Ashes Of The Sun – Hotter Than Plasma

517sguwkonlDjango Wexler presented me with a conundrum after finishing his newest book, Ashes of the Sun. Ashes is the first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series, and on the one hand, Ashes is really good, and I am frothing at the mouth to get my hands on the next book in the series. On the other hand, Ashes tells a perfected version of a story I have seen in numerous fantasy books and makes me feel like I wasted days of my life reading other lesser books when I could have just read Ashes and saved time. So as you can see, I both love and resent this book for making other authors look like amateurs.

Ashes of the Sun has a number of plot elements that you have likely seen in existing fantasy stories. The world of Ashes is this post-apocalyptic fantasy hellscape. The reader learns early on that there once was a war between the Chosen – (over)zealous elemental magic users with divine power – and the Ghouls – biomancers with a penchant for sculpting flesh and machine into powerful combinations. The war between the Chosen and the Ghouls ravaged the lands and ended up killing both of them by the end of the war. Now, the only surviving semblance of either faction is a group of mages that served the Chosen, called The Twilight Order. The Order consists of humans who have a connection to magic at birth and are gathered from families at a young age by force to be trained as warriors. The Order’s job consists of essentially monitoring old magic and artifacts from the war and policing them so they don’t end up in the hands of regular humans. Part of this monitoring involves the tracking down and removal of Plaguespawn, bioweapons left laying around that eat people if they aren’t dealt with.

The protagonists are siblings that are separated at a young age. The prologue starts with them living on their family farm – Gyre, the older boy, looking after some livestock while Maya, the younger girl, runs around being a cute toddler. This gets interrupted when a member of the Twilight Order comes to scout Maya for initiation. When The Order mage tries to take her from her family by force, Gyre stands up to the caster and gets horribly maimed. While Maya ends up dropped into The Order for the next twelve years, Gyre starts to explore remnants of Ghoul technology left over from the war to enhance his body. The two siblings naturally end up on opposite sides of a very complicated conflict and must sort out the best way to move forward.

The thing about Ashes of the Sun is it has enormous depth. It’s a little difficult to explain, but the book’s power comes from all the small details. Nothing about this book is surface level; everything has been meticulously considered and thought out, breathing a huge amount of life into the world and characters. The world is fascinating and the Ghouls and Chosen have a lot of flavor. The clash of magic and technology is easy and intuitive for the reader to grasp, and neither side is painted as a black and white villain. The post-apocalyptic landscape is original and engaging. Reading about how salvagers dig for relics, or how the surviving humans retrofit the Chosen and Ghoul cities after the war to meet their needs, is enthralling. Every part of this world just aggressively pulls you in and makes you want more – and the worldbuilding isn’t even the best part.

My personal favorite thing about Ashes is our protagonists, Gyre and Maya. Both are complex, relatable POVs that go through an enormous amount of growth, and you can very clearly understand how they were shaped by their different upbringings. Most importantly, their relationship with each other is complicated, interesting, and believable. I have read around five “sibling on other sides of the war” stories in the last few years, and this one makes the rest look like they are bumbling around in the dark. Gyre and Maya have the perfect balance of love, respect, and distrust of one another and it’s like falling into an immersion riptide. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that each protagonist has a colorful and memorable support cast that I hated at first, but would die for by the end of the book. Wexler’s ability to grow characters is impressive.

In addition, the plot of the book is exciting. This is not a slow read, with the pacing resembling an out of control brushfire. The book bounces you from small conflict to small conflict while using the time to slowly expose the reader to the world and how it works. By the time you are able to take a breath, the larger objectives and mysteries start to come into focus and the scope expands to a much larger scale. On top of this, the action is awesome. Maya and the rest of the order fling the elements about in flashy and explosive ways, while Gyre and the Ghouls build these nightmares that stretch the imagination and boggle the mind.

I aggressively recommend Ashes of the Sun as one of the strongest books to come out in 2020 so far. I was a fan of Wexler’s older work, but Ashes is a noticeable step up in worldbuilding, characterization, and general prose. I have earmarked this as one of my most anticipated series in years and I highly recommend that you don’t sleep on this one. Come see what all the buzz is about in this climactic first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series.

Rating: Ashes of the Sun – 10/10
-Andrew

The Best Books Of The First Half Of 2020

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this has been a difficult year for most people. Thus, we wanted to get a jumpstart on getting amazing books into your hands in order to find a little joy. Instead of waiting until November to give you all a list of the best books of 2020, we decided to compile a small list of dynamite novels from the first half of 2020. A book charcuterie board, if you will. So, if 2020 has you down and you need a high-quality read – look no further than these books. In no particular order, here are our top six reads from January to June 2020:

51iik4c-6gl1) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Coming in hot on the heels of Foundryside, Shorefall is a perfect second book to The Founders trilogy. The magic system continues to be one of the most innovative and exciting I have read in years, and Bennett’s flair for action, imagination, and horror are on full display. As a bonus, the themes of the book revolve around connecting people from different POV to make the world a better place and finding hope when all looks lost – a perfect book for current events.

81mny8q7oll2) The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – TJ Klune penned one of the most joyful books I’ve ever read. The House in the Cerulean Sea follows by-the-books caseworker Linus Baker, who audits orphanages that house magical youth. When he’s sent on a particularly difficult assignment, Linus finds himself embraced by an unlikely family of talented magical children and their quirky caretaker. To read this book is to smile through every page, laugh along with the witty humor, and shed an occasional tear. Klune crafts perfectly timed, subtle, emotional, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose. Through it, he creates characters that you truly come to love over the course of the novel. The House in the Cerulean Sea is unquestionably one of the year’s top books, and everyone should read this feel-good adventure as soon as possible.

41spd48rbal3) Network Effect by Martha Wells – I just really didn’t think Network Effect was going to be such a success. I am so used to authors cashing in on popular IPs and writing terrible spin-offs that I was jaded, and Network Effect is anything but that. This novel sequel to the popular Murderbot novellas is the perfect transition between the two mediums. Network Effect takes everything good about the short punchy novellas and expands the world, cast, and plot without losing any of the character depth. On top of everything, Network sets the stage for a big and exciting plot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am4) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – Usually one-sentence ideas like “gender-bent Alexander the Great in outer space” sound cool (and this one sounds amazing) but fall flat beyond initial expectations. Elliott, however, runs a marathon with it and at breakneck speed. The amount of world-building, character development, and political intrigue that goes into this first novel of a series is astounding. Elliott also plays very heavily with her narrative style that makes you hooting and hollering for a form of propaganda. It’s a genuinely fun read that blew away my expectations and should definitely be on your list of to-reads for the year.

91xjptkukl5) The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo – I have read so many Asian inspired fantasies about slighted royals getting even in the last six months. Yet somehow, this novella packed more character and spirit into its short hundred pages than any of the other full-sized novels I read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the perfect balance of familiar and original. It’s a short read with great pacing and sets up a world that Nghi will continue to explore in subsequent novellas. I was so impressed with this novella that it managed to edge out a lot of the other full novels from 2020 – but it isn’t the only one.

50905325._sx0_sy0_6) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – We still need to get around to reviewing this one, much to our shame. Prosper’s Demon has a very specific story to tell, and it tells it flawlessly. Parker has an agenda and an argument to be made, and he utilizes this short story to execute both with a flawless flourish. It isn’t the best or most fun story I have ever read, but holy cow does Parker nail his themes and characters. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s only like 80 pages long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you can read it in an hour.

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds – Nobody Faster

51wgb7eeelI gotta hand it to Alex White, the quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. Today we will be talking about the third and final installment of the trilogy, The Worst of All Possible Worlds. On top of White continuing their trend of extremely verbose but super cool names, they have managed to write an explosive and climactic conclusion the likes of which I have not read for a while. Usually, finale books in trilogies are hard to talk about due to spoilers, but I have so many nice things to say about this book that this review essentially wrote itself.

If you are just hearing about this series for the first time, please go read my reviews of either book one (A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe) or book two (A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy) and get started – you will not regret it. For everyone else, strap the heck in. Our story picks up very soon after the end of Galaxy, and the crew of the Capricious is feeling pretty worn down and wrung out despite their massive success in book two. They’re hurting from their losses, and though they have made noticeable progress against their nebulous foe – the antagonist is still going strong. Unfortunately, the big bad guy of the series has decided the time for stealth is over and launches a full-scale invasion with overwhelming firepower against the known universe. The crew quickly realize that there is no way to currently beat back the rising tide of enemies. So, as usual, the Capricious sets out to find a lost legend – Origin, humanities cradle of life – in the hopes it might have something that can win the battle.

I was actually recently talking about this series when I wrote my guide to Science Fantasy. As I mentioned in that piece, The Salvagers is a beautiful action-packed fusion of a world that combines magic and technology for astoundingly cool results. I also mention in that piece that there is nothing I have read that comes close to my favorite work of science fantasy, Heroes Die,… until now. Worlds has this perfect fusion of both fantasy and sci-fi that work together in concert to build a symphony of awesome. The biggest theme throughout the series is using historical knowledge and research (fantasy) to innovate powerful leaps forward in technology (science-fiction) – and it works to blend the two genres wonderfully. But, the use of this theme is a wonderful element that all three books have – so let’s focus on the two huge things that Worlds’ nails in particular.

The first is blockbuster action. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. I was initially a little worried based on the back blurb that makes the book sound like it’s going to be a McGuffin fetch quest to Deus ex the conflict away. It is nothing close to that, with Worlds containing action sequence after action sequence, set piece after set piece. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse.

The second thing Worlds does right is the emotional pay-off. Now back when I read book one three years ago, one of my major criticisms of White is that their writing felt somewhat overemotional. I love huge emotional scenes, but it felt like White was putting the cart before the horse and trying to get the reader to feel massively connected to these characters that the reader just hadn’t spent enough time with. Yet, that same weakness in book one is now a massive strength in the finale. The emotional payoff in Worlds’ is like winning a lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series.

I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. My only complaint is I felt there were a few too many unanswered questions at the end of Worlds, especially if White doesn’t plan to return to the world any time soon. I can say with confidence and ease that this will be one of the strongest science fiction and fantasy books of 2020. Go read this series right now.

Rating: The Worst of All Possible Worlds – 10/10
-Andrew

Peace Talks – Excited To Be Back, Yet Disappointed To Be Here

51mbjzgnffl._sx329_bo1204203200_I am a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series. I could sit here all day and nitpick the problems I have with Butcher’s prose and characters, but at the end of the day I still really like this 16-book urban fantasy. There are few series that have this much content to sink your teeth into, and while there are a few duds in the series, the average quality of the books is pretty great. There is something about Butcher’s world and its mash-up of lores that is just delightfully fun to step into. Yet, it has been over six years since readers got their last fix. The previous book, Skin Game, came out in May of 2014 and was one of the strongest books in the series. Skin Game was about a crack team trying to rob the god of the underworld, Hades, of the holy grail. What an exciting and thrilling book it was. Now we have Peace Talks, which is about Dresden… talking… a lot?

I am going to get this out right up front: Peace Talks was a simultaneously nostalgic and disappointing experience. There is very little going on in this book – there aren’t many new plot elements, there is very little character growth, and it kinda felt like reading an anime filler arc. The majority of the story focuses on Dresden’s relationships with his half-brother and grandfather, but even in that dimension, there is very little growth and progress. The first 80% of the book focuses on Dresden’s brother committing a crime for which his motivations are never explained, and we follow Dresden trying to keep him out of a metaphorical noose. It’s a whole lot of Dresden saying “we shouldn’t murder my brother” and a whole lot of everyone else saying “please stop inexplicably defending a war criminal that committed a lot of war crimes on video.” The back 20% of the book has some climactic and exciting developments, but they are just set up for the next book with no exploration in Peace Talks itself. Given the fact that the sequel, Battle Ground, comes out in a few months – I think it is safe to say that Butcher wrote one long book that he decided to split in half and Peace Talks got all the setup. This isn’t a good book.

Despite being fairly empty of substance, it’s still fun to be back in the world of Harry Dresden. I was actually curious as a lot has changed in the fantasy landscape since these books were still regularly coming out. Butcher’s treatment of female characters has always been a little problematic, and I was excited to see that he seems to have fixed some of these issues. Female characters have more agency and depth, and while they do still talk about sex A LOT it isn’t the only thing they talk about anymore. At the same time, Dresden’s stance on the opposite gender has not aged well, and I do not think the earlier books in this series would survive a time capsule unscathed. Also, I never really noticed this before but every description that Butcher makes of character seems to comprise two features from a pool of four options. People are either over 6’5” or under 5’, and they are either jacked as a brick wall or so lean you could cut yourself on their bones.

I had fun reading Peace Talks, I enjoy being in this world. However, this was not Butcher’s best work and I enjoyed it in the way one enjoys a trashy romance novel. I am glad Dresden is back, but this belongs at the bottom of the series’ rankings. Hopefully, the follow-up novel in a few months will deliver where Peace Talks fumbled, otherwise I might need to reassess my love for Chicago’s only openly-practicing wizard.

Rating: Peace Talks – 4.0/10
-Andrew

The Obsidian Tower – A Tall Success

50147675._sx0_sy0_The Obsidian Tower, by Melissa Caruso, is the first in a new spinoff series set in the Tethered Mage world. Normally, I am not one for spinoff series; I enjoy jumping into new worlds rather than returning to ones I know for what is often a B-list version of the original series I liked. However, in Caruso’s instance, I made an exception as she continued to expand the scope of her world and story from the original series and left a lot of room for exploration. In addition, her writing quality has improved with each book she has put out, and I was curious to see if this trend continued. So I decided to dig into The Obsidian Tower, and am happy to say it is a delightful book filled with delicious mysteries.

If you are new to Melissa Caruso’s work I recommend you start with her first book The Tethered Mage (reviewed here). But, if you just can’t wait to read The Obsidian Tower, it is a completely standalone series set sometime after Caruso’s initial series. Caruso’s world is one of rampant dangerous magic and antagonistic empires that love political cloak and dagger shenanigans. The protagonist of Obsidian is Ryx, a royal mage whose job is to guard the aforementioned obsidian tower that has been in her family for generations. No one knows what is inside it or what it does, but the family lore is quite clear on what her duties are – don’t let it be opened. Unsurprisingly, Ryx fails at this duty almost immediately at the start of the book, and the tower is breached. But what Ryx finds inside is confusing and puzzling, and sets off an exciting investigation as to what the purpose of the tower was and why was it sealed.

Caruso’s original series was primarily a political drama, with some romance splashed in on the side. The Obsidian Tower is a mystery book first, with a large side of political drama. I really enjoy this genre change-up and actually think that Caruso is a stronger mystery writer than she is a romance writer. The tower is a fun enigma, and I was very much invested in pulling apart its secrets. Caruso is very skillful in how she parcels out information, and the pacing of the book is excellent, constantly sitting at a low burn.

In addition, Ryx is an excellent protagonist who brings a lot to the table. For starters, she is a viviomancer – a magic-user whose power is directly entwined with the land her family controls. It is a unique and interesting magic that was used primarily by the antagonists in Caruso’s first series, and it is definitely fun seeing it used from the POV of the characters you are rooting for in Obsidian. Ryx has the added complication of her magic being “broken.” She had an accident while growing up, and it caused her magic to somehow go wrong. Now she is a magical Midas, siphoning the life energy out of anything near her and killing literally everything she touches. Caruso did a lot more with this premise than I was expecting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the story. Ryx essentially has to live like a combination of a cripple and leper – using specialized tools that she can’t break with her power and never coming near another human for fear of killing them. There is a nice exploration of what this does to her emotionally and I really enjoyed hearing a story from someone in this POV. A+ protagonist, sign me up for more.

However, I was less impressed with the supporting cast in Obsidian, especially compared to Caruso’s first series. The side characters consist of primarily three groups: 1) Ryx’s family members and servants, 2) envoys and ambassadors from various other political powers who are in her home for a summit, and 3) an independent group of mages from different countries who investigate magical disasters like a fantasy United Nations. There were a few interesting individuals from each of the three groups, but I found most of the supporting cast forgettable and wish they had more depth (like the large support cast in Caruso’s first series did). On the other hand, the worldbuilding and prose continue to improve with every book Caruso writes. Obsidian benefits massively from the groundwork that the previous series laid, but does a fantastic job expanding the maps and magic of the world. The prose is slightly better and I am constantly impressed by Caruso’s drive to improve and streamline her writing.

Overall, The Obsidian Tower is a great spinoff and fun for new and old fans of Caruso’s writing. The book is packed with fun mysteries and a highly original protagonist with a unique POV. The pacing and prose are good and I found almost nothing to complain about. The Quill to Live gives a warm recommendation that you check out The Obsidian Tower, and also Caruso’s previous books if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Rating: The Obsidian Tower – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Harrow The Ninth – Sure, Ok, Yeah

9781250313225God, it’s like assembling a fusion reactor without a manual. I am honestly surprised at my perceived commercial success of Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series. Not that it is bad in any way – in fact, we gave book one a stellar review and listed the series as one of our top Science Fantasy books of all time. It’s just that these books are so confusing that you will literally never understand what is happening, which is usually a huge turn off for most readers. I am pleasantly surprised that the general public has collectively decided these books are worth the time and effort.

So, Harrow The Ninth, the second book in the series, is coming out soon. You might be sitting on your couch right now, browsing this review on your phone, and thinking “oh a Harrow review, maybe he will say the books get less confusing.” Well reader, no, unfortunately, I cannot say that because I don’t understand half the plot, and the other half I do understand is basically all spoilers. And yet, I absolutely do recommend this stellar second installment of the series. This puts me in an awkward position because I usually use the plot and story as the foundation of why I like a book like Harrow the Ninth. Thus, much like The Locked Tomb’s storytelling, this review is going to be a little unorthodox.

So what can I tell you? Well, Harrow the Ninth picks up our story shortly after the end of book one from the perspective of the other half of the delectorable duo of Gideon and Harrow. If you are completely new to this series, in Gideon the Ninth our duo represents a tag team of warrior/bodyguard (Gideon) and space necromancer (Harrow) competing in a strange unorthodox game of sorts and told from the POV of Gideon.

In the second book, Harrow the Ninth, Harrow is the frontliner and it leads me to my next profoundly gushy thought about this series. Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure when flipping from the POV of Gideon to Harrow, and yet both styles have extremely excellent prose. This prose and style shift is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. It reminded me of my The Black Company, by Glen Cook, and if you have read my large thought piece on the series, you will know that is a good thing.

Harrow the Ninth is split into two narratives because Harrow essentially lobotomizes herself at the start of book for… reasons. This metaphorical icepick to the brain is a key factor in how Muir completely alters her prose to evoke Harrow’s POV. Half the story is a strange heavily changed retelling of book one, and the other half is Harrow trying to piece her mind back together post lobotomy. This means that Harrow is doing one of two things to the reader at all times: 1) actively lying about how events happened or 2) being so confused about what is going on that she might as well be lying. Harrow might win the award for the single most unreliable narrator in the world, and it’s amazing. See, Harrow the Ninth is less about telling a coherent narrative and much more about watching a character claw her way back to sanity – and at this, it succeeds magnificently.

Without a clear plot to coherently grasp, I feel like there was a lot of pressure on the characters and world to grab the reader hard. Luckily, both of these aspects of Harrow are phenomenal. The magic in The Locked Tomb continues to be the only series that uses necromancy as its main magic in a cool and innovative way. The blend of fantasy and science fiction is delightful and otherworldly. While I may still be very confused as to what is happening in the plot, book two does a lot to better at fleshing out the magic and technology of the world and puts a ton of cool new tools in the reader’s hands. The characters are also unsurprisingly phenomenal. Harrow is an all-star, and I actually think I like her more than Gideon. Gideon was complicated, amusing, and fun as a protagonist – but Harrow has uncharted depths that I just want to dive into. The supporting cast also continues to be a small set of well fleshed out foils. This book has a lot going for it.

However, I did have one small complaint about Harrow the Ninth that knocked it from getting a perfect score from me. As I mentioned before, a large portion of the narrative is devoted to an altered retelling of book one that has had a ton of facts changed due to Harrow’s brain damage. In the end, I very much understand why Muir added these sections to the story, but I feel that there was too much page space devoted to them. They add very specific elements to the atmosphere and character growth, but I don’t think they needed roughly 30-40% of the page space to do it, and some of the sections can drag. I definitely got the feeling of “why am I rereading this again” a few times.

Harrow the Ninth is a stunning, impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Rating: Harrow the Ninth – 9.5/10
-Andrew

We Ride The Storm – All Prosed Up And Nowhere To Go

51gyn6ucmblSelf-published books are a really interesting conundrum. On one hand, they represent some of the best finds and recommendations a reviewer can make due to their unknown nature. On the other hand, while there are some very good self-published books, there are a lot of really bad ones. What is particularly exciting is when other reviewers, or publishing companies, find great self-published books and bring them into the limelight – doing the work of discovery for you. This is the case with We Ride The Storm, by Devin Madson, a finalist of Mark Lawrence’s self-published blog off and a new acquisition by Orbit publishing. I was excited to dive in when Orbit sent me an early review copy so I could lavish praise on this interesting new series, but I soon realized that would be complicated.

We Ride the Storm uses a classic epic fantasy format: three distinct POVs each tell a piece of a collective story, trading off the narrative lead in succession. First, we have Miko, a princess held captive by her step-father who resents her for her true lineage. Then we have Cassandra, an assassin with a ghost riding in her head with some addiction problems. Finally, we have Rah e’Torin, a warrior exiled to a foreign land who finds himself forced to fight in a war he has no stake in. These characters do a great job fleshing out different parts of the world and slowly building out a world-building tapestry that does a great job painting the Asian-inspired epic as a living and breathing place. The cultures do a nice mix of drawing from multiple Asian cultures, including Mongolian, but don’t rely too heavily on the real world. The various nations and peoples of Storm have their own flavor and flair, and it is a nice mix of old and new. However, while the world is pretty fantastic, the characters that live in it are not.

Each of the three protagonists I mention sounds engaging and exciting on paper, but ultimately they fall flat. As a reader who primarily seeks out character-driven stories, I struggled to enjoy Storm because I disliked almost every character. I enjoyed Cassandra the most, but she was still fairly irritating for most of the story. The other two leads (Rah and Miko) had interesting backstories but felt like they had zero agency for too much of the story. I really didn’t like the side cast members, and some of them did things that were almost offensively dumb. My personal favorite was when a character went into a throne room and committed really aggressive treason when he knew the penalty would be death. When he was asked what his plan was he essentially says “I didn’t have one, I guess I will die,” gets executed, then the book tries to paint it as tragic. No, I will not mourn that dumb-as-bricks idiot. Hard pass. And while I understand that each of the characters lacking control in their lives was a major theme of the story, it led to no one feeling like they had agency on the plot.

But, while I didn’t really connect with any of the cast, I was impressed with the mechanical writing of the story. Madson’s prose is surprisingly good for someone who has primarily self-published. The narrative has a perfect mix of detailed descriptions that aren’t too flowery but really pull you into the rooms, buildings, cities, and outdoor locales that the various characters visit. I was easily able to distract my frustrations with the cast by listening to Madson describe the beautiful and horrible sights you travel through in the course of the book.

We Ride the Storm was very much a mixed bag for me. My frustrations with the cast really hurt the chances this book was going to hit it off with me, but the world-building and prose did an impressive job keeping me invested and intrigued enough to finish it. I likely won’t be going back for a second installment of the series but if you like the characters I can definitely see why some people love this novel. However, it personally wasn’t for me.

Rating: We Ride the Storm – 4.5/10
-Andrew

The Book Rookie – The Well Of Ascension

We are back with part two of The Book Rookie – Mistborn. Today we’re talking about the second book in the series: The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson. Unlike our discussion of the first book in the series, this discussion inherently needs to have some spoilers – but we tried to minimize them as much as possible. However, if you have not read Mistborn, we recommend you hold off on listening to our highly entertaining discussion of book two.

The Book Rookie is essentially a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

Soulkeeper And Ravencaller – Bringing The Magic Back

41885689._sy475_Today, I’m reviewing Soulkeeper and Ravencaller, the first two books in The Keepers trilogy by David Dalglish. I read Soulkeeper a few months ago but decided to hold off on reviewing it until I read the sequel. This was because the books in this trilogy do not tell independent pieces of a story, but feel like one long book that was arbitrarily broken into multiple pieces. There are pros and cons to this strategy that I will get into later, but the first con to this style is that it makes reviewing sequels difficult. So I decided to take the time to read both parts of this series in order to give it a full review because it is definitely worth talking about.

The Keepers is an odd story in that it seems to eschew a number of traditional storytelling elements – in a good way. The premise of the story is this: humans have lived in relative peace and happiness for 1000 years under the guidance of the church of the Three Sisters. The church worships three very real deities that govern creations, life, and death in what feels like a reimagining of the fates from Greek Myth. The Sisters each have various wings of the church dedicated to them, and each wing has different day-to-day jobs that serve the people of the world. According to myth, The Sisters vanquished evil fantasy creatures of the world long ago and built a perfect world for humanity. Turns out that the Sisters actually just blinked all of the magic creatures out of the world, then froze them in time, but they have started to come back. And while they aren’t exactly evil like the lore says, they are definitely angry and looking to take out their rage on humanity.

51vv6wsr2lWhat is interesting about The Keepers is there isn’t really a road map to what the story is about, and it results in the narrative feeling very surprising, fresh, and delightful. There isn’t a clear cut good or bad side, and there isn’t a clear way forward. An outside influence shafted two groups of people who both wanted the same pieces of land, and because both groups hold a good claim to it, they started murdering one another. It feels like a fantasy take on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and while I don’t think The Keepers is going to provide the solution to a conflict that has lasted decades, I do think Dalglish approaches it with mindfulness and thoughtful exploration.

Our cast is a very large collection of character POVs from all sides of the conflict, but there is a focus on a trio from different wings of the Three Sister Church. Devin is a Soulkeeper, traveling through remote villages as a preacher and undertaker of sorts. Adria is a Mindkeeper, who functions as a priest and healer. Tommy is a Wise, a scholar who studies legends and lore to inform the present. Each of them is related through blood or marriage and each of them finds themselves awakening with magical power as the various magical races return to the world. The group acts as the voice of reason in the rising conflicts between human and magical beings, and they collect a number of allies, both human and magical, through the story as they try to keep everyone from killing one another. The three lead characters are all likable and relatable, but I would mostly describe them as inoffensive. I was much more attached to many of the magical side characters, like a sentient fireball named Puffy.

On top of an unusual plot, the series has incredible worldbuilding and magic. The lore, which is extremely relevant to the plot, feels very fleshed out and original. There are “schools” of magic in the world, and each has its own domain. My personal favorite school is “change magic,” which focuses on transmutation on a large and violent scale. One of the antagonists of the story, a magical being named Janus, is a master of this discipline and fights by changing everything he touches into horrific new substances. The fantasy races are also all imaginative and fun. The deer, rabbit, and owl people, in particular, tickled my fancy. In addition, the politics and bureaucracy of the story are well thought out to the point that they feel very believable while providing tons of roadblocks and speed bumps to easy conflict resolution between all the various sides.

Now that you have heard about all the good, let’s talk about some of the bad. First and foremost, I don’t like how The Keepers uses sex as this strange combination of currency and moral compass for the human characters. For the human protagonists, it feels like their “reward” for doing good deeds or saving the day is getting to bone someone. For the human antagonists, it feels like Dalglish is always showing us some horrible sex crime that they committed that indicates how evil they truly are. I thought the relationships, writing, and diverse ways the various characters paired off was well-handled – I just found it strangely discordant that there was so much focus on sex when the major themes of the book seemed to be focused elsewhere. Especially because sex is not used to break down barriers between any groups in conflict. However, there is an antagonist who is a straight-up incel, which felt like it added some interesting commentary. In addition, while I generally liked the prose of the books there were a handful of scenes that definitely felt like the writing was forced or awkward. The difficulties usually had to do with changing between set pieces or character objectives. Some of these transitions could have felt a lot more natural.

The Keepers is a very interesting and original series that most will find refreshing. I would recommend that you wait for all three parts of the trilogy to be out before picking it up, but definitely make sure to read it when you can. Soulkeeper and Ravencaller have some of the best worldbuilding and magic I have read this year, and every page feels filled with mystery and wonder. I know these books are a lot of pages to take on at once, but they are worth it.

Rating: The Keepers – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Kushiel’s Dart – Not My Fetish

51y9zn4wtel._sx310_bo1204203200_We have been recently cooking up a new series we are calling The Book Rookie, which you can find here. The idea behind it is that we pair a reader who is fairly new to the SFF genres, and one that is more well-read, and read breakout genre hits and have a discussion. I am one of the self-proclaimed “well-read” readers in the segment, but in the process of talking about the fantasy landscape as a whole, I realized I still have a few fantasy top hits I haven’t gotten around to reading. One of these genre favorites is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. So I thought to myself, “perfect, I will pick it up, read a guaranteed great book based on public sentiment, expand my list of recommendable female authors, and have an easy review.” That is not how things worked out.

I want to put my closing thoughts upfront this time so you can keep them in mind as you read the rest of the review. I think Kushiel’s Dart is a well-written book with excellent political intrigue and great worldbuilding. However, I think its extremely graphic sexual nature is inseparable from the story – and if you do not find the idea of masochistic play appealing, you are not going to enjoy it. I ended up quitting the book at about 50%, or about 500 pages in.

Our story follows Phèdre nó Delaunay, a woman sold into indentured servitude as a child. She is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with a Count of Monte Cristo-esque quest, and she is plunged face-first into a world of politics and court intrigue. The unique selling point of Phèdre that makes her different than all the other indentured sex slaves in the land, is she is pricked by Kushiel’s Dart (a small mote in her eye), chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Essentially, Phèdre has some nerve endings crossed by magic, and her pain and pleasure receptors are the same thing.

The initial part of the book follows Phèdre’s training in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, as she learns to be a courtesan and a spy. In this portion of the story, it is almost like a magical sex school and I was very much feeling the narrative. Phèdre is an interesting and likable character, and she is surrounded by an equally well fleshed-out cast. The names are a bit difficult to remember at first, but Carey put a lot of work into making every character have their own identity, which quickly helps the reader adapt to the naming conventions. I was very pleased, due to the book’s huge page count, to find that character growth starts early and the reader gets a real sense that Phèdre is being shaped by the world around her. She also feels like she has strong agency and a lot of ability to shape events around her with meaningful decisions and actions. Overall, Phèdre is a very solid character.

Phèdre’s set up is very clearly a convoluted set up to write BDSM and make it logically appropriate for the story and world. But, I will give Carey this, she sells it really well. The prose and poetic nature of Kushiel’s Dart is phenomenal – arguably some of the best prose I have read. Everything is poetic and descriptive and lush with details. To my delight, this made the worldbuilding and politics extremely immersive and expansive. To my displeasure, this made the sex and the torture (often the same thing) unpleasantly graphic. My biggest problem with the book was that over time, the focus starts to shift away from the world and politics, and to rapid-fire sex and torture scenes. In the first quarter of the book, the sex and violence make up what felt like 10-20% of the pages. By the end of the second quarter, the focus felt like it had shifted to be about 80% of page content going to BDSM. It was at this point that I found I couldn’t get away with skimming over Phèdre getting beaten and burned (and liking it) and still follow the plot, so I decided to call it.

If the idea of well written BDSM appeals to you, Kushiel’s Dart may be your next favorite book. Its prose is incredible, and the politics is up there with some of the best court intrigue fantasy I have read. However, if BDSM does not appeal to you, or if you don’t have any feelings about BDSM, then this book is probably not for you. Jacqueline Carey is a wonderful writer but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that this book is mostly sex and violence. It was an interesting reading experience, but Kushiel’s Dart was not for me.

Rating: Kushiel’s Dart – DNF/10
-Andrew