Don’t Worry, We’re Still Here!

Fresh content is coming your way!

“But where have you all been?”

Andrew, Chief Contributor/Supreme Quill To Live Leader had an important wedding to attend…and plan. Last week, he tied the knot! And most of our readers/writers have been on the East Coast to celebrate his next chapter. So we’ve been a bit behind, but the good news is we’re back on track!

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be back with new content on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“What have you been reading?”

Most of us are still head-down in Peter Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy. Check out our discussion about the first installment here, and read Andrew’s review of the second one here. Plus, sneak peek—we’re MUCH more divided on book two than we were on book one. More on that to come.

In between the long reading sessions required to plow through a 3000+ page epic sci-fi trilogy, we’re catching up on our personal TBRs. On top of all that, one of us took a three-month plunge into a Kindle-only reading schedule after years as a paper-or-bust apologist. Expect a write-up of that experience in the coming weeks!

What we’re really going for here are a few points:

  1. Thank you for your patience as we were away for a while.
  2. Great content to come, and we can’t wait for you to share your thoughts with us!

Thanks,

The Quill To Live Staff

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The Lost Puzzler – That’s A Twist, Very Twisty

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_Post-apocalyptic fantasy/science fiction fusions are becoming more common, which I am happy about. Despite being a mashup of three different genres, the trio seems to work well together and I have been reading some excellent work in the space in the last few years. There is something really satisfying about watching a protagonist rule over a wasteland with scientific powers so advanced they might as well be magic. The latest entry I have read in this niche is The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless. It is a great debut from an author I knew nothing about before I read the book on a whim. Additionally, I don’t normally care about the personal lives of authors when I judge their books, but Eyal Kless is a pretty cool exception. Turns out he is both a professional violinist and a professor at the Buchmann Mehta school of music in Tel Aviv. Clearly, he is a pretty talented guy, and if you are the type who prioritizes books from international authors this might be right up your alley.

So, The Lost Puzzler. For starters, the book is another in the current trend of using a historian exploring the past as a narrative technique. The book is split into two POV’s, the first of which is a scribe of the Guild of Historians. The scribe has been tasked with a dangerous mission to discover the fate of Rafik, a boy who has been missing for a decade and is said to be a ‘puzzler’ (get it, he’s a puzzler who is lost, titles). 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. The Tarkanian civilization was an empire with extremely powerful technology that more or less imploded, taking most of the known world with it, in an event called ‘The Catastrophe’. While I like a lot of things about The Lost Puzzler, I will say the names in the book are a bit uninspired. Following The Catastrophe, humanity fragmented into a number of guilds and groups that banded together to survive. 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.

As I mentioned the book has two POV’s in two different timelines. The first is the scribe’s journey in the present as he tries to find Rafik, and the second tells the story of Rafik from childhood up until he disappears. One of the things that I like about the book is that the story is fairly evenly split between the two timelines and does a good job having them compliment each other. Rafiks story focuses a lot on the difficulties of growing up as a puzzler. He was born in a community that has reverted after the Catastrophe, becoming deeply faithful to the new gods they worship while shunning everything to do with technology. This makes life hard for Rafik when strange tattoos marking him as a puzzler began appearing on his fingertips. He is exiled from his family and starts a journey out into the wider world, with painful naivety.

Rafik works as an excellent vessel for worldbuilding, as his backwater origins make it feel natural for characters to constantly be explaining how the world around them works – and the world is very interesting to dive into. Kless did a great job of building intrigue and my curiosity as I saw more and more of what was left of the planet (presumably Earth). However, while the worldbuilding and events were great to read – they did sometimes feel a little choppy. I occasionally would sink into a really cool segment – like Rafik’s time with a super truck (a MASSIVE semi-truck that is a lot cooler than it sounds) captain – only to be a little disappointed when the narrative moved on too quickly. The narrative jumps only slow down in the second part of the book when Rafik is employed by a looters guild that is obsessed with exploring a lost city of the Tarkanian empire. And although this is the most stable of the parts of the narrative, it also isn’t as fun or as interesting as the first parts of the book.

The characters were great though. I think I ended up liking our scribe narrator more than Rafik, as I found the scribe’s character arc of self-actualization very satisfying to read. However, there weren’t any bad characters, including the antagonists and supporting cast. Kless did a great job making people feel like lawless rabble that had to carve out space to live in a shitty world, but still made them likable in their own way. There is a good mix of selfish assholes and people who have moments of kindness to make the world feel terrible but not hopeless.

In general, I really liked The Lost Puzzler. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubix cube, and I liked that a lot. The book ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, and I was sufficiently drawn in to definitely want to pick up the sequel. I just hope that Eyal Kless smooths out the writing a little bit and improves his pacing ever so slightly. Otherwise, I think The Lost Puzzler is a fantastic debut and you should check it out.

Rating: The Lost Puzzler – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – Siege Loads Of Fun

97803162708091It is always really exciting when one of our dark horse titles pays off. Today I am talking about Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker, a standalone novel with a mouthful of a title. The book is a relatively short story of an army engineer that needs to Macgyver his way through a siege against a horde of enemies with only some duct tape and some rocks. While the book isn’t particularly deep or well fleshed out, it is definitely a lot of fun to read and will provide a number of hours of great entertainment to anyone who likes seeing witty engineers pull stuff out of their collective asses.

Sixteen’s plot is straightforward and I have almost already summarized it in my opening paragraph. The narrative follows Orhan, an army engineer whose claim to fame is that he is incredibly lazy but intuitive enough at his work to get away with it. The country he works for has had a mass uprising, and the army deserts and joins the enemy. Thus, Orhan is left to defend a city with just a handful of engineers and whatever he can scrape together. The book follows the typical siege story format, with each side continually one-upping each other in a spectacular fashion to either hold or take the city. Orhan is extremely fun to read about and his solutions to the problems facing the siege are imaginative, fun, and captivating. There aren’t a ton of deep themes in the book, but there are a lot of fun and hilarious scenes.

The narrative is focused primarily on Orhan, but there is a wonderful supporting cast as well. There is an undercurrent of racial politics in the book, as Orhan is part of a racially discriminated group within the empire. It leads to complicated feelings on Orhan’s part when it comes to why he is defending the city. It serves to make Orhan more likable, as we get to see him rising above hate and doing the right thing, but it doesn’t feel particularly thought-provoking. Likewise, the worldbuilding is pretty barebones. Most of the things that K. J. Parker fleshes out are immediately relevant to the story and you don’t get a sense of a living or breathing world. In fact, due to the shallow worldbuilding, the story can even feel a little contrived at times, and Parker does not leave a lot of room to build out the story further. However, not every book needs to be a sweeping epic that shows you the minute wonders of the universe – it’s also great to read for pure enjoyment, which this book delivers in droves.

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City is a book I would recommend to most people, particularly if they like engineering or witty/roguish protagonists. The book is not breaking much new ground in fantasy, but it is delivering a fun time in a streamlined package. This book would be a great read for any beach or plane ride, or for when you are looking for something light to break up some of your denser reading. I wish the worldbuilding had been slightly more extensive, but it was a fun ride all the same. Check it out.

Rating: Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Library At Mount Char – ….What?

91amvrcfa5lReaders, this book is super weird. Honestly, The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, is one of the weirdest books I have ever read – and I have read some weird shit. This book defies nearly every convention I can think of in the fantasy/speculative fiction genres but tells a really strange (but interesting) story in a disjointed manner. Not only is the subject matter of the book super weird, but Hawkins has an odd author’s voice that took me a long time to wrap my mind around – though I eventually came to like it. I don’t really know where to start, so I am just going to jump right into this fascinating book.

The Library at Mount Char has a fairly straightforward plot: a man with godlike powers and knowledge (who we will call Adam for simplicity) takes in a group of orphans to train as his successors. The book is set in a vaguely modern/90s time/era and mostly takes place in Adam’s massive and magical library (which is at Mount Char). The library contains a number of subsections, each of which an orphan is given exclusive rights and dominion over. They are tasked with learning everything they can in their area, with the only rule being that they under no circumstances can study someone else’s section. Our protagonist is Carolyn, one of the aforementioned orphans, who is given dominion over the language section. The narrative is broken into roughly two sections. The first follows Carolyn and some of her “siblings” learning about their sections and the library. The second follows the fallout of the various children when “Adam” suddenly disappears and they are left to their own devices, and this is when things really kick into gear.

Now the plot is a little out there, but that’s not actually what makes this book strange. Its quintessential weirdness comes from the fact that it is written like a fever dream. The pacing and the narrative are chaotic as hell, rapidly changing speed and style with little to no warning. There is almost no consistency in the book, tons of things are left completely unexplained, and the story evolves several times to take on new forms and directions. The reader is left completely adrift at sea with almost no foundation to build on, and yet it somehow all still works. I don’t even really understand how, and I have reviewed something like three hundred books in the last few years. Things that I would massively critique other books for, like the fact that half the sections of the library are never even explored, somehow just work in The Library at Mount Char.

Normally when I talk about oddball books like this, I tend to say something like “people will either love it or hate it” – but I don’t actually think that is the case with The Library at Mount Char. I think most people would enjoy this, if only for the experience of getting to the end and saying “what the hell did I just read.” It didn’t really stick with me – I didn’t find the book deep or thought-provoking. But, I did find it interesting. I kept picking it back up and saying “ok where the actual hell is he going with this”. I constantly wanted to know what was coming next. Not in an “edge of your seat engrossed” sort of way, but in an “I am a moth staring at a flame and I find myself compelled to keep going and I don’t know why” sort of way.

I know this review is kinda useless as I have fundamentally failed at rendering judgment on whether The Library at Mount Char is worth your time. However, at the end of the day, it’s because I just don’t know. It’s a weird catch-22 of “you will know after you read it.” It is definitely a smart and unique book. Scott Hawkins on some level knew what he was doing – or at least was able to write something so interesting and different that he could pass off that he knows what he’s doing. It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t satisfying, but it was good? That is about all I got.

Rating: The Library at Mount Char – I don’t know, you read it and tell me/10
-Andrew

The Neutronium Alchemist – Hotter Than A Dying Sun

original_400_600I am back with installment two of our collective journey through the strange abyss that is Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. If you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, the staff of QTL is doing a collective read and discussion of this iconic sci-fi trilogy. However, the discussions have a ton of spoilers for the books, so as the reader who is the most on top of his schedule I am also writing some reviews of the books. Today I will be talking about book two, The Neutronium Alchemist. You can find the spoiler-free review of book one here and the group discussion of book one here.

So long story short, The Neutronium Alchemist is reallllllly good. It’s superior in almost every single way to book one, The Reality Dysfunction, and is probably one of my favorite science fiction books. The plot is a little hard to talk about without spoilers, but the story, in brief, is a natural continuation of the events that started in book one. The aforementioned spirit plague has started consuming entire planets, but the collective of humanity now understands the threat that they are facing and are starting to get organized around the threat. Despite everything I loved about The Reality Dysfunction, one of its few major misses was the fact that the overarching “spirit plague” plotline felt divorced from the independent stories we were reading through the various characters. Conversely, The Neutronium Alchemist is almost entirely a reactionary piece cataloging how humanity is facing this new massive threat. Through this narrative, Hamilton fleshes out the higher level plot in ways that were severely lacking in book one as well as showcases his incredible ability to explore how a collective species would react to rapid large scale changes in their lives. In my opinion, The Neutronium Alchemist is an anthropological wet dream.

Additionally, the characters grow both in depth and in cast size. There are some very satisfying development arcs with existing characters, as well as a much more even division of POVs across Hamilton’s universe. I mentioned that there felt like there was some potential lurking sexist writing in the first book, and while The Neutronium Alchemist doesn’t do much to justify the small problematic parts of book one there also aren’t any additional offenses that I noticed. The second book seems to do a much better job elevating female POVs and putting them center stage. The worldbuilding is a step more coherent, with Hamilton moving from describing a number of individual planets to painting a picture of a large galactic human empire. The second book does a much better job characterizing humanity as a whole and showing the tensions and interactions between the various sects of human culture.

All in all, if you enjoyed The Reality Dysfunction – you are really going to like The Neutronium Alchemist. If you managed to finish TRD but didn’t know if you wanted to continue, I recommend that you do. Book two has kept everything that was good about Hamilton’s debut novel and improved almost every place it fell short. Despite being over 1300 pages I tore through TNA and could not put it down. Now we will just have to see if my fellow site members agree with me.

Rating: The Neutronium Alchemist – 10/10
-Andrew

Tiamat’s Wrath – Welcome To The End Game

51xnnd8dqtlI have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now”. The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left.

For those of you who haven’t read through book seven, I would turn back now and reconsider your life choices. There are no spoilers for Tiamat’s Wrath in this review but it is impossible to talk about the plot without spoiling older books to a degree. Wrath picks up right on the tail end of its predecessor, Persepolis Rising, and starts with a major character death on literally the first line. Yeah, that’s a really good metaphor the emotional roller coaster that is this book so strap the fuck in. Wrath focuses on humanity following the rise of Laconia and explores how our collective race reacts to yet another massive change in the structure of galactic power. It is a fairly bleak picture. Our “heroes” have been reduced to covert guerilla fighters who must strike from the shadows with the effectiveness of an ant tanking on a tank, while the Laconia explores ring systems looking for what killed the Protomoleculians.

The book is told from the perspective of Naomi, Bobbie, Alex, the returning Doctor Elvi (from Cibola Burns), and a new character Teresa who happens to be Duarte’s daughter. As always, the characters are just phenomenal and I am more attached to some of them than members of my own family. As I talked about in my Persepolis review, the cast is getting old – Corey paints a vivid picture of a generation that is running out of time metaphorically and literally as they get on in years. Wrath’s themes revolve a lot around people who are questioning if their fight is still worth it after all these years. The book is draped in this pervasive atmosphere of exhaustion, and it bleeds into the reader as you embark on what feels like a final journey with old friends.

While the book is just one emotional kick in the shin after another on the character front, Wrath also finally pulls the curtain back on the two alien races we have been guessing about since book one. You learn a buttload about both the Protomoleculians, and the race that killed them, and it serves beautifully to set us up for the grand finale. It feels weird that Corey has managed to cram so much excellent worldbuilding into the EIGHTH book in a series, but the two of them never seem to stop. The action is fantastic, as always, and the book ends with one of the most exciting and prolonged fights of the entire series. All in all, this is probably one of my favorite Expanse books. My only real criticism is that our current arch-villain, Admiral Duarte, doesn’t feel as magnificent or clever in Wrath as I would have hoped. Duarte makes some questionable choices in Wrath that felt a little out of character and more based on Corey moving the plot where they wanted it to go. However, this was a small complaint on an otherwise stellar book.

Tiamat’s Wrath continues The Expanse’s tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how the Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

Rating: Tiamat’s Wrath – 9.5/10
-All Of Us

Seven Blades In Black – Music To My Ears

41dr4iarovlMy title is a pretty clever pun, but you won’t get it unless you read this book – which you should. Seven Blades in Black is the first novel in a new series by Sam Sykes. If you follow any fantasy authors on Twitter, you are probably at least aware of Sykes. He is a major personality online and can often be found by his hilarious tweets and loud voice about the genre. I enjoy his Twitter persona, but I had some difficulty getting into his first series, Bring Down Heaven, as it read too much like a transplanted Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Although his first books were funny, I found them a little shallow and quickly lost the interest to continue. However, I have wanted to give Sykes another shot since my first attempt, and his new series provided the perfect opportunity. Happily, this time I stuck to the book like glue on more glue.

My best description of this fascinating book is that it’s a cross between a western, Kill Bill, and a quest fantasy. The story is all about our protagonists, Sal the Cacophony (get the title pun now?), who is awaiting her execution. Before she gets murdered for her heathen ways, she convinces the inquisitor to listen to a last confession, during which she narrates her life that brought her to this moment. This includes how she burned down several towns, killed countless people, and was once a powerful mage. However, it is implied right from the start that her time as a mage is in the past tense, and something horrible happened to her that put her on a quest for vengeance. In line with this, we get to watch Sal hunt and murder a mysterious group of people she has on a hit list, slowly learning what they did to earn her ire as the book progresses.

The plot is engrossing, already addressing all the issues I had with the last book by Sykes that I read. Sal is an absolutely delightful character and it took me no time at all to get invested in her quest. She is funny, tough, emotional, deep, and shows clear growth throughout the book. On top of all of this, she has a kick-ass spell gun called “The Cacophony” that shoots walls of sound, fields of ice, and fireballs that had me dreaming of Outlaw Star. To top it all off, the two main supporting cast members are just as great. Liette is a spunky lady with a penchant for invention and the major love interest of Sal. Initially, I found the romance between Sal and Liette a little cliche – but at some point when I wasn’t paying attention, Sykes sunk his claws into me and I started really caring about their relationship. The final team member is Cavrac, an innocent do-gooder who you cannot help but love. His plotline is basically about him realizing the world is a lot shittier than he thought it was – but his exuberance and positive attitude are infectious and you can’t help but root for him.

On top of all of this, the entire thing takes place in a very well actualized and developed magical world. The most important things to know are that there are essentially two major warring factions in this story – the royal mages and the common working class. The concepts behind these two factions are ones I have seen many a time – a decadent and egotistical aristocratic group of mages tries to rule the world like asshole dictators and the magic-less working class rises up and forms a zealous communist militia to swarm them with numbers. However, while these are not the most unique political factions, Sykes’ interplay between the groups throughout the book is extremely satisfying and that is all that matters. Plus, his magic (which will go unexplained because of spoilers) is super cool. A lot of the magic system revolves around the costs of power and I really enjoyed it.

Although I loved the book, it had a few areas I felt could be improved. The plot felt a little convoluted by design – you constantly get the feeling that you didn’t have all the puzzle pieces to understand what was in front of you. However, while I get the sense that by the end of the series everything will come together it was a little frustrating when I finished the first book and didn’t have a great picture of what was happening and now have to wait possibly years to get answers. In addition, the middle of the book had some pacing issues. The front and end feel very directed and fast, but there is a large lull in the middle that could have used some tightening up.

Seven Blades in Black is funny, emotional, and transportive. Although the book could have used a little trimming to its 700 page count, the strengths of the book are enough to carry it through any of its shortcomings. The mysteries of Sykes’ world pique the curiosity and capture the imagination – this will be a series to pay attention to in the coming years. We at The Quill to Live definitely recommend Sam Sykes’ most recent book, Seven Blades In Black.

Rating: Seven Blades In Black – 8.0/10
-Andrew