As I mentioned back in my Reality Dysfunction review, we are trying something a little different this year. Here is the first of a series of audio discussions that we will be putting up on the site. The goal is to dive a little deeper into some books to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. If you have some time and fancy a listen, take 45 minutes and check out the first ever Quill to Live discussion:
An interesting book to close out an interesting series. That’s the general gist of this review of Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence, the final installment in The Book of the Ancestor trilogy. For all of you who are waiting with bated breath for what is likely to be one of the most popular books this year, don’t worry. Holy Sister continues in the tradition of its predecessors and manages to tell a fast-paced, highly imaginative, and captivating story. You can find reviews of both of the previous books here and here. At the same time, it almost feels like Holy Sister is successful in spite of Lawrence, with him making a number of choices I find questionable (despite the book still landing on its feet).
Holy Sister tells two stories, each separated by a short time gap. The first storyline picks up where Grey left off: Nona and her friends are on the run from the powerful Noi-Guin and must escape to the ice if they want to live. The second timeline is a few weeks in advance where Nona is back at the convent and completing her final trials to become an official sister. The two timelines meet right as the much foreshadowed invasion of Scithrowl begins and the Sisters of the Ancestor must take the field to repel the invading forces. The split narrative works well, and Lawrence manages the dissemination of information in a skilled and clever manner so that the storylines remain interesting in tandem without stepping on each other’s toes. In addition, the third act where the two narratives meet is extremely climactic and has a lot of great pay off for plot lines that Lawrence has been building since book one. The action was still exciting enough to have me gripping the book in fear, and Lawrence continues his worldbuilding until the last page, potentially setting the world up for a sequel or spin-off series. Overall, the book brings about almost everything I could have wanted from the series… is what I would have said if it wasn’t for a few narrative choices that Lawrence made.
The first, and most problematic for me, is that there is a MAJOR character death off-screen between books two and three. This death murdered the forward momentum of the plot for me and caused me to struggle to care in the first third of the book. Holy Sister eventually recaptured my attention but by the end, I could not a) understand why the death needed to happen at all as it seemed to add little and take away a ton and b) understand why on Earth (or whatever planet they are on) the death needed to happen off-screen. There was so much potential for a pivotal and emotional moment surrounding this characters death that was just tossed out the window. Far be it from me to assign reasoning to Lawrence, but it frankly just felt lazy – like he didn’t want to write about this plotline anymore.
This feeling was mirrored in my other major problem with the book – the pacing surrounding Nona’s trials. I have a hard time in my mind envisioning what a traditional education at the nunnery looks like. Books one and two established a slow and luxurious pacing of how things are supposed to progress with classes and book three throws that pacing out the window in favor of going supersonic. Now, in Lawrence’s defense, he does provide a large amount of in book reasoning for why that happens: the country is invaded by a hostile nation and the end times are upon us. However, to me, it felt more like Lawrence was tired of writing this story and was hurrying me out the door. I was massively less invested in the fate of the world compared to Nona’s time at the convent, so this narrative choice did not sit well with me. On the other hand, while I wasn’t initially as interested in the invasion plot line it did surpass all my expectations so I was not too upset.
At the end of the day, Holy Sister is a strong finish to a strong series. This is easily Mark Lawrence’s best trilogy (in my opinion), and while I disagreed with some of his choices surrounding the last book in the series I can’t argue with his results. For those of you who are waiting to get your hands on the climatic finale, know that your patience will be rewarded. For those of you who haven’t read the series yet, I recommend you check it out as soon as possible now that it has stuck the landing (with only a small wobble).
Rating: Holy Sister – 8.5/10
I am playing a little bit of catch up this week and knocked out some books from last year I was unable to get around to reading. One of these books was Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron. Many of you likely haven’t heard of Cameron, but he is a bit of an underground superstar. While he is not well known, he seems to have a particularly fervent niche following that absolutely loves his work. This work primarily consists of a grimdark epic fantasy series called The Traitor Son Cycle (the first book is The Red Knight) which is five books long, each of which is massive. I think a lot of what makes Cameron stand out as an author is his unique narrative style and prose. It is very distinctive, favoring more detailed descriptives and intricate worldbuilding over dialogue, and it tends to be very polarizing. Unfortunately, when I read The Red Knight I found myself in the “not a fan” group of the split, but with Cold Iron, I was hoping to give Cameron a second chance because I loved his new premise.
Cameron’s new series follows the story of Aranthur, a young man attending a magical university in “The City” where he is hoping to learn to be a mage. He is from a rural farming community with fairly successful parents who saved up a bit to send him there, and he has high hopes for making a future for himself as a Magus. Interestingly, this all changes during a chance encounter on his way home for spring break, where he leaps to the defense of some innocents with a sword he bought on a whim – thus beginning his newfound journey to become a swordsman in a world of magic.
The premise of Cold Iron is as simple as it is captivating – a reversal on the “boy discovers he’s a magic prodigy” trope. The idea of someone taking up the sword in a world of people throwing fire seemed intriguing and possibly ridiculous, and I was hooked from page one. Cameron paints an impressively detailed world that takes some time to get familiarized with. He makes up a number of words and terms that you need to slowly learn, and while they do help characterize the culture, they also make it hard to read the book at any speed. The pace of Cold Iron overall is super slow and if you are not up to a thoughtful meandering book this might not be for you.
The characters are also very deep. Aranthur is a complex bundle of emotions, often favoring curiosity and manners over all else. He feels like a gentleman scholar, who is unsure and unconfident due to his young age, and he is an easy protagonist to rally behind. The side cast is all also deep and varied, which helps a lot with the slow pace of the book. By this I mean, although you spend a huge part of the book sitting around tables listening to the cast small talk – there is enough variety and complexity to the personalities in play that conversations are engrossing despite being about nothing. However, all of these positives still didn’t help me get past my principle problem with Cameron’s work – I simply do not like his prose.
To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Cameron’s prose, it is just not to my personal preference. His narration is very slow and meticulous, preferring to spend a lot of time diving into the thoughts and observations of his characters. I feel he likes to focus on the small things going on around his characters, the minute coming and goings of people going about their daily tasks. This style does an incredible job painting a very vivid picture of his characters, but probably due to my ADHD, I tend to find it slow and boring. Mechanically his writing is very impressive, and just because I didn’t like it does not mean you (my reader) won’t.
I didn’t finish Cold Iron. I got about 70% of the way through because I was heavily invested in the story before the slow pacing of the narration just calcified my interest in continuing. If you are the kind of person who lives for dialogue and fast-paced action in a series, you might have the same issues I did with Cold Iron. But, if you are ok with taking things slow, and find the idea of full immersion in a medieval European fantasy setting appealing, then I definitely think you should pick up this book despite my reservations. Cold Iron has a story, and a premise, worth reading – even if that reader isn’t me.
Rating: Cold Iron – 6.5/10
The word “Empire” is gaining a lot of traction these days. It shows up in the usual places such as fantasy novels and certain political circles, but I am finding myself hearing it more casually in conversation, tv shows, and YouTube videos. Now, I recognize that my particular tastes are not average, in that I often seek out media that provides some commentary on the state of the world. It could be that I just have my ear tuned to that frequency, but there is something alluring about the word empire. It is often employed to describe a large state in the past, typically in hushed tones of “we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.” It spoke to that retrospective context we often assign the word, but in a way that reinforces the conscious forgetting of how empires form. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, examines an individual’s relationship to their national identity through an intricately paced mystery story, all while seamlessly blending intricate worldbuilding and a compelling narrative.
The story follows Mahit Dzmare, who represents Lsel, the independent mining station where she was raised, as their newly-appointed ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her predecessor is dead, and no one will admit whether it was an accident or murder. Unfortunately for Mahit, the leadership of the empire is also unstable, with open questioning of who is to succeed the current ailing emperor. Mahit enters the capital lost, uninformed, and nearly alone as she tries to figure out why her predecessor is dead and what promises he may have made to those in power. There is not much time as the Teixcalaanli grow bolder in their need for expansion, and her station’s independence might be at risk. With time against her, what will Mahit sacrifice for her people’s sovereignty?
Martine writes with astounding depth. Her use of language contrasting the Teixcalaanli to Mahit’s home culture is inspired. I cannot recall a time I felt so purposefully lost in a culture. I felt like an alien, and I think that was the point. Martine made the Teixcalaanli feel so different from the main character and the audience, without necessarily pitting the reader against them. I feel this is a hard thing to do, especially because it is easy to hate on a “big bad empire” if you are sympathetic to the ambassador of a smaller nation. From the names of the empire’s citizens to their job titles, Martine has created names for almost everything in the Teixcalaanli world. On top of that, to be Teixcalaanli is to be civilized. Everyone who is not a citizen is considered a barbarian, regardless of the fact they are all space-faring civilizations. What makes the separation even more intriguing is the lack of disdain behind word barbarian. Never did it feel overtly malicious, just characters consistently pointing out the obvious that “you are not one of us, nor can you ever be,” reminding Mahit and the reader of their place within the grand scheme.
Martine makes the dynamic even more engrossing by meshing worldbuilding with the character’s narrative. The world is not just alien to the reader, as Mahit is also trying to grasp the reality of a culture she has only ever studied up to that point. It is a slow realization, but Martine paces it well. Mahit is lost upon her arrival to the capital, but confident in her abilities. In her mind, there was clearly a reason she was chosen to be entrusted with the ambassadorship, but as she spends more time with the empire, the less she feels she truly knows. Her liaison, Three Seagrass, is attentive, helpful, and her point of access to understanding the intricacies of Teixcalaanli political life, but she can only provide so much. This choice to have the reader discover the world as Mahit does engrossed me immediately in Mahit’s story. I felt I was relying on her to let me know how she thinks things work. When Mahit finds out she may have been wrong or used the language in a way that did not convey her meaning accurately, I did too. It made her fallible, but not necessarily unreliable.
The writing alone would have carried me through the book even if the story had been lackluster. Martine however, had other plans and wrote a tale of political intrigue that kept me on my toes. My brain was already firing on all cylinders adjusting to the language of the Teixcalaanli, so I felt I had to really work to stay on top of all the political intrigue and mysterious deaths. This was not a bad thing- it honestly added to the general anxiety of her situation. It was impossible to figure out who to trust, who might try to kill Mahit, or whether any of her plans would matter in the face of major political upheaval. It felt like Mahit was pulling a tightly but unevenly wound spring from a sink’s pipes. You just never knew when it would spring free and launch at you, or when it would require a little more effort to dislodge the next piece of the puzzle. The narrative never felt like it dragged, and I always wanted more. It was tiring only in that the reader is along for the ride when it comes to the enormous amount of work Mahit had to do.
There are a lot of great ideas that Martine plays around within this book, particularly examining the meaning of personal identity, empire, and civic duty. Martine never really gives an answer but does an excellent job of opening the discussion. Mahit’s characterization reaches above and beyond the task, Martine seems to have set out for her in terms of theming. Mahit perfectly encapsulates the “between two worlds” narrative often employed in fish out of water stories. I feel these stories entertain the idea that the character can transcend the bad parts of each and combine the strengths of two cultures to succeed. Instead, Mahit begins to lose track of where her loyalties lie. Clearly, she should do her best to serve her own people, but already she feels outcast from them for having studied the ways of Teixcalaanli. When she arrives, her studies keep her afloat, but she is viewed as an outcast there as well. In addition, both sides view Mahit alternately as a tool for an obstacle to their own ends, further separating her from any grander calling beyond “solve the problem directly in front of you.” It was incredibly alienating and made it hard to trust any of the other characters involved in the power struggle.
Martine added to this feeling by starting each chapter with a piece of poetry, a communique, or a snippet of history from within the Teixcalaanli and Lsel cultures she created. They served to highlight the differences in how these two peoples thought about themselves and the world they inhabited. They were never complete thoughts either and served the worldbuilding more often than the narrative. I did not care for them at first because they did not push the narrative, but when I started to pay more attention to them, the harder they were to ignore. It never felt like they built to a synthesis, instead always showing two very different worlds. It lent a sense of urgency and doubt to Mahit’s goals. How would the smaller Lsel station benefit from being integrated when they do not seem to fit? Who would they become based on how they were taken in by the Teixcalaanli? It is an ominous setup, and one I am keen to see play out in the sequel.
A Memory Called Empire is easily one of the strongest debuts I have read. The blending of worldbuilding into the narrative and characterization was refreshing, even though it required a lot of work on my part. The only bumps along the road I encountered were a few awkward dialogue scenes that broke the tonal immersion but never pulled me out. The ride to the end was thoughtful and intense, finishing with one of the most surprising and well-earned conclusions I have read in months. Everything converged together for a grand finale that left me with my mouth agape and made me immediately crave the sequel. If you are just looking for a tension-filled political space opera, this book covers that ground well. Martine, though, does so much more, so eloquently and in ways that cannot be ignored, forcing the reader to pay attention to the details. It is forceful, poetic, introspective and tragic. I can not recommend this book enough.
Rating: A Memory Called Empire – 9.5/10
The writers of The Quill to Live are undertaking a small project this year – we are reading a book series as a group and recording an audio discussion for each installment. The series in question is The Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter Hamilton. The books, starting with The Reality Dysfunction, are absolutely massive, clocking in at over 1200 pages of dense reading apiece. As such, there is a ton to unpack and discuss, especially given that our reviewers did not agree on how we felt about the book. Expect to see that audio discussion sometime this month, but if you would prefer to just read a short review of the first book, we have you covered. Please keep in mind that these are just my (Andrew’s) opinions, and the other site reviewers do not necessarily agree with my review (as you will hear in the coming discussion).
So what is The Reality Dysfunction? To begin with, it is Peter Hamilton’s first book – and as someone who has read most of the larger body of his work, it is interesting to see how far he has come as a writer. Hamilton is one of my favorite science fiction writers, though I think some of his books are definitely better than others. In particular, I am a massive fan of his Pandora’s Star duology. Hamilton brings a degree of anthropology to his books and likes to explore how new technology and information permeates society and how it changes the human experience.
The Reality Dysfunction takes place in a future human confederacy. Our race has spread to the stars, colonized a number of new planets, invented a number of new technologies and cultures, and met a few alien species. We are happily spreading among the stars until an unlucky group of colonists essentially accidentally starts a spiritual plague. People begin to become possed by otherworldly beings and it spreads across humanity like a strange plague. We view these events through a wide and diverse cast of characters. The lead, if there was one, is Joshua Calvert – a young space captain, and notorious sex fiend (we will come back to this). There are also a number of other scientists, leaders, colonists, criminals, and blue-collar workers spread across a number of worlds. Each of these POVs gives you insight into different parts of Hamilton’s world and comes together to build a massive holistic experience.
Reviewing The Reality Dysfunction was hard because while I really enjoyed the book overall, I had a mixed experience with each element of Hamilton’s storytelling. For example, the worldbuilding was incredible. Hamilton, over hundreds and hundreds of pages, slowly and beautifully pieces together a massive human empire that feels like a complex living machine. He does this through insane attention to detail when it comes to economies, environments, cultures, and people to paint what feels like a possible future for our species. On the other hand, Hamilton says the Confederacy is a collection of hundreds of worlds, but we only find ourselves hearing about five – which made the universe feel a bit empty (especially compared to his other books where the galaxy feels a lot more vibrant).
Then we have the plot. The book begins with almost twenty unrelated POVs that take place across the galaxy. As the book progresses, Hamilton hooks you with more than ten exciting subplots that had me coming back for more. At about the midway point in book one, the spirits make an entrance and we start to see how the different subplots are related. I think the biggest sin that Hamilton commits in this book is that the subplots were more interesting than the major possession plotline. That is not to say the possession story is bad, it is just that I was insanely invested in these smaller stories and it almost felt like the possession story was unnecessary. There is A LOT going on in this book (which is unsurprising at page count over 1200). I just wish that Hamilton had done a little more with the main plot to make it feel more integral to the characters’ stories.
Next, we have the characters, which are a little uneven. I called Joshua the theoretical protagonist, but that is only because he is clearly Hamilton’s favorite. Joshua is a walking cyclone of Gary Sue-ness, and the reviewers and I collectively started referring to him as Joshua Hard Penis (JHP), as he fucked literally everything with an orifice in this book. The characters collectively were a wonderful, diverse, and complex cast. However, I feel it could be argued that there might have been some subtle sexism in Hamilton’s writing. The female cast often feels a little less capable and more focused on being sex objects. That being said, I’ve read my fair share of Hamilton and never once felt his writing was sexist. This being his first book, it’s apparent he had yet to work out the sexual kinks.
Following up on this, one of Hamilton’s strongest abilities as a writer is that everything he does is visceral and intense. His descriptions suck you in and make you feel like you are there, his action gives you an adrenaline rush, his torture haunts you for days after you read it, and his sex scenes make you feel like you DEFINITELY shouldn’t be reading what feels like erotica on your subway ride. His writing is extremely evocative and it gives his novels a deep and lasting impression and helps you immerse yourself in his worlds. Most of his books have a respectable amount of sex, but it was super clear that Hamilton was trying to use smut to sell his debut novel. There is so much god damn sex in this book. We are talking anti-gravity sex cages, weird astral projection orgies, and super genetically enhanced genitals. If you really like your sci-fi to have a lot of steamy sex, this book might be your fetish. But, for a lot of people, I suspect that there is simply a little too much sex in this book. All of his later work is a lot more toned down in this area, and I am hoping it will level out in the second book in the series.
The Reality Dysfunction takes a little patience to read, but I think it is worth it. I loved this book, but I do think it is slightly bogged down by first-novel jitters. Having read his later work it is clear that he grew a lot after writing this first book – but The Reality Dysfunction is still a very solid science-fiction novel that will delight most readers. Its biggest hold up is honestly probably its prohibitive size, and I suspect a number of readers will be scared away by its density. For those of you who might be holding out, Hamilton is an expert in taking you to new worlds and I highly recommend you set aside a chunk of time and dig in.
Rating: The Reality Dysfunction – 8.5/10
I am always a little wary of fantasy books about assassins. You never really know what you are going to get – will it be pulse-pounding action and mystery like The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, or will it be based on politics, intrigue, and aristocratic courts like Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb? As I went into today’s book, Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick, I was expecting it to fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two options. However, Master Assassins surprised me by not actually being about assassins. Instead, this book tells the tale of two brothers running from the world and their perilous journey to escape a fate worse than death.
The book is set on a continent isolated from the wider world. Due to a plague, that our cast carries but is unaffected by, the continent is forcibly isolated and kept from interacting with outside nations. This has a profoundly negative effect on the people and land and gives rise to a religious pope-like prophet who proclaims to herald a new future for the people of this sequestered land. Almost all individuals of fighting age are drafted into the prophet’s army, and she leads them all with an iron fist with the help of her beloved sons. The plot of Master Assassins revolves around two brothers, Kan and Mek. They begin the story as loyal members of the prophet’s army, but when unfortunate manslaughter-related events occur they are forced to run with an entire nation nipping at their heels. The name of the book is actually a joke perpetuated in the story. Despite the murder of the prophet’s son being an accident, Kan and Mek are considered by the wider public to be master assassins who possess untold cunning in their methods of infiltration and elimination.
The plot of the book is compelling and well paced. There is a clear sense of believable urgency in the actions of Mek and Kan as they must fight to remain a step ahead of their pursuers. Redick also does a fantastic job foreshadowing and executing on the roadblocks that the brothers must pass if they are to escape with their lives. The narration bounces between the boys running for their lives as adults, and flashbacks to their formative years to show you how they came to be the men they are now. The world itself is fascinating, exploring a number of ideas I haven’t seen before in fantasy. Redick goes into depth about the various methods that other nations have used to isolate this continent – including diverting rivers, ship blockades, and moving mountains. The details really bring Redick’s world to life and further sell the danger and difficulty that Kan and Mek face.
Speaking of the brothers, they certainly are a handful. One thing I like about all of Redick’s characters (in particular Kan and Mek) is they have large personalities. Some of them are irritating and grating, but they all feel loud and real. They have memorable identities that will stick with you long after the book is finished and I wish other authors would make casts as vibrant as this one. Through the course of their journey, the brothers meet a huge variety of people and must carefully decide who to trust. Their interactions with the people around them and the various backstories of the supporting cast, all help to bring the story to life.
As to what I didn’t like about the book – while Redick has a supreme talent for storytelling, I wasn’t overly impressed with his prose. Often times I found certain text “blocky” or awkward, and I feel that he could have done a lot to smooth out some of the dialogue and descriptives. I would find myself deeply invested as our protagonists navigated treacherous cliffs of a drained sea – only to be kicked out of my immersion by some awkward phrasing or strange comments. Additionally, while the plot of Master Assassins is captivating, and the plot takes you through a variety of different locations and vistas, I felt like the story didn’t progress enough relative to the size of the book. While the minute to minute interactions and excitement feel fast-paced, the progress towards the greater objectives in the book could feel glacial. However, my critiques are more of a personal nature than mechanical problems with the book. I am sure that many will read it and wonder how I could have found issue with any of the things I have listed here.
Masters Assassins is a delightful surprise. It marries classic tried and true fantasy storytelling techniques, like the hero’s quest, with modern themes and an excellent world and character design. The book feels both vibrant and alive with a cast of characters that leap from the pages into your room as you read it. My one hang up was personal issues with Redick’s style of prose, but this is a personal preference more than a concrete issue. Master Assassins is the first book in The Fire Sacraments series, and we cannot wait to get our hands on the next installment.
Rating: Master Assassins – 9.0/10
Every year the Quill to Live sit down in December to plan our collective reading schedule for the next year. It’s a long process, and it heavily involves combing through release dates of series we are following and, more importantly, digging into the hundreds of upcoming and highly anticipated book lists made by publishers, authors, other reviewers, and general fantasy and sci-fi fans. Through this process, we give our yearly reading schedules a little bit of structure – but one of the other benefits is picking out potential dark horses to keep an eye on. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a dark horse is a competitor who comes out of nowhere against all odds to win. In our case, we use it to refer to books that almost no one has heard of that we want to check out or keep an eye on. Sometimes this results in us reading terrible books that we might or might not review depending on how productive we feel our criticism will be. However, other times it results in us being able to champion new and upcoming authors who deserve more recognition.
Recently, we have been getting a lot of requests to describe the 2019 books we are excited about, in particular, the dark horses we have our eyes on. Thus, going forward we will put out a list of our annual dark horses in case you want to keep an eye on them as well. We will put this list out earlier next year, and while we will do our best to review every book on this list, the inclusion of a book does not guarantee we will be able to get to and review it. Here are the dark horses The Quill to Live is watching in 2019 (in no particular order). Goodreads links are on the pictures:
- For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones: As I mentioned we are a bit late on this list this year, so we have actually already reviewed this one. We loved it, check it out!
- Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell
- The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
- The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
- Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
- The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
- Titanshade, by Dan Stout
- Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
- Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
- Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
- Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker
- This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone