The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.

From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”

The Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

The Best Books Of The First Half Of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Of Science Fantasy

I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.

So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.

So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:

  • Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
  • Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
  • Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.

Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.

71td5pweetl1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.

81g3gpska-l2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.

gideon-the-ninth-cover3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.

red2bsister2bcover5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.

355205646) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.

threepartsdead_1507) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.

514r1y8fc6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.

51zeepnspsl._sx331_bo1204203200_9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.

812bsf2bbnqul10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).

978057508516911) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.

51oul60c3fl12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.

Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.

-Andrew

5 Lighthearted Reads for Dreary Times

Let’s get straight to the point: everything is tough right now. And rather than regurgitate the buzzwords and messaging you see on all your social platforms, I’d like to shift gears and offer you a little light to get through some dark times. Here are five lighthearted reads that will put a smile on your face!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

This book. This. Friggin’. Book. I turned the final page of The House in the Cerulean Sea with glistening, teary eyes and a smile so large it probably threw Earth’s gravity off-kilter (if you felt that, I’m sorry–should be back to normal now). TJ Klune has served up an unassuming book with an unassuming protagonist that just wrecks you by the end. It’s a tale of found family and unconditional love and fighting for what’s right in the face of adversity. It’s told with careful attention to detail and a glimmer of hope. Our recent review (a well-deserved 10/10, by the way) covers the main points, but here’s the skinny: it’s a glorious fantasy novel featuring a diverse cast of characters and a world exploding with magic. For what it’s worth, I can remember two books EVER making me cry, and this is one of them (the other being City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett, but those were tears of well-earned sadness). 

For the love of all that you hold dear, read this book. 

Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle

You may have seen these charming aliens gracing your Instagram feed. Nathan W Pyle’s account of the same name features cute-as-heck extra-terrestrials experiencing the wonders of Earth through fresh eyes. The book (and its June-slated sequel, Stranger Planet), collects these charming cartoons and reignites the beauty in everyday things that we too often take for granted. 

To Pyle’s aliens, sunburn is an adventure and cats are mysteries to solve. No familiar scenario or phenomenon is exempt from the adoration of the creatures, and every panel offers thoughtful observations on everyday life and human emotion. 

Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Oh, you already finished Strange Planet but you can’t wait for the sequel? You need another charming illustrated exploration of Earth through an extra-terrestrial’s eyes? Dang, sorry I can’t hel–BAM. Here’s Jomny Sun’s charmingly magnificent masterpiece. Jomny, a misfit alien, is sent to study earth. He befriends animals and plants. He discovers what it means to feel. He learns that it’s okay to be sad just as much as it’s okay to be happy. 

Jomny Sun presents a lovely view of humanity, and every single page teaches some sort of life lesson. I’ll leave you with a personal favorite, aliebn misspellings-and-all: “I’ve been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre the ones most invested in filling the silence.”

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Sometimes, you need a rich sci-fi world complete with intergalactic federations, societies on the brink of war, and weapons capable of destroying entire solar systems. Sometimes, you need a humorous sci-fi romp in which aliens have been illegally streaming Earth music for years and, as a result, owe us trillions upon trillions of dollars. For those in need of the latter, I offer you Year Zero.

Backed by a wealth of his industry knowledge as the founder of Rhapsody, Rob Reid weaves a hilarious tale of intergalactic copyright infringement and piracy. It’s a hoot from start-to-finish, and while Year Zero explores some important questions about art and consumption in the space-travel age, it’s really just a straight-up adventure that pokes a lot of fun at many of our artistic institutions. Oh, and it’s kind of a love letter to music as a whole. 

If you’re looking for an overly-hyphenatedly-described genre-defining space-faring sci-fi mega-masterpiece, well…*gestures to The Expanse.* If you want to heed the words of Cyndi Lauper and sneak in a few chuckles, check out Year Zero

What If? By Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe’s collection of “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” induced more riotous laughter in me than any book I’ve read in recent memory. A former NASA employee and all-around talented writer, Munroe approaches said questions with a flair for scientific accuracy and a sharp penchant for gut-busting punchlines. Throw in the hilarious stick-figure comics, and you’ve got the full package. 

Here are some of the questions on display: “How much force power can Yoda output?” “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?” “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?”

So, yeah, things get crazy. What If? provides a refreshing escape from these tough times into rampant absurdity.

Dark Horse 2020 – Jan to June

After the success of last year’s Dark Horse Initiative, we knew we were going to do it again this year. For those of you just joining us, the DHI is our attempt to sift through all the relatively unknown debuts coming out in a year and bookmark a handful to check out and review just based on their descriptions. However, when we were building the lists this year we realized that we had A LOT of books on it – so we decided to make two. We are splitting the DHI into two lists, one for each half of the year. The following books are our picks for books coming out from January 2020 to June 2020, and we will have a second list for the back half of the year in July.

As mentioned, each of the following 12 books (in no particular order) is something that caught the eyes of one of our reviewers. We will do our best to read and review all of these, but there are only so many hours in the day so no promises we will get to all of them. Regardless, each looks like a promising new story and we are very excited to check them out! Happy 2020 everyone.

  1. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
  2. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
  3. Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
  4. A Song Below Water by Bethany C Morrow
  5. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
  6. Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
  7. Docile by K. M. Sparza
  8. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
  9. The Loop by Ben Oliver
  10. The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
  11. The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
  12. Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson

Dark Horse 2019 – Derby Download

So 2019 is rolling to a close and we have started eyeing books coming out in 2020 to build our to-do lists. However, while building our reading schedule for next year we realized that we should probably do a wrap-up on our Dark Horse Initiative 2019. P.S., you may notice we have changed this list slightly from our original – that is because we somehow missed that two of our books (Priory and Sixteen) were not actually debuts and have replaced them with other debuts we read. So, below you will find a mini-list of all of the debut books and authors we specifically sought out and read in 2019 in the order of how much we enjoyed them. In addition, given that we have already put out a list of our favorite books of 2019 which contained many of these, we thought we would also spend some time highlighting a few specific books for their contributions to their genres. While we didn’t love all of them, almost all of them brought fresh new ideas to the fantasy and sci-fi genres and should be applauded for trying something new. First, the list of Dark Horses in 2019:

  1. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
  2. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
  3. This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  4. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
  5. For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones
  6. The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull
  7. The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
  8. Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
  9. Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
  10. Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
  11. Titanshade, by Dan Stout
  12. Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell

Books worth additional discussion:

The Luminous DeadThe Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling – What can I say that I haven’t already said about this wonderfully creepy and ambient debut. The limited perspective is engaging, reducing the amount of information the reader receives, heightening the tension. The danger feels ambiguous and ephemeral, making the reader question what is really happening. On top of that, the character to character interaction is sparse, dense and unreliable. Starling does a brilliant job of capturing so much humanity within such a small story. If you’re put off by galaxy-spanning epics, but still want to read something that captures the human condition as it extends to new planets, The Luminous Dead should help light the way.

51tsalt2b0el._sx321_bo1204203200_Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K ChessFamous Men Who Never Lived offers a heartbreaking slice-of-life story with a healthy smattering of sci-fi. Days after reading, I contemplated K Chess’ story of being the “other,” and the book helped me understand concepts I’d never fully grasped before. As I said in my review, Famous Men isn’t an action-packed adventure. Rather, it skews our perception of our own reality by presenting us with a new one and urges us to explore the implications of immigration and racism. It’s a true sci-fi gem that transitioned from dark horse pick to hard-hitting sci-fi favorite.

51gxorcir2lGods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia – I didn’t love this book, but a lot of people will. My problems with the novel were all due to stylistic clash; its campfire story style bored me and failed to pull me into the story. However, there will be many who rightly love this style and list Gods of Jade and Shadow as one of their favorite novels. Moreno-Garcia’s debut stands out as a unique voice, for better or worse, among the endless dross that the fantasy genre produces each year. Her mix of Mexican heritage, evocative prose, and romantic storytelling are absolutely worth checking out so you can assess it for yourself.

71uzngwnyelThis Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – This Is How You Lose the Time War is not the book that you think it is. It certainly wasn’t the book I thought it was when I initially opened it on a plane ride back into the states. The few hours I spent within the world that El-Mohtar and Gladstone described were some of the most magical, whimsical, and heartrendingly beautiful I’ve had in recent memory. The story told about Red and Blue is at times terribly romantic, beautifully horrifying, and is constantly dripping with intent and craft. As multifaceted as poetry but with the unrelenting pace and drive of prose, everyone needs to give This Is How You Lose the Time War a try.

91mbw2bkarelTitanshade, by Dan Stout – Hogwarts P.D. is certainly fresh. Titanshade blends two genres that I absolutely did not think could be blended: buddy cop shows and epic fantasy. You might think that just sounds like urban fantasy, but Titanshade is so much more with its completely original fantasy world – with a modern setting. Titanshade has some flaws, but it did a great job showing that fantasy need not be limited to historical European settings. While the book was both grim and dark, the modern setting allowed it to function as both a drama and escapism tool. The second book in the series is coming out next year, and you better believe I am going back for more.

That’s it for our Dark Horses of 2019! If you liked this mini-project of ours, I have some good news: we will be back in early January with our Dark Horse 2020 to-read picks. See you then!

The Best Of 2019

Welcome back to another end of the year list! 2019 is rumbling to a close, which means it’s once again time to talk about the best books of the year. This year was a tough one for us. With our expanded set of reviewers, we got through a much larger number of new books and had a much harder time cutting them down to a top list. The competition was hot for every single spot this year, and our list is coming out a little later than usual due to all the discussions we had about where to rank everything. This year, the competition was so tight that we chose to include 22 books plus a few honorable mentions. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2018 into this list, and December 2019 will be rolled into 2020’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2019.

Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:

4145903722) The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull – A more personal book that takes a large event and brings it home in ways that most first contact stories don’t examine. There are no interstellar battles, no open threats of planetwide war, just three islands, the people that live on them, and the aliens that occupy them. It is an intensely close look at the effects of colonialism in its many forms and how it affects the relationships of those under the boot, literally and metaphorically. While major events rarely happen within the POV of a character, the rumors and feelings of those events bleed into the narrative, coloring the reactions of everyone in different ways. Turnbull makes every interaction feel deliberate, earned, and uncomfortable. He provokes the reader to think about the events of the book. If you want an intimate and contemplative character-based science fiction story, see if you can learn The Lesson.

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_21) System Failure by Joe Zieja – A surprisingly deep ending to an extremely humorous trilogy with a ton of excellent character development. With the publication of his third book, Zieja seems to be done with writing books for the near future–a damn shame, if you ask me. He has demonstrated that he is capable of creating thoughtful commentary and entertaining jokes at the same time, and I consider the Epic Failure trilogy to be one of the best satires I have ever read. Now that book three has stuck the landing, you can be reassured that these books are definitely worth your time. Unless you hate laughter, fun, and joy, and in that case, I am not really sure what to recommend you read.

71e9du8wynl20) Middlegame by Seanan McGuireMiddlegame was a book that flew under my radar for a while. In retrospect, I don’t know how the description didn’t jump off the back of the book at me. The book takes place in a near-future or the alt-universe United States, it’s a little unclear exactly what year the book starts in due to the fact it’s almost entirely about time travel and manipulating the flow of time. In this version of the USA, the magical practice of alchemy is real and there is a secret society of alchemists that have been pulling the strings of government and world development for centuries. The book follows a pair of alchemically created twins as they try to subvert the murderous intent of their maker and find a way to create a future for themselves. The time travel mechanic is handled fantastically, the magic feels truly mystical, and the singsong nature of the prose ties in well with the initial conceit of Asphodel Baker hiding her magic in children’s books. We highly recommend you give it a try.

81hheui0g8l19) The Killing Light by Myke Cole – A stunning finish to an already fantastic series. Myke Cole digs deep offering a sobering but impactful piece of revolution and identity. Cole maintains a loyalty to his characters through to the end, providing rich character growth inside a bombastic action-filled trilogy. The excellent pacing will keep you on the edge of your seat, with a steady but explosive ramping of the stakes in the final act. There is barely a dull moment, but Cole manages to squeeze in the occasional introspective paragraph to develop the characters. While the prose may not be overly detailed, it conveys a range of atmospheres that sell the setting and the fight ahead for Heloise and her compatriots. If you haven’t read the others in the series, this book is worth picking them up for.

51q9knbilel._sx321_bo1204203200_18) The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – Leckie’s first fantasy novel is a slow burn and odd book to pick up, but definitely worth the time. Leckie performs an amazing juggling act by building a new world, exploring the power of language, and the nature of authority in a gripping tale of succession. There is nothing I like more than deconstructing a genre, and Leckie does it with admirable finesse. The human characters are not much to write home about but serve the story in interesting ways that don’t betray who they are. Gods and kings are at each other’s mercy in this robust world where faith is a contract, and not fulfilling it has vast repercussions. If you’re looking for a book that cooks its elements like a stew, rewarding you with a satisfying finish after a deliberate and planned preparation, then look no further than The Raven Tower.

91fi4au2qfl17) For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones – Another of our Dark Horses, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic fantasy novel. It has an engrossing world, a fast-paced plot, and a smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. The protagonists are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free-time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. While I wouldn’t say this book reinvented the wheel, I think it is both a stunning tribute to old school quest fantasy and a fresh and original take on some classic fantasy tropes. This book is worth your time.

gideon-the-ninth-cover16) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – A powerful debut from a new author with a stunning voice, Gideon the Ninth is a story I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. A story with endless ambition and complication, Muir’s debut built a window into her very chaotic and fascinating mind. It takes a clever artist to combine necromancy and a science fiction setting, and yet Muir’s fascinating world seems as effortless as it is captivating. Her universe is both cool and believable, though not necessarily a place I want to live. Although her twists were somewhat unsurprising, her characters were bundles of mystery and watching them evolve over the course of the book was wonderful. Thank god the second book comes out early next year after the ridiculous cliffhanger of an ending in book one. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly.

71uzngwnyel15) This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – I didn’t expect a book about time-traveling super agents fighting a time war on opposite sides to be so…romantic. This Is How You Lose The Time War is a short book that feels so much bigger than it is. The ideas it contains and the relationship it explores expand in weight and depth far past what the short run time should allow. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have created a poetic romance of a sci-fi novella and luxuriate in it. Their prose is lavish but fitting and never feels overwrought despite always toeing the line of excessive. I was moved by this story to a depth that I have difficulty getting across in words and cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to experience the story Red and Blue live within its pages.

51QyF0Oma0L._SX311_BO1204203200_14) A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White – Alex White is on a roll, making two of our best-of-the-year lists in a row with his next installment of The Salvagers series. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. The Quill to Live reviewers will always be drawn toward books that do a good job blending fantasy and science fiction, and White has a real talent for it. These novels are a mind exploding stream of cool ideas and blockbuster set pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

51tbh9qip2l13) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Bancroft’s incredible prose,  delightful sense of humor, and mysterious storytelling are back again with the third installment of his The Books of Babel Series. The Hod King is the latest in an incredible character study and journey of the titular Senlin – and watching him grow book by book has been pure joy. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The book has heart and there were a number of touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction.

51dp2bmink2l12) A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Martine’s debut is a frenetic political space opera that asks the reader to put in some work, for easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the year. The worldbuilding is near seamlessly blended into the narrative, allowing osmosis like an exchange between the characters and their world. It’s a character-driven drama, wherein the characters have as much agency as the situation allows, leading to the characters to deeply question their own identity, especially when it comes to nationality and the goals of an inherited community. To top it off, Empire has one of the most exciting and bombastic conclusions I’ve read in a long while; it closes the book, but it opens the world.

43521682._sy475_11) The Bone Ships by RJ Barker – Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. The world is top-tier in its quality and the plot is surprising in its direction and themes. The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that speaks to me on several levels. This book was one of the only ‘escort quests’ I have ever enjoyed being a part of, and it was a privilege to watch the protagonists forge a legendary ship’s crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Welcome to the top 10 of 2019. Please note that the competition for these top 10 spots was fierce this year, so all of these books should be given high accolades.

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_10) The Burning White by Brent Weeks – I gotta tell you, I did not have a lot of faith that Weeks could pull off a powerful ending for The Lightbringer – and wow was I wrong. This is one of the twistiest series I have ever read, and the more turns you have the harder it is the land the final reveal. The Burning White sticks a landing that would earn a straight 10 from Olympic judges. The final installment of this modern classic cements its standing in my mind and does a lot to alleviate some of the minor animosity created by book four in the series. Future generations of readers will not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to read these five books back to back, and will never know the pain of having to wait years to find out what happens in the story next. Give these books a spin if you haven’t already.

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre 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 once again.

The Luminous Dead8) The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – Horror and science fiction have an interesting relationship as they can sometimes explore similar ideas with wildly different approaches. Luckily, Starling is an excellent matchmaker, highlighting both genres’ strongest attributes in her debut, which also happens to be our top Dark Horse pick. The setting and the characters are the biggest stars in this book. Gyre and Em have layers to them that heighten the tension and horror of the deep caves Gyre is exploring. The first person perspective is purposefully disoriented, making the reader feel as if they are in Gyre’s shoes, and needing to ask the questions she herself has trouble answering. The character’s flaws are on full display in an incredibly human fashion. Their reckless decisions feel necessary, but also stupid and punishable. I never really felt safe during the story, especially when Gyre’s radio only partner Em, seemed so questionable. The Luminous Dead has buried itself deep in my brain and will remain there for years to come. If you’re looking for an intimate horror experience, turn out the lights and let the dead light your way.

91dsajyop2l7) A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs – If I had my way this would be in the first slot. I have evangelized about this book to everyone I have spoken to about reading since I experienced it and will continue to for as long as I live. A duology of novellas, one longer than the other, A Lush and Seething Hell may be my favorite book of all time. The longer I’ve had to think about and reflect upon its story the more profoundly it has impacted me and influenced my thoughts. Each of the stories it contains is compelling and moving in the extreme, and while I personally have my favorite of the two either one would top a list of what my personal “best” short stories would be. The genre and subject matter means that by default this book won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to find out personally. I will get my ARC signed by John Hornor Jacobs someday if it is the last thing I do, and I would highly recommend every single person reading this article to go and pick this book up. I cannot wait for what Jacobs does next.

51xnnd8dqtl6) Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey – I have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now.” The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the series tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how The Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

71wcezdltrl5) Exhalation by Ted Chiang – One of two books to sneak into the top five in the last two weeks of the year and cause a delay on the list. As far as I am concerned, Exhalation should be required reading for everyone. It is a book that evokes curiosity in the reader and kickstarts introspection. It is such a thoughtful and inspirational book and I can’t imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy it. In 300 pages and nine stories, Chiang will drop a boatload of wisdom on you and ask some questions that will have you thinking weeks after you finish the collection. This series of shorts pack punches orders of magnitude larger than other things that have come out this year, it a much smaller package. Just read it, seriously. You really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of these wonderful stories.

356060414) A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie – Like anyone familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised this is in the top five. Headline: author who everyone agrees is dope as hell writes next installment of beloved series and it turns out really good – surprising no one and delighting everyone. Seriously, A Little Hatred is amazing. Abercrombie has ushered in a new generation of characters that are just as compelling, unconventional, and emotional as the last – without cannibalizing his own work. The book is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, one of the best books I have read this year.

51sght5qhjl3) Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – With powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of its predecessor allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. While Time had great characters, Tchaikovsky really upped the ante in Ruin. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. Unfortunately, this closeness led me to feel that some of their stories were not fully explored by the end of the book, but it did not dampen the power of the story overall. Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

81h2bkqvsgyl2) The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This sneaky little snake is the true reason our list is late again this year. The silver-tongued Morgenstern must have known what she was doing when she released 2019’s arguably most anticipated book a week before reviewers like me had to put out best-of lists. I have not written a full review for The Starless Sea yet because I am still digesting how I feel about the book after binging it in a few days. However, I was only about ten pages into the book before I knew it would be a top contender for the book of the year on every fantasy and sci-fi list. With one of the most relatable protagonists of all time, The Starless Sea captured my imagination in a way few stories ever have. The book, simply put, is a work of art. With its stunning exterior and gorgeous prose upon its pages, I found myself holding this modern classic to my chest for comfort after it hammered my heart into oblivious with its touching story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and dive into The Starless Sea.

91gyhjy8mjl1) A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – This year it was a close thing. The difference in ranking between the number one and two books this year is minuscule, but at the end of the day(year) I had to give it to A Brightness Long Ago. 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. 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 is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read. It is 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 is The Quill to Live’s #1 book of 2019 – I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Happy 2019 from The Quill to Live Team

Science Fiction for 2019

2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:

The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.

81fywrtjuolThe Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.

Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.

32758901Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.

Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.

51wkqa3knrlChildren of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”

51o34bvmuol._sx325_bo1204203200_The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).

Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.

26850100Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.

41-d2bw0dpxl._sx324_bo1204203200_Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.

Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.

91alssdftvlArmor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.

9780312536633_p0_v3_s1200x630The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.

An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.

26114545Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.

91rstamsxzlPandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.

A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.

gideon-the-ninth-coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.

Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.

A Halloween Special: But What IS Horror Anyway?

Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.

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Body HorrorThe fear of our own mortality.

Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.

In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.

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Paranormal The fear of our lack of understanding

I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.

Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.

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Psychological The fear we create for ourselves

I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.

Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”

In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.

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Cosmic HorrorThe fear of our own insignificance

Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.

Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.

In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.

Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.

-Will