Devices and Desires – Unalluring

710abl-mp8lAfter very positive experiences with a number of recent books by K.J. Parker, I decided to dive into the far back year of 2006 and read one of his larger, better known series – specifically his Engineer Trilogy. The first book in the set is Devices and Desires, and Parker describes the series as (and I am paraphrasing here) “a love story in which tens of thousands die. A story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. And he does them through the science of engineering.” I was intrigued, as I studied engineering and physics in college, and my previous track record with Parker buoyed up my hopes that this would be a knock out of the park hit for all kinds of readers. What I found instead is a very strange, very divisive, and very dense book that feels fairly divorced from the recent Parker novels I have read. I strongly suspect that a small number of people will consider this one of their top books ever, but the vast majority of readers are going to feel like they just read an Ikea manual.

The plot of Devices and Desires is such: In Parker’s world there is a technologically advanced city known as Mezentia. This Republic could probably conquer the world with their advanced weaponry and tech, but their bloated bureaucracy grinds all progress and planning to a halt. They have a set of strict guidelines for their citizens when it comes to making anything, and to alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes, our protagonist, finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery to improve its efficacy – because he is a genius. He is forced to use his considerable brilliance to flee Mezentia to neighboring countries. There, he begins a one-man campaign of terror to burn down the known world and its rules in order to be reunited with his beloved family.

Let’s take a quick look at what I liked about the book. The plot, in theory, is interesting. The book is mostly about Ziani going to other rival nations of Mezentia and giving them critical pieces of technology in order to bring them up to fighting speed and destabilize his home country. This tech isn’t just weapons; it includes everything from agriculture tech to joints for machinery. I enjoy how the prime drive of our protagonist is reuniting with his family, it was a nice change of pace. I like the humor in the book. The sections in Mezentia, in particular, are fun as we get to see this technologically advanced powerhouse get flattened by tiny petty people just being counterproductive cogs in the giant machine. I think that the themes are extremely on point. The book does a powerful job exploring the ideas like manufacturing, how things work, how important engineering is in warfare, and more. Parker definitely did a tremendous job exploring the ideas he set out to investigate.

Unfortunately, that is roughly where my praise stops and my complaints begin. First, while the themes are on point, they are also extremely boring. The book has the details and pacing of a 300-page manual in a language you don’t speak. This adherence to themes is a consistent aspect in Parker’s writing. When he commits to a theme, he commits to a theme. But the book is simply too large (and there are two more after Devices and Desires) to spend this much time explaining at a glacial pace how the vent for a blacksmith shop works. I thought I cared before I read this book…turns out I don’t. It was really fun for 150 pages, mildly entertaining for the next 150, and then for the next 300 I wanted to put my head in a smelter.

Then we have the characters. I use ‘characters’ liberally here because despite there being about 20 POVs, I only really saw two characters: Ziani and everyone else. I really cannot remember the name of any other character other than Ziani, and I only read this book 2 months ago. The personalities of everyone other than Ziani just run together depending on which country they are from. They all think and feel the same way and it all blends into this morass of sameness. Then we have Ziani, who is basically just a monster. His reaction to being separated from his family is to reduce the standing population of the world by 50% – instead of inventing a way to reunite with his family without ceaseless slaughter. He is generally unpleasant to be around, grating against every single character (and me the reader) he talks to. I think I was supposed to resonate with him as a man vs. the world, but instead, I found myself hoping he would get over himself and recoil at the horrors he was unleashing (I normally would say ‘realized the horrors he is unleashing’, but this little shit is very much aware what he’s doing). Finally, Ziani is narrated like he’s some sort of genius playing 4D chess with the world, and instead of making him feel cool, it is the nail in the coffin, making him just completely intolerable to be around. I hope book two starts with him falling into a woodchipper and is replaced with his more empathetic brother, Yiani, who always had the hots for Ziani’s wife.

Although I had issues with it, Devices and Desires certainly is a unique book – for better and worse. If you think you really like learning the technical details of a world down to the nuts and the bolts and have a hard-on for manufacturing you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I do not recommend you check out Devices and Desires – Parker has written much more enjoyable books that don’t require nearly the time investment.

Rating: Devices and Desires – 4.5/10
-Andrew

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Mostly Void, Partially Stars – Shines Bright In The Dark

41mlamwkznl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am a latecomer to Welcome to Night Vale, much to my shame. If you are unfamiliar with the famous podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a humor-based series about a small American town replete with supernatural happenings. The character who narrates the series is a small local radio jockey who does his best to report on the happenings and people of Night Vale. His delivery is dry as a desert and as ridiculous as possible.

The podcast has been going on for years, and there are hundreds of episodes, but the team has also put out a few books (the first of which is Mostly Void, Partially Stars) that contain written versions of sets of episodes. I decided to investigate both the first collection (MVPS) and listen to a number of episodes after I finished so that I could both review it as a novel and see if I missed anything by sticking to the written word. I discovered that both forms of the story are phenomenal, definitely worth your time, but have different strengths that will appeal differently depending on your taste.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars’ brilliance comes from two places – the masterful humor and the anally consistent worldbuilding that ties it all together. It makes the story something more than a series of jokes. The situations and scenarios of Night Vale are bizarre and the deadpan delivery is impossible not to laugh at. The first episode of the series talks about a new dog park that was recently installed by the town council that no one is allowed to enter, look at, be near for extended periods of time, and does not contain dogs. The delivery of this information made me laugh out loud while reading, which is quite rare for me.

But the real magic of the story is that there IS a story. While each chapter/episode of Night Vale feels like a standalone joke, there is a very clear through-line to all of them that starts to quite rapidly build a cohesive world, set of characters, and plot. It’s easy to use outlandishness to elicit a laugh, but it’s hard to do it while also being extremely consistent and meticulous in your outlandishness. I was very surprised when I started to get a very strong sense of the town and its inhabitants and started adjusting to the new normal of how they behaved and went about their day. That dog park I mentioned in the previous paragraph felt like a complete throwaway at the start of the series, but it continues to resurface and get updates as the series progresses until you are hoping that the next episode will contain a new hint of what the dog park actually is.

As to the differences between reading the books vs. listening to the podcasts, there are a few things to keep in mind. I ended up liking the books more because I liked the control of the pacing and digestion of the content. There is something about being able to control how I took the story in that made it resonate better with me and upped my enjoyment. However, there are elements of the podcast that you definitely do lose when reading instead of listening. Each episode of the podcast has musical components done by a huge range of artists and they really do add a lot to the ambiance. In addition, the delivery of the narrators in the podcast is masterful, and no voices I made up in my head will top the talented people that were selected to voice the characters. Which of these methods of consuming Night Vale most appeals will vary by individual, but I definitely do recommend you try it no matter which you fancy. You can’t go wrong.

The only hang-up I had with Night Vale was I found it hard to binge, despite wanting to very badly. The standalone nature of the episodes means they are ideal to be consumed here and there or once in a while, not in one 5 hour sitting. Discovering answers to the riddles of the town requires a very long term investment that will see you spending tens to hundreds of hours consuming content. That’s not a bad thing, as the content is very good (and funny) – it just means that if you are looking for quick answers, you are going to be disappointed.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is fantastic. It was funny, weird, and had a surprising amount of depth. I know most of you have likely already tried, and enjoyed, this cult phenomenon already – but those of you who haven’t should give it a shot. I now have over a hundred podcast episodes in my library waiting to listen too so I suddenly find myself looking forward to car rides in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Rating: Mostly Void, Partially Stars – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Mask Of Mirrors – Dressed To The Nines

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-1Boy, do I love tarot cards. There is something I find so cool about them. I am not big on fortune-telling in general but there is something so romantic, so enthralling, about shuffling a deck, laying out some very intricate and beautifully illustrated cards, flipping over the answers to difficult questions, and spending an entire book considering what their nebulous interpretations could mean. Which brings us to today’s review, The Mask of Mirrors (first in the Rook & Rose series) by M.A. Carrick (a combo pseudonym for Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms). Mask is part political thriller, part heist novel, part superhero origin story, and all glamorous outfits all the time. I had a surprisingly good time with this book, and I suspect you will as well.

The Mask of Mirrors grabbed me right out of the gate with its premise. The book tells the story of Ren, and Ren, as the back of the book will tell you, is a con artist. She has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal – to trick her way into a noble house, securing her fortune and her sister’s future. Her plan is to pretend to be the daughter of a long-estranged member of a noble house, fake her way through the glitz and pageantry of the nobles for a few months, and get adopted back into the house where she (and her sister Tess, who poses as her maid) will live a life of luxury. There is only one problem. Very soon after beginning her ruse, Ren discovers that the noble house she is lying her way into is now destitute. Now, in order to rob them, Ren must help the family first win back their fortunes. It is a difficult task, but as Ren’s alternative is to return to the gutter from whence she fled, she will stop at nothing to return these rubes to power only to rob them blind immediately after.

This is a very innovative and fun take on a heist to me. There is a sort of Russian nesting doll of trickery abound that makes things delightfully complicated, both in the ruse’s execution and Ren’s feelings about what she is doing. It creates a huge number of chances for character growth and depth and both Brennan nor Helms capitalize on those opportunities. Speaking of which, I found the author trade-off completely seamless. I didn’t even notice there were two different people writing until I accidentally read the back author bio about 70% of the way through. Both writers did such a fantastic job blending their styles that I could never tell them apart. But that might have to do with the fact that the entire book is just so amazingly good at making you care about the authors’ passions.

Mask is just stuffed with things that the authors clearly care a lot about on a personal level. There is so much detail and page space in this book devoted to describing the outfits that characters are wearing – and it absolutely works. There is a clear importance of dress woven into the narrative like a thread (ok I will stop) that makes all the details about lace and sleeves feel exciting. Carrick’s passion for clothing is also infectious. I found myself thinking about throwing out some old ugly sweaters on multiple occasions and started browsing expensive suits even though I have nowhere to wear them thanks to the COVID plague. Some of the other passions of the book involve tarot (as I already mentioned), masquerades, bureaucracy, dreams, masked vigilantes, and mercantile negotiations. All of these will haunt your mind and imagination as you read Mask as Carrick’s passion pulls you into a riptide of empathy. Empathy that will form an ocean of attachment to the lovable cast.

Ren is definitely the ringmaster in this circus, and she is a blast. Many heist novels suffer from telling about how great their mastermind is, instead of showing, which is not even a slight problem here. We get to see how Ren’s brilliance and tenacity help her claw her way into the good graces of high society, and you definitely feel like she earns all of her victories. Supporting Ren is a menagerie of side characters, some foils and others allies for her ruse. Unfortunately, the depth of the side cast varies enormously. Characters like Grey and Vargo steal the stage with their mysterious backgrounds and wonderful complexity. Meanwhile, Sedge definitely feels like an empty wastebasket into which the authors toss easy plot devices.

My other major criticism of The Mask of Mirrors is that it doesn’t quite feel like a fully contained story. Carrick clearly has plans for an epic tale of heroics, cunning, and treachery, but this results in Mask feeling like it tells only a piece of a larger story, not its own fully formed tale. The stopping point at the end of book one almost feels arbitrary, I don’t feel like I got full closure, and I hunger for more story. The pacing is also slow, but I didn’t see that as an issue as much as a narrative choice. If you are enjoying the book, it will feel like a calm stroll through a rose garden. On the other hand, if you don’t like the story, I suspect it will feel like being dragged behind the world’s slowest and most tireless horse. Depends on the reader, but I definitely caught the sweet scent of flowers – not manure.

The Mask of Mirrors was an excellent start to my 2021 reading and really pumped me up for everything to come this year. It has style, it has grace, it has passion. The only thing it doesn’t have is you reading it right now. Go remedy that. If any of the topics in my list of Carrick’s passions struck your fancy, or if you like political intrigues or heists, you will love this book. I am already counting the days until I get my hands on the next book in the series.

Rating: The Mask of Mirrors – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Swordheart – Pointedly Funny and Heartwarming

51c12tgr73lLook, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. It is currently published by Argyll Productions, a small targeted publisher, so Swordheart is relatively unknown – which is a crime. I found my copy of Swordheart at my public library. There was only a single copy in circulation, I had to wait for ages for it to come off hold, and when I finally got it it was one of the most beat up and well-loved copies of a book I have ever seen. Upon finishing the book I closed the back cover, pulled out my laptop, and ordered Swordheart and the three other currently existing books in the same universe in hardback. I know this is a world and author I am going to enjoy.

Putting aside the hyperbolic love for a second, the plot of Swordheart is rather simple from the outside. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line:

“Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.”

Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. Swordheart is the story of two characters. Our first is Halla, a housekeeper (of sorts) to a wealthy and difficult man who dies and leaves his entire inheritance to her because she was the only person he actually liked. This is a problem for his multiple surviving family members who decide that the best way to get Halla to give up the money is to annoy and badger her to death and collect it from her corpse. When contemplating suicide because she would rather be dead than deal with any more aggressively annoying family members (relatable, and I know my family reads the site but I stand by what I said) she unsheaths a magical sword with a warrior named Sarkis trapped inside. Sarkis, our second protagonist, is an immortal battle-spirit trapped inside a weapon that is forced to serve the will of its wielder. Upon Halla summoning him, he hilariously convinces her not to kill herself and they team up to figure out how to secure Halla’s inheritance. Thus begins an extremely unlikely, and extremely funny, romantic story that kept me enrapt from line one.

Swordheart’s three key strengths are its unbelievably funny humor, its extremely believable world, and its lovable characters – all of which are intertwined. Kingfisher is one of the funniest authors I have ever read, and I was laughing so hard I was tearing up every few pages. A lot of the humor revolves around both the characters’ personality/chemistry, but an equal part of it has to do with funny observational humor about Kingfisher’s world. This has the added benefit of naturally fleshing out the worldbuilding in a fun and enjoyable way, while also distracting you from the fact that she is just dumping cool lore into your brain in large sections. But the world isn’t just funny. There various cultures, sects, magic, and cities you learn about in Swordheart had me engrossed in this book and clamoring to get my hands on the other ones set in the world. It’s a shame that the book is only around 400 pages long because I would have read a thousand pages of this story. The book is a stand-alone, but Kingfisher mentioned that she hopefully will be writing two more that follow similar characters in a loose trilogy.

The third star of the show is the characters. Halla and Sarkis both have tons of depth and go beyond your very run of the mill protagonists. Halla is a very kind, but very suppressed woman who is clever, but didn’t really have the imagination or ambition to conceive of a present or future where she was happy – just one where she got by and did what needed to be done. Sarkis is an energetic, impatient, protective, and outlandish brute who has a complicated sense of honor. Their chemistry has enough fire to burn down a small village, and they are only the first two characters. There is also an entire supporting cast of antagonists and friends that all feel fully realized and enhance this epic quest of traveling to a records office and filing a case against some annoying people.

I read Swordheart last year (in 2020) and it was one of the few bright warm moments of that entire hellscape of a trip around the sun. This book brought me happiness and joy in a time where I really needed it and was so fun that I immediately purchased another copy for myself to enjoy over and over again for years to come. As a reviewer it is always a rare and wonderful joy when you discover a relatively unknown book (and author) who blows you away with their quality work and you get to go out into the world and shout their praises. This is one of those occasions, and I implore you to find a copy of Swordheart as soon as you can.

Rating: Swordheart – 10/10
-Andrew

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Eight Takes On A Good Time

51zwilr7mblI seem to be reading a lot of great novels by journalists recently, and if they keep turning out as well as this one did I have no plans to stop. I don’t know if I would strictly call The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton a fantasy book, but I will call it fun. I would describe it as more of a traditional mystery novel with a fantastical twist. You may be the judge as to what genre it belongs to when you finish reading this review, but regardless of how you categorize it, I am very sure you will have a good time if you have even a passing interest in murder mysteries.

So what is Evelyn Hardcastle? Well, in many ways it’s a traditional murder mystery – a number of rich family and friends, brimming with secrets, all gather at a large beautiful estate with ample space to avoid one another. A murder happens, and a detective must solve the crime within a certain period of time. But, like all good mysteries recently, there is a twist that spices up the formula and keeps things fresh. Our protagonist in Evelyn Hardcastle, who shall remain unnamed, must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle within eight days. To do this, each day the protagonist possesses a different person in the story and may spend their time however they want to find out what happened. But, at the end of eight days if they haven’t solved the murder, “bad things” will happen to them.

It’s best to go into Evelyn Hardcastle knowing as little as possible about the plot because discovering what is happening is half the fun. There are really two core mysteries to solve: who killed Hardcastle and what is going on with the supernatural body swapping. You will find yourself frantically trying to piece together what is happening from the various POVs. It’s really fun to see different scenes from new perspectives, for previous confusing events to suddenly make sense, and to try and keep track of what person is where in this confusing, yet meticulous, plotline. But, you also are looking for context clues and hints as to how and why the protagonists ended up in a situation where they are possessing different people like a ghost with no explanation as to why. Both mysteries held up extremely well and had all the great surprises and reveals of a good story, but what really sets the book apart from its brothers and sisters in the genre is the depth of its themes and ideas.

There is a lot of philosophical discussion at the heart of Evelyn Hardcastle, and it does a good job of elevating the story to be deeper than your traditional dime-store thriller. There is a close examination of morality, discussions on ethics, and the meaning of crime and punishment. This was the first mystery novel in a while that got me to ask bigger questions than “whodunnit?, and that earned the book lot of affection from me. Yet, there were some small issues that kept the book from being completely perfect. While I did enjoy how there was more to the book than simply solving a crime, I didn’t quite feel like everything was neatly tied up in the end. Some of the secondary plotlines felt like they could have been layered in slightly better. In addition, the characters felt more like actors reading from a script than actual believable people – though some of the reasoning of this is eventually explained by the plot. These issues certainly weren’t enough to dampen my joy while reading it, but I do think the delivery of the story could have been a bit smoother.

In the end, no matter how you categorize The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle it can definitely be labeled as recommended. The mysteries are captivating, the magic is fresh, and the content has a nice hefty weight that makes you feel like you are reading something smart and insightful. All in all, this book is a very enjoyable read and I think it would appeal to almost any reader I know.

Rating: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – 8.5/10
-Andrew

QTL – The Most Anticipated Books Of 2021

This week 2020 is finally rolling to a close and we have been spending some time resting, recuperating, and catching up on a number of books from this year. Yet, the show must go on and we have been furiously planning a site refresh and scheduling all of our content for 2021. In the midst of doing all of this we built a pretty comprehensive calendar of all the fantasy, sci-fi, and other books we want to keep an eye on – and discovered that 2021 is shaping up to be a very strong year for books. This is nice, given how difficult 2020 has been. While we were making this list, we figured it might be fun to highlight some of our most anticipated books for those of you who don’t want to spend a week digging through every single publisher release schedule. We have listed them in release order, not in order of excitement. We have provided cover art where available.

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-11) Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick – release date 1/19/2021 by Orbit: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future. But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

51nihz4w52l2) The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers – release date 2/16/2021 by Harper Voyager: With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop. At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through. When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

51ucj27xfcl3) A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine – release date 3/2/2021 by Tor Books: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity. Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

97812507570504) The Helm of Midnight by Marina J Lostetter – release date 4/13/2021 by Tor Books: In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders. Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question. It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

61bym0xuusl5) Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer – released on 6/1/2021 by Tor Books: The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end. Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location. The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held. The Hives’ facade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away. Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone, Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints scramble to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.

42291958._uy1550_ss1550_6) Play of Shadows by Sebastian de Castell – released on 6/24/2021 by Jo Fletcher Books: Damelas Shademantaigne picked a poor night to flee a judicial duel. He has precious little hope of escaping the wrath of the Vixen, the most feared duellist in the entire city, until he stumbles through the stage doors of the magnificent Operato Belleza and tricks his way into the company of actors. An archaic law provides a temporary respite from his troubles – until one night a ghostly voice in his head causes Damelas to fumble his lines, inadvertently blurting out a dreadful truth: the city’s most legendary hero may actually be a traitor and a brutal murderer. With only the help of his boisterous and lusty friend Bereto, a beautiful assassin whose target may well be Damelas himself, and a company of misfit actors who’d just as soon see him dead, this failed son of two Greatcoats must somehow find within himself the courage to dig up long-buried truths before a ruthless band of bravos known as the Iron Orchids come for his head.

813aula04fl7) The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – released on 7/6/2021 by Del Rey Books: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules. The next installment of last years incredibly popular deadly education.

desert-torn-asunder-final-lg-768x1159-18) A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley Beaulieu – released on 7/13/2021 by DAW: The final book in The Song of the Shattered Sands series closing an epic fantasy saga for the ages, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action. The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city’s invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.

9) The Pariah by Anthony Ryan – released on 8/24/2021 by Orbit: Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army. Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?

10) The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie – released on 9/16/2021 by Gollancz: Chaos. Fury. Destruction. The Great Change is upon us. Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds.

978125021734911) Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune – released on 9/21/2021 by Tor Books: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over. But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life. When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

And here are some additional books that we are super hyped about that don’t have details out yet:

  • Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler
  • Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund
  • Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott
  • Leviathan Falls by James SA Corey
  • Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Once And Future Witches – Burning With Passion

51jakcfxkslWell, this is a bit awkward. It seems we have had two “witches/women using magic in historical women’s movements” books this year, and one is far superior to the other. While there is enough room in the genre for any number of magic based women’s movements, The Once And Future Witches by Alix Harrow is our favorite for a variety of reasons I will go into. Additionally, I have a confession to make. Witches is Alix’s second book and she is coming in hot off of last years’ debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January… which I very much did not like. It just wasn’t my cup of tea and it has been super awkward to have any number of readers mention that I should check it out only to have to respond, “Ah, well, I did, and not for me thank you.” Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but it seems relevant in this situation to point out that I wasn’t a fan of January and I very much am a fan of this book.

Witches tells the story of three sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Each of them represents a different female archetype in fiction (the maiden, the mother, and the crone) and each of them finds themselves drawn to the city of New Salem by extraordinary circumstances. The city is undergoing a moment of upheaval. Women are marching to gain rights, witches seem to be making a comeback, and things are starting to get a bit chaotic. The three sisters were raised in a broken home and had an enormous falling out when they were younger, but time heals all wounds and magic has tied them together so they might as well try to get along. The story follows the trio as they attempt to find the lost ways of Avalon, a repository of magic left by the great witches of the past, and as they try to use their magic in both subtle and unsubtle ways to further the rights of women. Each of the sisters gives a window into the different struggles of women of the time, and now, and helps categories the struggles of the feminine half for readers of any persuasion.

This book has a slow start. When I initially began Witches I began to worry that I was in for a repeat experience. I didn’t connect much with the characters, the protagonists felt little more than the tropes they aimed to represent, and the prose was overwhelming. Harrow, for better or worse, is an extremely dramatic writer. Actions like opening windows are described as a flowery herculean task with a paragraph of text. But, as I stuck with the book a number of great things began to happen. Harrow’s prose, which bothered me when describing the little things in life, started being focused on the trials and tribulations of women. While her dramatic writing feels over the top when discussing mundane tasks, when describing things like powerful and emotional humanizing movements it is frankly amazing. Harrow manages to breathe so much passion and wonder into the actions of these characters and the book rapidly begins to rapidly feel less like a character story and more like a fairy tale about changing the world. It leads to some very powerful scenes and a lasting impact that stuck with me long after I closed the final pages.

While the protagonists of the story start out as feeling a little shallow, they absolutely do not remain that way. Around a quarter into the book, they start gaining depth rapidly and the trio that I ended with was unrecognizable from the sisters with which I began. I fell in love with these women and their stories. Their struggles became heartwrenching to experience and I found myself desperately rooting for them.

The formatting of the book is also a lot of fun, with each chapter starting with a rhyme/incantation for a spell that describes the nature of the chapter. There are also interlude chapters that are retellings of classic fairytales that are relevant to the story. In general, the production value of the book is fantastic and the physical book is a wonderful object to hold in your hands.

My criticisms of Witches are few. As I mentioned, I think the start of the book is a little slow and the pacing could be a bit uneven at times. There were parts of the book I couldn’t put down and other chapters I had to force myself to get through. While I think there are a number of very powerful emotional climaxes scattered throughout the entirety of the book, I actually found the finale a bit weaker than many of the earlier crescendos. But, ultimately these complaints did little to quench my enthusiasm for the book.

The Once And Future Witches is a beautiful and powerful story that uses Alix Harrow’s strengths as a writer to put a lot of punch into a touching tale about witches and women’s suffrage. The characters are wonderful, the fairytales are fresh and fun, and the magic leaps off the page. While it didn’t quite make our top 20 of 2020, it was pretty damn close and is certainly worth your time.

Rating: The Once And Future Witches – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Best Of 2020

So long, 2020, and good riddance! The year is finally coming to a close and hopefully, 2021 will be better in many regards. But, there are a few things left to do before we can put the nail in the metaphorical coffin, like talk about the best books of the year. This year we managed to collectively read over 100 books published in 2020. From that large number, we have identified our top 20 reads of the year. This was the year of novellas for us, with a number of standout shorts deeply impressing our review team. So much so, that we decided to make a separate top Novellas list which will be coming next week (12/8). In addition, the competition for the top ten spots was extremely tight. There were a ton of absolutely stand out phenomenal books this year, but we did think the average quality of books overall in 2020 felt a little lower compared to previous years. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2019 into this list, and December 2020 will roll into 2021’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best stories of 2020.

the-doors-of-eden-hb-cover20) The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky – As always, Tchaikovsky surprises and delights with his interesting take on how life evolved on Earth. The Doors of Eden is packed full of imaginative Earths, creative species, and clever science that asks many interesting questions. On top of a lot of scientific answers, the book also is full of fascinating people. The characters, and their relationships, provide a relatable canvas on which to project yourself. Finally, Eden’s unique narrative structure tickled our fancy with its alternative timelines and clever ideas about how they might work. If you are looking for a story with both brains and heart, you need not look further. You can find our full review here.

51rxroewdxl19) Noumenon Ultra by Marina J. Lostetter – A fitting end to a wildly imaginative and deeply thoughtful trilogy that should be getting more eyes than it has. Lostetter has clearly grown as a writer, bringing an impressive sense of scope and even stronger theming. Her writing is heartfelt and really conveys a strong sense of character and humanity even through her vignette narrative style. As a finale, Ultra is a blast and does everything you would hope by pushing the envelope, and tying up remaining threads. I anticipated this book greatly, and Lostetter sailed past those expectations. Seriously, if you haven’t picked up the series yet, you’re missing out and should really get to it for this wonderful sunset. You can find our full review here.

81h7env6hl18) Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – A strange and quiet novel about a man stuck in a maze, Piranesi evokes the same calm feeling I get when standing on a beach and looking out to sea. Much like the ocean, it’s tranquil yet thrilling, beautiful yet scary, and much deeper than it looks. Piranesi has both an interesting narrative structure and a strong opinion on the best way to go through life. It argues that we owe it to ourselves, and the world around us, to take more time to connect with the places where we live. This theme is very compelling, and after finishing Piranesi I found myself staring into the night sky wondering if I was really living my life to the best of my abilities. Any book that can give me an introspective doom spiral is a winner in my opinion, A+. You can find our full review here.

unspoken-gld-t117) The Unspoken Name by A.K. LarkwoodThe Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. I read The Unspoken Name back in January, and I still remember a number of scenes, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. We already praised the book as one of our top dark horse debuts of 2020, and the hype for the sequel is big. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into that reader’s psyche. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you to, you should do so now. You can find our full review here.

4908867716) How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It by K.J. Parker – I am always looking for fantasy books that feature heroes with atypical skills and strengths. Anything to get away from the standard formula of “hero who is great with a sword/magic.” Parker manages to scratch that itch for a second year in a row with his Siege series. The first book makes a war hero out of an engineer, and this second one does it with an actor. On top of having original characters, the themes of How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It all delightfully revolve around the theater and acting. The fantasy genre would be a better and brighter place if we had more books like this pushing the imagination of who or what heroes are. If you are looking for a fun and humorous novel off the beaten path, look no further. You can find our full review here.

4875417415) When Jackals Storm the Walls by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Well, here we are – my annual “scream at the sky about Song of Shattered Sands” event. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out thanks to the release of When Jackals Storm the Walls) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. When Jackals Storm The Walls once again delivers a lovingly written epic story that never lets up and doesn’t let you down. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era of fantasy. You can find our full review here.

docile14) Docile by K.M. Szpara – How much more can I say about this book that hasn’t been covered in the review and not one, but two, dark horse spotlights. Szpara is incredibly good at characters and really sells you on who they are before they are ground up by the system and re-molded. He wields subtlety with panache and expertise, knowing when to show you where he stabbed you in the heart, and knowing when to hide what he stabbed you with. I honestly can’t get the romance between these two broken men out of my head. Szpara shows how anyone can fool themselves into thinking they are behind the mask, when in reality there is only the mask. I’m ready for more romance, especially in Szpara’s deft hands. You can find our full review here.

81llcanwmul13) How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge by K. Eason – Last year I screwed up by letting Eason’s How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse slip by without a review. If I had read it, it definitely would have made our top books of the year. So I made sure to prioritize reading the sequel this year, and I was rewarded for my efforts. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic follow-up that takes the foundation that book one built and uses it as a jumping off point to expand the scope of the story. All of the things I liked about book one are still here, with a bigger cast and more character growth. If this book had been a little bit bigger, longer, or more comprehensive, it would have easily cracked our top 10 of the year. But, even with its shorter story, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is one of the best books of 2020. You can find our full review here.

978125031322512) Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn MuirHarrow the Ninth is a stunning and impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. In her second book, Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure, and yet both styles had excellent prose. This prose and style change is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. 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. You can find our full review here.

41hu2u1muhl11) A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik – What do a protagonist who is so overpowered she somehow loops back to being weak, a Hogwarts that feels like it was designed by Lovecraft, and a frightening amount of exposition dumps all have in common? They apparently make up the ingredients for a fantastic story. A Deadly Education wins major points from me for two core reasons. One, it’s a story about a magical school with a lovable cast of students and eldritch horrors that will give you nightmares. Two, it tells its story in such an unconventional way that despite the fact that it is borrowing a number of time-tested fantasy/horror elements from popular series, it still feels incredibly fresh and original. In addition, while I have always enjoyed Naomi Novik, she seems to be only getting better. The prose and pacing in A Deadly Education are on point and seem noticeably better than other novels of hers I have recently read. All of this comes together to make an incredible package that almost any reader will love. You can find our full review here.

51iik4c-6gl10) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Bennett is a regular staple on our top books of the year lists, and 2020 is no exception. Shorefall is a wonderful, scary book full of beautiful moments, happy and sad. The protagonists are clever people that I never get tired of. They are such an interesting mix to read about and their problem solving is a proxy for Bennett’s wonderful ideas and a hopeful future for humanity. Shorefall is also the fastest paced book of the year. The action is invigorating, as the cast you love pits their wiles against an eldritch god with little chance of victory. Events bombard the reader as they struggle to cope with what is happening, and Bennett never gives you enough time to truly recover from his latest reveal before he hits you with another one. Shorefall is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it. You can find our full review here.

Hench9) Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots – If you’re bored of superheroes, you have two choices in front of you: move on from the genre or embrace supervillains. Luckily, for those who chose the latter, Walschots has the perfect novel for your super powered woes. There are so many beautiful layers within Hench it’s really hard to pick the ones to highlight, but if I had to choose one, it’s character. Anna Tremodolov’s journey from temp hench to dreaded right hand woman of the most feared supervillain is an absolute delight. Walschots is incredible at making events in Anna’s life feel important to her growth, and her quest for accountability. While Anna is the bright sun at the center of the system, the characters that revolve around her are titans in their own right, imbued with a certain je ne sais quoi that made my heart sing. I mean from name and power reveals to standout character moments to highlighting the strength of normal people in their fight against the heroes that have destroyed their lives through collateral damage, Walschots makes it look easy. Not only that, she makes being bad look good, and I’m here for it. You can find our full review here.

41d26na70kl8) The Light of All that Falls by James Islington – While The Light of All that Falls was technically published in 2019, it came out in December and I refuse to miss an opportunity to talk about this incredible epic fantasy. It’s the third and final book in a fantasy trilogy about time travel, and it’s so cool! Light does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor books, and has a strong plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture. I realized as I read the ending of the book that Islington must have started there, and built the rest of the book around where he wanted to end. There are so many well laid plots and plans that come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. The series also has some really interesting ideas around time travel and spends a good portion of the story debating which theory of how time travel would work has the best merit. The Licanius Trilogy manages to be something very new and different while hitting every note that an epic fantasy lover would want in a story. It is no surprise to me that Orbit picked up Islington after he self published book one of this series. It has been clear from the start that he is going places and his books are ones to flag for your to-read pile. You can find our full review here.

41spd48rbal7) Network Effect by Martha Wells – Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels earns her top marks in our list this year. The entire Murderbot series is just great and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out. You can find our full review here.

The reviewers of The Quill To Live had a lot of debate over the placement of the top 6 books, but eventually settled on this order. Suffice it to say, all six of these books are incredible and there are strong cases for all of them to be book of the year.

517sguwkonl6) Ashes of the Sun by Django WexlerAshes of the Sun has enormous depth, and 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, 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. Every part of this world just aggressively pulls you in and makes you want more. My personal favorite thing about Ashes is our sibling 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. Gyre and Maya have the perfect balance of love, respect, and distrust of one another and it’s like falling into an immersion riptide. 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. You can find our full review here.

97812503096795) Sorcery of a Queen by Brian Naslund – The excellence of Sorcery of a Queen is honestly flabbergasting. This book does so many things right that it straight up blew my mind. It has incredible characters, exciting action, deep and original worldbuilding, a gripping plot, a compelling antagonist, great themes, excellent pacing, strong character growth, and a level of polish and inclusivity that made me positively vibrate with happiness. Sorcery is the second book in Naslund’s trilogy, and I accidentally slept on his debut novel (Blood of an Exile) last year. After eventually picking the first book up, I realized what a colossal mistake I had made and jumped on Sorcery the second I could get my hands on it, hoping to find that lightning struck twice. Sorcery broke every single one of my high expectations to tell a story that was nothing short of wonderful. Usually, when I review a book I like to talk about if it’s best for readers who focus on characters, plot, worlds, or ideas. It is very rare that I come across a book that I can unilaterally recommend to all of those people, and this is one such occasion. You can find our full review here.

81mny8q7oll4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Once we finished T.J. Klune’s ultra-charming novel of found family, whether it would make this list was never really a question. Instead, we had to determine exactly where this near-perfect story belonged on our best of 2020 list. And in the top five feels like a perfect place for this heartwarming tale. Cerulean Sea follows Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. Linus is sent on assignment to an orphanage run by the eccentric Arthur Parnassus. Parnassus nurtures some of the strangest magical youth Linus has ever encountered, including a wyvern, a were-pomeranian, and the antichrist. The jarring synopsis threw me for a loop, too, but then I read the book. Cerulean Sea brought happy tears to my eyes on more than one occasion, and Linus’ journey of self-discovery as he “investigates” Parnassus’ home is just…beautiful. That’s the best word to describe this novel, earning it a coveted spot on this list. You can find our full review here.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am3) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – If there has been a book that has occupied my thoughts ever since I read it this year, it has to be Unconquerable Sun. Its high concept premise of “gender bent Alexander the Great in Outer Space” is merely a crumb from the seven course meal prepared by Kate Elliott. I don’t think I was prepared for the abundance of detail, culture, character, politics, commentary, action and emotion that Elliott has wrapped up in this novel. Everything is turned to eleven in stunning glory, allowing the reader to become consumed by the heroism of Sun and her band of companions. If there were a memory wipe machine, I’d probably fry my brain using it so I could read this book with fresh eyes again and again. If you’re looking for a space opera epic that feels new and exciting and instills a sense of wonder and curiosity that is still willing to be fun and explosive, look no further Unconquerable Sun is calling your name. You can find our full review here.

51wgb7eeel2) The Worst of All Possible Worlds by Alex White – The quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. The Worst of All Possible Worlds is a finale that any writer could envy and delivers an explosive knockout punch to any reader who picks it up. 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. 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. Also, the emotional payoff in Worlds is like winning a feeling 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. I said way back in my review that I was sure this would be one of the best books of the year, and I was right. You can find our full review here.

abercrombie-trouble1) The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie – While there was some fierce discussion over these top six slots, there was one book we could all agree on that was a stand out masterpiece. While our choice makes us feel like a very basic b*tch SFF site, sometimes things are popular for a reason. The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie is the Quill to Live best book of 2020. As I originally mentioned in my review (where I correctly guessed that this would be the best book of the year), I don’t want to say too much about Trouble as it’s best to read it, and all of Abercrombie’s work, with as little knowledge as possible. What you should know is the book emotionally feels like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had. The characters are masterpieces of writing that feel so very alive. You want to help them, you want to solve their troubles and keep them safe. But you can’t, nothing can keep them safe from the horrible events that Abercrombie takes them through. The Trouble With Peace is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is the best written and most powerful book I read in 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins. You can find our full review here.

-A note from the QTL team: Happy 2020! We wish you the best of all holidays from our families to yours. We typically do not ask our readers for assistance in promoting our work, but as we spend an enormous amount of time working on our end of year wrap up, any shares and posts of this list are greatly appreciated if you liked it. We hope you have a wonderful 2021 and we look forward to showing you our new list next year!

The Most Iconic Families Of Science Fiction And Fantasy

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Usually, we skip posting on Thanksgiving so everyone can take time off to celebrate you know what: family. Family is the best, or the worst, depending on who you are talking to. But regardless, people have extreme opinions about family. You likely find yourself now asking, “do we have any recommendations for fantasy and science fiction books about family for the holidays?” Well, let us think about that for a moment… hmmm… well now that you mention it a few of them do come to mind. I guess if you give us a moment we could put together some sort of list of iconic families from SFF for the holidays. Just give us one second…. And here you go:

lies-lockelamora-web1) The Found Family – The Gentleman Bastards: You know what they say, “you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, so why would anyone choose terrible blood relations over people who are actually fun to be around,” or something like that. To me, no other cast of fictional characters screams ‘Friendsgiving’ more than Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards. All pseudo-orphans sold into slavery to a chained patron who forces them to steal things to eat, they are all wonderful examples of how the best family members are those who you choose from the small group of other orphans thrown into the gutter with you. They’re quite fun to be around, probably will steal great dishes from someone’s grandmother on the way to your potluck, and can always be counted on to avenge your death on the likely chance that it occurs. But, while found families are all well and good, let’s talk about some of the most iconic ACTUAL families of SFF and fantasy, starting with everyone’s favorite psychopaths – The Starks.

agameofthrones2) The Cold Family with No Fucking Chill – The Starks: These stewards of the North are a fan favorite, and you could forgive them with that kickass Direwolf sigil and the family motto “winter is coming.” They are known for their cold demeanor and even icier brand of justice as they seem to rule the north with a calm guiding hand. But is that really the case when they plunge the realm into a civil war not once, but twice?! I mean that’s before they sew their own destruction by breaking an alliance trying to maintain their bedside honor. You could say it’s the summer blood of the Tullys but how can you account for Ned Stark’s bungling of political affairs to maintain his strict code of honor? Honestly, this family is ready to throw down after a couple of small attempted murders, and when one is outright killed, it’s war. Definitely, some unresolved repressed emotions that would come out over slight jabs during the holidays hidden underneath the Starks’ cold exterior.

51wkqa3knrl3) The “Still Better Than Your Racist Uncle!” Family – Portia and the Spider Colony: Sure, chowing down on some spider-planet turkey-analog with arachnids of human-level intelligence might sound like a terrifying Thanksgiving tradition. But one of the biggest hurdles to overcome at the dinner table with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s eight-legged friends is communication. It’s hard to talk freely with a species that uses subtle palp movements and leg twitches to make conversation. The flip side? These spiders don’t have YouTube (and if they did, they’d for SURE call it VidWeb). So they won’t spout racist “facts” or tell you that masks don’t work during dinner. These friendly spiders won’t regurgitate right-wing talking points halfway through the passing of the gravy boat. instead, they’ll suck the innards out of unsuspecting insects, leaving a husk of a creature in their wake, much like far-right algorithmic social media rabbit holes have done to your pea-brained relatives. This Thanksgiving, the “Spider Families Are better than Some Human Families” award goes to the arachnids from Children of Time and Children of Ruin.

91jbdarvqml4) The Family That Hides Its Real Thanksgiving Until After You Leave – The Bagginses: We’ve all been there. Your halfling friend sends a flowery-hand-calligraphed invite to celebrate Thanksgiving in The Shire. You show up. You dine–no, you FEAST. You drink–no, you IMBIBE. You smoke–no, you look at your hands and think “man, these things are just weird.” You may even be graced by the presence of a riddle-tongued wizard. Songs ring through the burrowing halls of the Baggins residence, telling tales of folk heroes and daring adventurers who gave their lives for the greater good. All-in-all, it’s a fantastic day. The post-feast lull sets in, and all the Bagginses and their hobbit brethren begin to yawn. That’s your signal. It’s time to go. You venture to the end of The Shire and untie your steed, only to realize you left your horse keys in Frodo’s abode. When you saunter back to the house, the room once again blazes with light and merriment. They’re feasting AGAIN, singing better, longer songs, drinking stronger drinks, smoking more potent…hobbit drugs? And although you had the time of your life for the three hours you were there, this after-party, this…second Thanksgiving, appears to be the main event. You crumple up your invite, remember that horses don’t need keys, and meander back to your steed, dejected. Happy second Thanksgiving to you.

dune-cover-15) The Family With A Lucrative Business That Loves Their Golden Boy Heir – The Atreides: Do you know anyone that is a single child whose parents just seem to go to extreme lengths to set them up for life? The family that seems to have it all but consistently encourages their child to get involved in schemes that only one of absurd privilege could get away with? Well, if you don’t and need a good look at what that’s like, the Atreides are a shining example. Here you have Jessica, a mother who completely disobeys her entire religious order, the Bene Gesserit, that exists purely to manage bloodlines so she could have a son one generation sooner than the grand plan had in mind. Then the father, Duke Leto, in an effort to prove his loyalty to the Padishah Emperor, uprooted his family from the water-laden calm planet of Caladan to Arrakis. Also known as Dune, Arrakis is where the spice Melange is harvested, the literal lifeblood of interstellar travel within the galactic empire. Paul, their only son, is determined to live his life and ingratiate himself amongst the people of Arrakis so that he may better understand who he is ruling. If that’s not enough, the family exploits the culture and myths of a messiah seeded long ago on Dune by the Bene Gesserit so that the people of Arrakis start to see Paul as their messiah come home. I mean what more can they give him?

Thanks for taking time out of your holidays to read our post friends, and once again, have a happy Thanksgiving!