Made Things – Pulls The Right Strings

44581532I have a fear of dolls. Or maybe not a fear, so much as I find them intensely off putting. Their miniature faces are creepy, and any horror story that involves dolls coming to life and murdering people deeply upsets me. So, when the lovely people at Tor.com sent me Made Things, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky about a dollmaker who brings her creations to life, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Tchaikovsky is one of the most imaginative writers of the last decade and I generally like almost everything he writes. On the other hand, creepy murder dolls that might infest my nightmares. It is safe to say that I was negatively disposed to the concept from the start, thus the fact that I loved this novella should say something about Tchaikovsky’s skill as a writer.

The plot of the book is short and sweet: Coppelia is a street thief, a trickster, a low-level con artist living in a famous magical city. She is an urchin barely scraping by in a metropolis run by elite archmages. Normally this would spell doom for a person in her situation, but Coppelia has a little magic up her sleeves. She is a skilled puppet maker and has survived by stealing money from unsuspecting tourists through a puppet show. However, recently her creations have been coming to life. She discovers she has the power to infuse tiny homunculi with life, and she is not the only one. By teaming up with these made things they have opened doors for her into new opportunities. They don’t entirely trust her, and she doesn’t entirely understand them, but their partnership seems to work well. However, when they make a magical discovery that threatens to destroy the city they all call home, they must make some hard choices.

I know that plot description was fairly vague, but this is a novella and I didn’t want to spoil too much. The story is a lot of fun and involves a lot of politicking, character growth, a heist, and some really cool magic. The world-building has an impressive amount of detail for a novella. The city feels fleshed out and lived in, the magic feels complicated but adheres to clearly stated rules, and the threats/antagonists are easy to identify and rally against. A lot of this is helped by the cast being so likable. There are essentially three leads and a large support cast. For the leads, we have the aforementioned Coppelia and two homunculi: Tef and Arc. All three are wonderful and each have unique wants and agendas that are explored through the story but revolve around a core theme – survival in a harsh world. For Coppelia, that means scraping together a living in a world that cares nothing for her. For Tef and Arc, it means scraping together an existence in hiding when the world would pull them apart to see how they work.

The homunculi, in general, are fascinating. Tchaikovsky has done an impressively imaginative job of exploring all sorts of made people. There are one made of wax, paper, steel, wood, and any other substance you can think of. Some are small, some are large, some can fly, others are immobile. And for each, Tchaikovsky provides a window into how their existence, and personalities, are defined by what they were made from. A large steel doll might be courageous and brash, but have a phobia of water and rusting. A homunculus made of paper sees threats to her existence everywhere, as a simple tear could mean the end of her. Together they make an eclectic and fascinating people that are fun to explore.

The book is a rollercoaster ride with a fast pace and an explosive end. I read it in a single sitting and never thought once about putting it down. The ending does feel slightly abrupt, but that is often par for the course with novellas and is more a problem with the medium than anything else. Tchaikovsky’s Made Things is a fun, well built, adventure that helped me look at magical dolls in a new way. It has an interesting world, likable characters, and attention to detail when it comes to bringing these homunculi to life. Hopefully, this novella will be the starting point of a new novel as I want to dig a little deeper into everything. I would love to come back and overturn more rocks, dredge more canals, and explore more magical vaults to discover what else Tchaikovsky has hidden in Made Things. You probably can’t go wrong with this short story, and I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Made Things – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Advertisements

The Rage of Dragons – Little Too Much Rage, Not Enough Dragons

51m4ozexl1l

Here we have another of The Quill to Live dark horses for 2019, a very promising debut book called The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter. This book was pitched to me as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones” which immediately perked up my interest – and I jumped in as soon as I could, thanks to a review ARC that the lovely people at Orbit sent over in exchange for an honest review. At the end of the day, I think that their description is fairly apt – this book does have a lot of the pulse-pounding arena fighting of Gladiator and the clever political machinations of Game of Thrones, both of which make the book a lot of fun. The Rage of Dragon’s problem is it doesn’t have much more beyond these two qualities.

The plot of RoD is best experienced knowing as little as possible. The book portions out world building and story developments sparingly, preferring to keep you in the dark. It works pretty well and Winter does a great job keeping the reader curious about what will happen next. The back of the book does a good job with the story blurb, but here is a brief summary of what is good to know going in:

The book follows the fate of the Omehi people as they flee an unknown scourge in their homeland. The prologue of the book sees them arriving as settlers on a new frontier with nowhere left to turn. However, this new land is not uninhabited and Winter tells us of “savages” who call it home do not take kindly to having their lands invaded. Thus begins a war of attrition between the Omehi refugees and the native savages of this tropical land. The book then jumps almost two hundred years later, where we see the Omehi have established a foothold and rudimentary society in the new land. They have managed to survive this long in an endless war through the power of their ‘gifted’. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons and one in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else in the Omehi are considered footmen in this endless war and are trained to spend their blood serving the greater good of their people. A man’s status in their world is related to their ability to fight. Our protagonist, gift-less Tau, knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured and get out early. However, when almost everyone he knows is brutally murdered he dedicates himself to becoming the greatest warrior in the land and seek vengeance no matter the cost.

The book spends 90% of its time in Tau’s head, with only brief forays into other characters in the name of world building. The story has many elements of a “magical school” story, with the majority of the page space being devoted to Tau’s training and lessons. The first quarter of the book flashes out what typical life for the Omehi is like, and the rest is about Tau going from zero to hero. This elongated training montage involves an enormous amount of fighting, often one on one. This book is bursting at the seams with fight scenes, and if you aren’t into action sequences you are going to have a bad time. The good news is that Winter is an excellent action writer – the combat is often gripping and invigorating. If you think combat is the pinnacle of fantasy writing you are going to love this book. The problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is that there isn’t enough substance to the characters and world building to accompany the fighting.

Tau isn’t a bad character, but he’s also not particularly deep. He doesn’t really think things through or have long term goals and it makes it hard to see the bigger picture in the book. He feels like he is being battered by the winds of fate and it can make the progression of the plot and story feel jittery and hard to be invested in. He is hard to identify with on anything other than a surface level.

The real issues I had with this book are in the world building – and they are many. The first problem is that the book is touted as an African fantasy, but feels more like a recolored European romp. The cast is entirely black, which I like, but the culture, magic, and attitudes of the characters feel directly transposed from any of the hundreds of traditional European fantasy books you can find in the genre. The book is really not great to women – at all. Omehi people claim to be a class based society led by women and one where men as seen as the lesser gender. We get to spend a good ten pages with the first queen of the people and see her do some absolutely amazing stuff. However, once Tau gets behind the wheel all of that is dropped harder than the writing quality in season 8 of Game of Thrones. Every woman that Tau interacts with in this book is a tool to give him praise, or someone to be murdered, and usually raped, to rally the reader to Tau’s cause. It makes the “ruled by women” claim feel paper thin and left a bad taste in my mouth. Additionally, the world feels over the top brutal – to the point where it overshoots grimdark and moves into edgy. Everyone is murdered for the slightest offense, life is garbage every waking moment, and the only purpose of 99% of the population is to die in the name of a nameless cause the reader doesn’t understand for a long time. The magic is interesting, but extremely confusing because the magic system is tied directly into the plot which is kept intentionally nebulous. Finally, the politics of the area are exciting and do a really good job of creating moments of tension, but they also feel archaic and unnatural in the setting.

The Rage of Dragons has some issues, but is a mix of good and bad. I feel that the world is underdeveloped and could have benefited from a little less time fighting and a little more time fleshing out the white space and trimming the grim brutality. On the other hand, the book is an action movie wet dream, with tons of amazing sequences and a satisfying growth arc that takes a young hero from nobody to somebody. Whether you think you would like this book is up to you, I would recommend you think about how much you like fight scenes and how important world building is to you when deciding to pick it up. Despite my issues with it, I still think I am going to pick up the sequel as Winter did a great job of capturing my curiosity and kept me reading. I just hope that some of the problems I had with book one are less pronounced in the sequels.

Rating: The Rage of Dragons – 5.0/10
-Andrew

A Pilgrimage of Swords – A Guided Tour Of Nightmares

a_pilgrimage_of_swords_by_anthony_ryan_1Anthony Ryan is having a busy year – not only did he just release the much anticipated, The Wolf’s Call, but he also has an upcoming novella from Subterranean Press. The novella is called A Pilgrimage of Swords, and I was kindly sent an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. As such, here is my honest one-line take – I have never wanted to lift a book plot into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign more. It felt like highway robbery that this story was only a novella, and not a full book, as I was dying to explore the world and learn more about its characters.

The premise of A Pilgrimage of Swords is simple but elegant: 200 years ago in the book’s world, a god named the Absolved went insane and imploded the country he presided over, turning it into a wasteland called The Execration. Originally his lands were filled with countless magical wonders and beauty, but all of it has been perverted to grotesque parodies of what they once were – and all of the lands are hostile to those who venture onto it. His subjects have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the trees have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the random assorted rocks that litter the landscape have turned into fles– you know what you get the idea. Everything inside the Absolved’s country is terrible, so why would anyone ever go there? Well, because rumor has it that if a pilgrim reaches the center of this cursed land, they can find the mad god himself still residing there. If you are crazy enough to brave his lands and make it to him, there is a chance that the Absolved will grant you a wish.

As I mentioned, the route to the Absolved is a hellscape taken from the nightmares of Lovecraft, so not exactly an exciting prospect. Yet, there are those desperate enough to make the journey, usually when life has cruelly left them no other options. These poor individuals gather at the church of the Absolved, whose priests sacrifice their lives to send as guides into the wastes in order to better know their god’s will. As such, the pilgrimage is made in groups in order to increase chances of survival. Our cast is a group of individuals on one such pilgrimage. The cast has no names, for names are left behind when an individual takes this journey. Instead, each member of the party takes a moniker to represent why they are going on this quest. Our protagonist takes the moniker “The Pilgrim,” which doesn’t win many points for originality, but he has a cool possessed sword so I gave him a pass.

Our story follows The Pilgrim and his co-questers as they cross a variety of horrible areas of Execration. The guide provides a really easy storytelling mechanism and feels very natural as he explains what each area of the Execration used to be, and what it has become. Ryan has a great imagination and the various areas that he takes the reader through are super cool. However, the real fun of the book comes from the cast of mysterious adventurers. A large part of the book is figuring out tiny bits of information about the seven individuals in the party making the pilgrimage. Their personalities, and reasons for going on the insane journey, are slowly revealed over the course of the novella and make for a very compelling read.

The novella is short and sweet and I don’t have a lot of critiques for it. As always, because the novella was a lot of fun, I was left wishing it had been a full novel. The ending was probably the weakest part of the story, though I still liked it. I just found the worldbuilding and mysterious atmosphere to be stronger than the reveal at the end. One exciting thing about the ending is it left the doorway open for a follow-up novel, something I really hope Ryan pursues.

A Pilgrimage of Swords is an engrossing adventure for anyone who likes a story with a great atmosphere and imagination. It is short, sweet, and will leave you wanting a lot more. Regardless, the novella will keep you on the edge of your seat from the first to the last page, and I really hope that Anthony Ryan does more in this world. If you are looking for a new novella to mix up your reading schedule look no further than A Pilgrimage of Swords.

Rating: A Pilgrimage of Swords – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Kings of Paradise – An Epic Beach Read

51pj3ezfyylSelf-published books are a huge mixed bag of quality, but occasionally you can strike gold. Kings of Paradise, by Richard Nell, is one of those books. An epic fantasy novel about a tropical empire, this book has the makings of a modern classic. If you are involved in the self-published fantasy scene, you have probably already heard of this book. It has been gathering its own fan club for a little over a year now and I have been getting more and more recommendations from other reviewers I know. I may be a little late to the party, but let me be the next in what is sure to be a long chain of people to lend my voice to the fact that this book is worth your time. Kings of Paradise has some issues to be sure, but they do little to dampen the great time I had with this book.

Kings of Paradise has a number of POVs, but is focused primarily on the stories of two boys/men: Ruka and Kale. These two are both extremely interesting protagonists, though I favor Kale massively because I find Ruka to be a bit unsavory to read about. Ruka is born malformed and ugly into the southern snow-covered wasteland of the Ascom, where he grows up with only his mother for company. When the strange politics and machinations of the land strip him of his mother, Ruka is consumed with hate for those who’ve wronged him and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Although Ruka was born ugly, he quickly grows into a behemoth of a human with a keen mind. Across a vast sea to the north is the white-sand island paradise of Sri Kon, where Kale is the youngest son of the Sorcerer King. Kale is seen to a degree as the family disappointment and is forced into a series of magical schools to learn discipline. To avoid spoilers I will not reveal what the second two schools are, but Kale starts in the navy and goes to two very different institutions following his naval training.

Our story follows the progression of these two characters, Ruka on his quest for vengeance and Kale on his quest to make something of himself. I found Kale immensely easier to relate to, as Ruka is somewhere between an anti-hero or an antagonist. Although Ruka’s motivations feel relatable, his methods and actions can be brutal to the point of revulsion. A number of the additional POVs in the story are from the perspectives of individuals whose lives Ruka shatters in his quest. However, Ascom and Sri Kon are interesting foils of one another in the story. One is a land of brutal survivalism and the other opulence and wealth as far as the eye can see. The comparisons do a great job of humanizing Ruka and enhancing Kale’s sense of immaturity in the grander scheme of things. You will have scenes where Kale is whining about his crush while Ruka is trying his best not to starve to death as he hides in the woods because he is being hunted for his appearance.

The worldbuilding in the story is fascinating, but I found it a little uneven. Sri Kon is a fascinating land with a number of cool customs and a culture I wanted to immerse myself in. Ascom is a hellish wasteland that I thought had a few interesting ideas but failed to capture my interest or imagination in the same way as Sri Lon. There are only so many dimensions to “survival is king,” and I have seen a number of them in other books before. The magic systems were also a great time, with both Ruka and Kale discovering different talents. However, I do think that magic did not get enough exploration.

My major complaint against Kings of Paradise is that the pacing of the book felt a bit tumultuous. The start of the book, in particular when Ruka is a child, can feel slower than paint drying. You get entire chapters devoted to shattering the naivete of children and I felt the same themes could have been achieved in shorter pages in a punchier manner. On the other hand, the end of the book moves insanely fast. The last 50 pages see a ton of huge climactic events happening in mere paragraphs when I would have liked to see them strung out across entire chapters. The book also ends with a huge shift in tone as well, which leads me to worry that I will like book two less, but I won’t be able to tell until I actually read it. However, I am definitely going to read book two, Kings of Ash, as soon as my schedule frees up.

Kings of Paradise is an impressive debut with a ton of potential. The two protagonists and their mirrored stories add a ton of depth to an already engrossing story that I couldn’t put down. With an interesting setting and memorable cast, this was one of my top books I read this summer. If you are looking for a new epic fantasy, a new beach read, or an epic fantasy about beaches – this is the book for you. We wholeheartedly recommend Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell.

Rating: Kings of Paradise – 8.5/10
-Andrew

A Brightness Long Ago – Cherished Memories And Lessons Learned

Originally I wasn’t going to review this book because it is by Guy Gavriel Kay, and here at The Quill to Live we basically have a blanket recommendation for anything he has ever written. His ability to churn out a powerful novel that is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, and love note to history is well known. However, it is very likely that A Brightness Long Ago will be our book of the year – thus it seemed important that we actually review it. So here you go: as always, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. There you go, review over. What, you want more? Fine, I will actually do my job.

A Brightness Long Ago, according to Kay’s book blurb, “is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy. Unfortunately, because I am an uncultured peasant, I am not familiar enough with European history to have recognized that without his prompting. While some of Kay’s books feel extremely evocative of specific historical times and events, Brightness felt less rooted in real events than some of the other Kay books I have read. As with all Kay books, the story is focused on small individuals who experience moments of something bigger than themselves. In this instance, the larger world events revolve around a long slow conflict between two powerful military leaders: Folco and Teobaldo. They are two proud, brilliant, and unyielding men who are vying to leave their mark on the world. The book follows a continent-sized chess match between these two titanic personalities and explores a number of their attempts to seize power from surrounding powers. Although they are the focus of the plot, the book is much more about the lives that they touch and change in their momentous conflict. In particular, our primary POVs are Danio and Adria – a man of some learning who continuously finds himself at the center of climactic events due to the choices he makes, and a woman who rejects the mantle of aristocracy because she wanted to do something that matters.

This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago are about build a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have read.

I love this book so damn much for so many reasons. Kay’s characters are always perfect, but I haven’t liked a cast this much outside Sailing to Sarantium – Danio and Adria stole my heart and won’t give it back. Kay’s stories usually focus on ordinary people who hear gunshots and run towards the sound. However, Brightness has an interesting mix of characters who seek momentous events out, and those who actively avoid them. For those who have read a number of his other pieces, I feel you will find some interesting fresh personalities in Brightness that defy the expectations of even the most well-read readers.

A Brightness Long Ago was a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and I don’t want to know the person who doesn’t enjoy it. As I said in my first paragraph, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Rating: A Brightness Long Ago – 10/10
-Andrew

The Wolf’s Call – Blood Song 2.0

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_So, many years ago when I was first starting out the site, I stumbled upon an absolutely incredible self-published book called Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan. The book was, and is, one of my favorite reads, and it rapidly gained a following before being picked up for publication. It became a massive success in the genre and everyone was clamoring for more. However, when Ryan released the second (Tower Lord) and third (Queen of Fire) books in the trilogy they were met with mixed reactions. I talk a lot about the controversy surrounding the books in this ancient (in relative terms) post here. Long story short, some felt the later books suffered because the story POV  moved from one to many and that Queen of Fire ended without a satisfying resolution. Well, I have good news for everyone. If you were a fan of Blood Song and didn’t like the later books, there is a new installment of the series that both returns to a Vaelin centric focus, and answers a ton of lingering questions from Queen of Fire. If you were a fan of all of the books like me, there is now another excellent installment of one of my favorite series by one of my favorite authors. It’s called The Wolf’s Call.

So what is the plot of The Wolf’s Call? Our story picks up several years after the end of the original trilogy and Vaelin has resettled into his role as the Tower Lord in the north of the realm. But, as we all know, conflict tends to follow Vaelin around like a baby duckling. Vaelin learns of trouble brewing to the West, on a new continent that we only hear mentions of in the first series. While initially reluctant to do anything other than sulk in his tower, Vaelin eventually finds the motivation to join the conflict and sails into a new land with only a few of his closest companions from the original trilogy. Vaelin must then use his lifetime of experience in war to stay alive, achieve an objective I won’t spoil, and turn the conflicts that find him in this new land.

The plot of The Wolf’s Call is exactly what I thought it would be, and I am very ok with that. Ryan essentially used a new far off conflict (which he seeded during the original trilogy) to move Vaelin to a new location, strip him of his entourage, and reset his story. It involves a new look at the powers of the Gifted and an antagonist that mirrors Vaelin’s military mind and physical prowess. While there was very little that surprised me about the plot, I still enjoyed it in its entirety. It is mostly just a series of events and situations that Vaelin must react and respond to, which are always fun to read. Vaelin is a weird character, and his unique qualities make him one of my favorites. He is this strange mix of exhaustion and responsibility that paints a picture of a man who is utterly bitter about how much he has given to the world, with a moral compass that refuses to allow him to stop. It creates the perfect personality that you can both deeply identify with (especially as I get older) but also idolize at the same time. I really like his quiet and contemplative personality in a world of charismatic heroes. He is also a complete badass.

You could argue that Vaelin is a Gary Sue, a protagonist that is overpowered and obnoxiously talented – but I would disagree. Even though Vaelin is definitely incredibly strong for a protagonist, his slow built to this point feels earned from his previous books and I feel no guilt reading about him kicking ass after all of the training and experiences he has gone through. Ryan also does a wonderful job of continuing to flesh out his Raven’s Shadow world (though the new series is called The Raven’s Blade) and I like the new setting. It is an interesting hybrid of merchant city-states and Asian culture, with an invigorating new cast. Although we spend 95% of the book in Vaelin’s POV, we do get a few interludes from the sister of the antagonist which do a great job of adding an undercurrent of tension and urgency throughout the book.

My only real issue with The Wolf’s Call is that it suffers from Ryan’s signature problem: if you have not read the previous novels recently, you are going to have a hard time remembering who everyone is. I just wish he added a few more context clues and minor flashbacks when reintroducing characters and names. This lack of context slows down the beginning of the book and it took me a little bit of time to get back up to speed. However, once I was about a fifth into the book I had a clear memory of who most of the cast were and it was fairly smooth sailing until the end.

The Wolf’s Call is a book that everyone will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form. If you haven’t read The Raven’s Shadow trilogy yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out – and if you have, The Wolf’s Call should be at the top of your to-do list.

Rating: The Wolf’s Call – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Neutronium Alchemist – A QTL Discussion

We are back with another audio discussion. This time we are doing book two, The Neutronium Alchemist, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. You can find the spoiler-free written review here: Neutronium Alchemist review. The goal of this discussion is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you check out the written review. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book two:

And if you are looking for the discussion of book one, it can be found here: The Reality Dysfunction