagonist becoming instantly important for the unearned reason of having general basic knowledge from a different universe that makes them god-like in their new surroundings. Often, portal fantasies are lazy, poorly written, power fantasies that border on masturbatory – so I tend to give them a wide berth. However, that is definitely not always the case and there are a number of books I have seen that do more with the genre – and Flight is an example of that.

Flight is a fast-paced and well oiled short book that has a very clean plot and not a lot of worldbuilding. The story revolves around a ship that is ripped from their world into a strange parallel dimension with a dark star and a massive dragon. Their new surroundings are confusing, deadly, and fascinating – and the crew must cobble together a solution to get out of this dangerous realm before it kills them. They do this by exploring additional portals out of the ‘Darkstar Realm’ into other realities like interdimensional scavengers. That’s pretty much the whole plot.

On top of having a cut-down plot, the majority of the characters are shallow with the exception of the protagonist and a key support character. The POV character, Min, is great and shows growth – but the rest of her crew are definitely there just to support her story. So, with a thin plot, light worldbuilding, and simple cast – why do I like this book so much? It’s because Flight is a simple book that was written as a pet project out of love to explore one key theme – wanderlust. And it nails it. Flight is a story about how there is joy and fulfillment in making a living out of wandering the stars and seeing new and unknown. It is a story about how the universe is filled with more beauty than you can possibly imagine, and all you need to do to see it is go out and look.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is not an epic fantasy with every detail methodically written out, with epic prose and a once in a generation plot. And that’s ok. It is a short story investigating a wonderful theme with brilliant clarity and execution. I in absolutely no way regret my impulsive decision to pick up this book and I am overjoyed to find another example of portal fantasy done right. If you find joy when you look out at the wonders of our world, or if you want to, this is a book for you.

Rating: The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – 7.5/10
-Andrew

How Rory Thorne Destroyed The Multiverse – Thankfully There Is Another One

81g3gpska-lRight before my city enforced strong restrictions and everything closed due to our current pandemic, I metaphorically looted my library. I figured that if I was going into isolation I might as well grab as many books as I could carry to the front desk and just try reading some random things that caught my eye. The results of this have been… mixed. Turns out that publisher marketing teams know what they are doing and are extremely skilled at putting nice covers on questionable books. But, there have been some gems out of the pile of disappointment I grabbed, and How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, by K. Eason, is definitely one of them.

Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon. Combining the two genres is hard to do, but a number of my all-time favorite books fit into this niche, so it’s safe to say the premise excited me. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse tells the story of, well, Rory Thorne. Rory is the princess of an intergalactic empire that grew from humble fantasy beginnings over untold generations. She is the first girl to be born to the royal line in a ridiculously long time, so the royal parents decide to follow the age-old tradition from when their kingdom was first founded: ask the faeries of the land to grant her a blessing. It seems like a cute and fun idea until the faeries actually show up and bless Rory with 13 gifts. They are varied, interesting, and mostly benign – except for two. One faery gives Rory the ability to always be able to tell when people are lying, and a second gives her a well of courage to know when not to back down. We then rapidly get taken through Rory’s journey to adulthood and get key glimpses into how these two gifts forge her into a fascinating adult. This takes up roughly the first third of the book, and then we shift to something new.

The first third of the story is about building Rory’s personality and attaching the reader to her, and the back two-thirds are about stripping her of all her tools but her mind and throwing her into a political sea and seeing if she sinks or swims. This portion of the book is a political thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page. It’s extremely satisfying to see how key moments from the first part of the book made Rory into a person who can handle challenges thrown at her in the second part of the story. It makes Rory feel extremely alive, relatable, and likable – and makes all of her victories feel extremely earned.

The world and cast are fun, cool, and do a great job of pulling in the reader. 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 Rory’s achievements. One of her many talents is picking up support characters, and helping them shine. The secondary characters are all fun and interesting in their own right, but they also serve as a powerful mirror to look back at Rory, work as a foil, and further her continual growth in the latter part of the story.

The plot is very satisfying, with twists and challenges that kept me coming back. But, if one were to just glance at the back blurb of Thorne, you would see some cursory paragraphs about the plot and the following statement: “[the book] is a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes and a story of resistance and self-determinationhow small acts of rebellion can lead a princess to not just save herself, but change the course of history. ” While I understand that this tagline is there to catch the eye and sell books, I honestly think it does the book a disservice. Everything that quote mentions is definitely a part of this book, but I feel like it narrows the success of the story. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse should resonate with every reader, as it tells the story of how every person can face adversity and challenges. It tells a particularly compelling story for women and facing sexism, but as a man, I still found it extremely relatable to my own personal trials and tribulations. This book is great for literally anyone.

The one place that I felt Thorne dropped the ball a little was in the finale. Things wrap up very quickly and it feels like a lot of loose ends are tied up in a short number of pages. What is surprising is the ending reads like Eason was wrapping things up and removing the possibility of sequels, but this is the first of an intended duology. I am not exactly sure where the story is going next, but I am still excited to find out when it becomes available.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse is a unique gem of a book that is hard to classify. 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. Other than its strange climax, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse has been one of the best books I have read this year so far. If I had managed to get to it when it came out last October, it definitely would have made it into our top of 2019 list. I will not make the same mistake with the sequel.

Rating: How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Legacy Of Ash – The Beginnings Of Something Good

81yarluoexlI have been looking for some new epic fantasy recently as a lot of the larger series I have historically turned to have been wrapping up the last two years. Luckily, it looks like this year is going to be big for epic fantasy, with a number of established authors like Lawrence and Wexler launching new series and many debut authors throwing their hats into the ring. Speaking of which, one of the new debut series I have managed to sink my teeth into this year is Legacy of Ash, by Matthew Ward. If this book is any sort of sign of the quality of epic fantasy coming down the pipeline, then we are in for a great year.

Legacy of Ash has all the staples of a good epic fantasy. It has a fascinating and expansive world, a large number of varied POVs, satisfying character journeys/growth, political intrigue, and a captivating plot. His debut story kicks off strong and fast. The book begins with the end of a war from the POV of the queen of the losing side. She dies almost immediately, and through her death, we are introduced to the three primary POVs of the story: her executioner, Viktor, and her two children, Josiri and Calenne. These are the characters the story focuses on, but the side cast is enormous, varied, and well fleshed out. The overall plot is too complicated to summarize in a paragraph, but it essentially revolves around post-war tensions a decade after the opening scene, political intrigue, a supernatural global threat, and our three protagonists coming to terms with who they are.

While everything in that last sentence, combined with brisk pacing and good prose, contributes to why Legacy of Ash is good – it is the ever-present theme of our protagonists wrestling with their identities that helps Legacy stand out among the crowd and leave a lasting impression compared to its contemporary competition. At the start of the book, each of the leads has a very clear sense of identity and direction. Ward then continuously throws obstacles and challenges at them to question their beliefs and positions. The protagonists take in the information and decide if it will alter their course. It is a very natural, surprising, and well-written series of growth arcs that does a lot to keep you invested in the story. The only problem is that the three arcs feel like they have different levels of polish.

Josiri’s arc is the best. It’s the most fleshed out and the most interwoven with the plot. As the crown prince of an oppressed people, Josiri lives his life with rigid discipline, sharp pride of his heritage, and fierce loyalty to his mother’s memory and his people. The challenge that Josiri faces is deciding when it’s worthwhile to let go of pride and culture to save his people. Ward strikes a well-argued balance for the pros and cons of preserving national identity vs. absorbing into an oppressor to change it from within, and Josiri’s story kept me turning pages until the last.

Next, we have Viktor, who I absolutely love as a character but feel his challenges fell a little flat. Viktor is champion of the realm and a massive hulking and brooding behemoth of a man. However, he cherishes friendship, and, while I would hesitate to call him a softy on the inside, he has a lot more empathy and emotional depth than I expected. My issue with Viktor is that his internal struggle revolves around whether or not to embrace the fact that he can use cursed magic. He has interesting powers, and Ward does a good job painting the pros and cons, but at the end of the day, his struggle just didn’t feel as interesting or original when you put it next to Josiri’s.

And then we have Calenne. I don’t really know what happened with Calenne, she feels like she suffered from an attempt to tie all the various plot threads up. Calenne, as the second child of the dead queen, doesn’t have the responsibilities to the throne of her older brother. She was too young to remember the mother who died and feels chained to her memory and shadow and unable to be her own person. She wants nothing to do with her people; she just wants to run away and live her own life. Calenne’s story starts very strongly. At the start of the book, she is very unlikeable, but Ward knows this and does a great job giving Calenne meaningful and satisfying moments of growth to find balance in helping her people and living for herself. Unfortunately, Calenne’s story starts to go a little off the rails in the second half of the book. She isn’t given nearly the same amount of page time as the two others and disappears entirely for about a fourth of the novel. In addition, her character choices begin to push against the natural organic growth that you see with Viktor and Josiri and feel a bit erratic. A lot of this appears to do with her choices moving certain elements of the plot along and simply being a victim of Ward needing to introduce various elements. However, the handling of her character in the back half of the book feels a little clumsy when compared to the boys and it was disappointing.

Legacy of Ash is a strong debut with a lot packed into its first novel. Its fast pace and exciting twists make it feel like Ward crammed three books worth of content into one condensed super novel. The characters are fun and likable, though there were some minor issues with polish in the back half of the story. Overall, I really enjoyed this first book and I will be on the lookout to pick up the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: Legacy of Ash – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Vagabonds – Dirty Unwashed Potential

81nxmr1dtrlVagabonds, by Hao Jingfang, is the latest Chinese science fiction novel that Ken Liu has skillfully translated from its native tongue for readers’ enjoyment. While I really hope this trend continues and begins to branch out to every culture possible, I find myself struggling to grasp and enjoy Chinese Science Fiction every time I foray into it. When I dug into the Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, I was fairly sure the issue was with me and my rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture. However, when it came to Vagabonds I had a much harder time pinning down what wasn’t clicking.

On its surface, Vagabonds has an interesting premise that would capture the heart of any fan of golden age sci-fi. Earth is a capitalist paradise, while Mars is a Socialist utopia, and they do not get along. After many years of war, a ceasefire is announced and a selection of students from both worlds are allowed to travel between the planets and put on a miniature world’s fair to display the brilliance and achievements of their home planets. We follow the POV of two individuals, one from Earth and one from Mars, who find themselves changed by their time on their respective new planets. Each of these POVs returns home to find themselves different from their peers and incompatible with their old homes. The story is about these protagonists trying to reconcile what they learned while away from home and prevent future conflict across the stars.

Initially, I was really enjoying Vagabonds. The premise is cool, the culture shock is captivating, the world-building is engaging, and the theoretical ideas surrounding capitalism and socialism by Jingfang feel like fresh takes that I was keen to hear more of. But, my joy and engagement did not last. As the book continues to chug along, and the perspective shifts from a split POV to focusing primarily on a single character, my interest began to wane. Vagabonds feels like it suffers way too much from long and uninteresting self-reflecting eulogies from its cast, and ideas that are just not deep enough to support its gigantic page count.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the POVs and cast, and that is because I cannot remember any of them. The characters are all unmemorable and fairly dull, which makes the fact that the book explores their feelings about every gust of wind and falling leaf drag on the reader like swimming with lead weights. The more that the book shifted from its core arguments of capitalism vs. socialism to the exploration of how its boring cast felt about events – the less I liked it. There are still some great ideas in the story, but they are absolutely not worth the amount of time it took me to dig them out of the rest of the filler.

Vagabonds is a book with a powerful premise that lacks in execution. Its enormous page count is unwarranted, and its characters carry the story about as well as sieves carry water. If you are a huge fan of golden age science-fiction and if you don’t mind a clunky narrative with an unwieldy page count, you might really enjoy it. But, if you find yourself having to choose between Vagabonds or a different enticing read – I would likely recommend that you go with the later.

Rating: Vagabonds – 5.0/10
-Andrew