Pornokitsch – End Of A Titan

This week we got some very sad news in the reading world. Pornokitsch, one of the largest reading blog/sites around and site that constantly feels dangerous to have in your google history at work, is shutting down. PK has been a valued resource for readers and other reviewers for years, and is part of the reason I decided to get into reviewing in the first place.

Jared in particular, the PK member who handles most of the fantasy content, is one of the best reviewers out there – bringing tons of insight and wit to all his reviews. I regularly disagree with him on his assessments of books, but think that all of his opinions are well argued and worth listening to because he takes a ton of time and effort to formulate them.

The reasons cited for PK shutting down is that it just wasn’t fun enough to do anymore. I can definitely understand that mentality, we were unable to get a post out this Tuesday just due to how busy we are, and having to deal with that sort of impact on your life for the 10 years that PK ran must have been exhausting. However, while I wish them the best of luck and understand why they are closing shop I will still miss them dearly, and maybe The Quill to Live can make the best of a sad thing and shamelessly steal part of their reader base.

In honor of PK, we wanted to highlight some of their posts from over the years we liked in no particular order. If you haven’t every checked out PK, now is as good a time as any and we hope that people still use the existing content for years to come:

-The QTL Team

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On Ursula Le Guin – Forever Dreaming

On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.

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“I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” 

I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.

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“You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” 

There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.

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“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” -The Dispossessed

It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.

-Andrew

The City of Brass – An Interview With S. A. Chakraborty

With this impressive year of fantasy coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the great books I read this year and reaching out to authors to talk with them more about their impressive creations. One such author in particular is the lovely Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass, which I reviewed here. A wonderful book about Arabic lore, family, and a magical city in the desert – I got to ask Shannon a number of questions about her debut book, and a few about her upcoming sequel The Kingdom of Copper. The questions are posted below, enjoy:

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I got to hear you and others speak at a New York Comic Con panel about female authors, writing historical fantasy, and writing from diverse backgrounds. It was one of the best panels I have attended at a comic con, so thank you. On it you talked briefly about borrowing from history/the real world and inventing things on your own when you write. How do you balance the two?

You’re welcome, and I’m happy you enjoyed the panel. For me, it’s not really a balancing act; it’s more building from a scaffolding that already exists. I set my books in the “real” world: there might be magic, but there’s also the historical fact of Napoleon’s occupation and the idea that a dish conceived in ancient Persia wouldn’t have New World vegetables in it. But I don’t really mind this or find it limiting; it’s fun to peel back the facts and imagine the emotions and people behind them.

The City of Brass starts in our world in the city of Cairo, but quickly departs it for fantastical lands. Will we make our way back to our world in the future or will be primarily exploring more cities from your imagination?

Both! The books are very much meant to take place in our world—it’s just that djinn exist largely unseen beside humans. We’ll definitely see more of the magical world, but we’ll also see some of our djinn characters visiting that of the humans…perhaps even a city we’ve already seen!

I assume you have to do a lot of research to write historical fantasy. What is the weirdest historical fact or quirk you have come across while researching for you book?

There are a lot but a particular favorite at the moment is medieval treasure-hunting guilds in Egypt. It’s something I need to dig into a bit more for the (hopefully!) next book series, but I’ve always loved learning about how people in the past interacted with their past. I came across a mention of these guilds after an excerpt from a contemporary scholar basically railing against ancient magic and hustlers and was just thoroughly amused by the entire depiction.

Your portrayal of Ali and his family is one of the most organic relationships I have read. Where did you get this inspiration for their dynamic? Did you draw it from your own life? Do you have siblings and which one of them are you?

Thank you! I come from a pretty big family and always enjoy seeing well-done portrayals of complicated, messy, exasperating and yet also still loving relatives; I think it’s a thing many of us can relate to. And I’ve always had a particular fascination with rival princes. They’re fairly common in history, and yet I can’t imagine the emotions that go behind making a decision to war against your own brother.

There was certainly some inspiration from my own family. My twin brother and I are very close, and I was very protective of him, especially when we were younger, even when we were fighting. This was definitely an emotion and dynamic that I was trying to capture with Muntadhir and Ali. Though my brother isn’t a wealthy, libertine playboy destined to rule a shaky kingdom so the similarities end there!

As someone who also has been accused of having a stick up his ass, I particularly identified with Ali. Will Ali learn to relax a little in the future, and can you pass on the secret to taking life a little less seriously to me?

So this is where I confess that I probably have more in common with Ali than I like to contemplate! Not sure I can offer advice, but maybe like Ali, we need to broaden our experiences a bit and learn to let loose on occasion.

One of my favorite things in The City of the Brass is that the most powerful Djinn/Daevas are the healers. I constantly feel that healing magic is undervalued in fantasy, and often relegated to only kind motherly figures. Seeing those powers in the hands of tyrants and others was very refreshing. What inspired you to take this path with your story?

Ha, the fact that I’ve worked in healthcare! I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that.

What is up next for Nahri and Ali? Can you give us any hints of what book two will be about at a higher level?

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the city itself. Nahri and Ali were left in difficult straights at the end of the first book and they’ll need to improve their game—both political and magical—if they want to protect what they love.

What did you learn or improve on over the experience of writing The City of Brass? Have you any lessons you experienced first hand that you would impart to others?

Follow where the narrative is going, not the plot points you wrote down two years ago. I dreamed and played in this world for so long, it was hard to give up on some aspects that I loved. I tried to keep in mind that I was telling a story not writing a history essay.

What do you like to read? What are you reading right now? Was there any book that inspired The City of Brass or inspired you as a writer in general? What are your favorite books?

I like to read pretty widely though in the past year, I’ve been trying to catch up on my SFF. I read a lot of history for research and for enjoyment, and right now I’m split between a history of medicine in the Indo-Islamic tradition and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My favorite books are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and The Moor’s Accountant by Laila Lalami, though the latter broke my heart!

If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out The City of Brass, I highly recommend it and thank you to Shannon Chakraborty again for taking the time to talk with me.

-Andrew

The Best Of 2017

2017 is drawing to a close which means it is time to talk about the best books of the year. This year has been the strongest for fantasy and science fiction I can remember in at least a decade. The average quality of the releases this year was astoundingly high, and even though this will be my longest list of top books ever there are still several books that came out this year on my to-do list that I couldn’t get to (such as The Core by Peter Brett and Providence by Ann Leckie). In addition, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 20 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. All that being said let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2017.

20) Spellslinger and Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castell – The first of two authors to grab two spots on one of my lists in a year, de Castell has had an impressive 2017. Right as he ended his Greatcoats series (the other book of his later on this list) he also kicked off a new YA series that has something for everyone. This story about a mage becoming a stage magician was weird, funny, and had surprising depth for something so short. Kellen has a lot of growth in his future, and watching him forge his own path as an Argosi as he passes tests and investigates plagues is something I greatly look forward to. With the first two novels of this six book series already out, it is worth your time.

19) Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee – A sequel to The Ninefox Gambit, this weird and original science fiction series about a ghost master tactician stapled to another soldier is still incredible strong. The Ninefox Gambit was a book where I was really confused as to what was going on the entire time I was reading it, but still having a blast anyway. With Raven Stratagem I feel that the series is starting to shed some of its mystery and go deeper into its plot but the second book did not quite live up to the power of the first in my eyes.The series has an incredible world, deep and interesting characters, and I hope to one day be able to understand how I feel about the plot.

18) Soul of the World by David MealingSoul of the World is a monument to the idea that the most important thing in reading is to have a good time while doing it. A book about three types of magic squaring off, I have never seen more powers and abilities thrown around in a single book except possibly in Malazan. David defied a lot of traditional epic fantasy worldbuilding and wrote a romp about mages who find new spells every 20 pages and in doing so made a fast, thrilling, and captivating story about new and refreshing types of mages trying to save the world. Soul of the World was one of the best things to debut this year, do not let this less-talked-about gem go under your radar.

17) An Echo of Things to Come by James Islington – Beating out the reigning champion Anthony Ryan, James Islington takes the crown for ‘books that I couldn’t have read without an appendix to check every 10 pages’. The sequel to the incredible A Shadow of What Was Lost, Echo is a massive addition to a series about fantasy time travel and time manipulation. Echo has continued to show that The Licanius Trilogy is one of the best epic fantasies to come out in years (which is saying a lot given its company). These books are a maze of intrigue, characters, and self discovery that can be a bit of work to read – but the payoff is worth it. I hope I will find myself able to read the third book without checking who everyone is in the appendix, but either way I am pumped to see how this series pans out.

16) Communication Failure by Joe Zieja – Who says you can’t have humor, heart, and story all in one book? Zieja’s Mechanical Failure was a surprise dark horse last year that impressed me with its incredible humor despite its shallow story. Building on this, Zieja has returned with a sequel with everything that made the first book funny – but more fleshed out with a story I got caught up in. No longer am I just reading these books for their funny scenes and characters, I am now also invested in the plot. This is another book series that I find has snuck beneath everyone’s radar and unless you hate laughing you are doing yourselves a great disservice not checking it out.

15) The Dragon Lord: False Idols by Jon Hollins – Much like Communication Failure, False Idols is the second book in a humor based series where I found the first book (Fool’s Gold) funny but not very deep. Jon pulled out all the stops and addressed every major problem I had with his first book and made False Idols into a book that has both humor and story. When I finished Fool’s Gold I figured I would check out the sequel eventually, when I finished False Idols I moaned at how long I would have to wait for book three. Humorous books are hard, and to make one that is this funny also have a story that kept me coming back to learn more wins this book high marks. The worldbuilding has only gotten better and I want to see every area on Jon’s map before the book is done.

14) Vallista by Steven Brust – So I made the mistake of reading Jhereg earlier this year which resulted in my reading fifteen Brust novels – destroying my review schedule. The one upside of this was that I was ready when the newest Vlad Taltos book, Vallista, came out. A story about a mystery in a magical house, Brust is still somehow keeping the series fresh and new with every book he puts out and I dread the day when there won’t be more of them to look forward to. Vallista continues the Vlad Taltos tradition of tackling lesser explored subjects in fantasy (the subject reveal would be a spoiler so you will have to read it) and the series continues to steadily crawl its way up my top recommended list. These books will constantly surprise and impress you with Brust’s ability to address hard hitting (but important) subjects like divorce and suicidal thoughts but balancing it with humor and moments of levity to not leave you depressed.

13) With Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Why aren’t more of you reading The Song of the Shattered Sands. I keep recommending this series to everyone I know and yet I still feel that it is criminally underread. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a book that that focused on the story and growth of its protagonist, Ceda, and gave you a glimpse of the world in which it is set. If Twelve Kings was a glimpse behind the curtain to the plot and world, With Blood Upon the Sand is the dramatic reveal of a powerful epic fantasy based on Middle Eastern lore. With Ceda firmly established as a character, Blood is free to show us a whole new world that is both shimmering and splendid. The stakes are higher, the antagonists more interesting, and the story more complicated and Blood has only made me want to recommend this series even more.

12) Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson – The king returns. What is there to say about Sanderson that all of you don’t already know? His books are all widely regarded as some of the best in fantasy and I am no exception to their charm. Arcanum was one of the best collections of short stories I have ever read, with all but a single short in the collection receiving top marks from me. However, Arcanum is so much more than a collection of great stories. One of the few books I think should always be bought in hardback, the book is gorgeous with tons of beautiful detail, maps, and illustrations surrounding the stories. In addition, Arcanum felt like the start of something new for Sanderson. We have been seeing hints and indications of his plans for the greater Cosmere story for awhile, but Arcanum felt like we finally found the entrance to the maze that will be Sanderson’s stories for years to come. The book showed just how deep Sanderson’s plans for his universe are and continued his habit of surpassing all my expectations.

11) Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey – Technically out in December of 2016, but I roll December over into the next year. With the next Expanse book coming out in mere days I find myself thinking back to just how consistently excellent this series has been for all the years I have been reading it. Babylon’s Ashes marked the end of the second arc in the Expanse story line, and though this arc was a lot darker than its predecessor, it has always been a series I look to for inspiration. Babylon’s Ashes show that its cast and world are still growing, evolving, and adapting to everything that the universe throws at it. Each book manages to raise the stakes past expectation without ever jumping a space shark. I go into each book genuinely unable to imagine where the series will go next and never come back disappointed, Babylon’s Ashes being no exception. I am currently trying to finish everything on my plate for Persepolis Rising next week, which I am sure will continue the Expanse’s legacy of excellence.

10) The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin – As we enter the top 10 please know that placing these ones were like choosing favorite children. The Stone Sky marks the end of one of the most original and revolutionary series I have ever read. Jemisin’s use of perspective and second person narration have cemented this series as one of the best I have ever read. That being said, I was noticeably less impressed with The Stone Sky compared to its two predecessors. The book felt like it ended a bit abruptly and I was not in love with the climax. That being said, this is still one of the best series, and books, I have ever read and it should be read by everyone – even if I docked it a point for not sticking the landing. It is a unique experience that everyone should have,

9) Sins of Empire by Brian McClellen – One of the most enjoyable things to see is authors grow and address issues you had with them in the past. Brian McClellen wrote The Powder Mage series, a trilogy I enjoyed greatly but always felt like it was evolving as it was written – making the story slightly incoherent. Despite this it still made its way up my recommendations list with its gun based fantasy and interesting characters. Sins of Empire, the first book in Brian’s follow up series, has everything that made me fall in love with his first books with none of the issues that seemed to plague it. Brian seems to have sat down, worked on his organization and planning, and delivered a fact paced and action filled story that is shaping up to be one of my most anticipated reads.

8) The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone – I had an extremely hard time placing this one as I felt that the first half of Ruin suffered a little from pacing issues, but the second half shattered the outer boundaries of my imagination and left me sitting outside staring at the sky and contemplating life. I have always been impressed with The Craft Series and its take on a modern society in a fantasy setting. It is a series that is hard to classify that has reinvented what it means to be a fantasy book multiple times, but Ruin is a cut above the rest. I live and work in New York, and it is rare for a book to be so mind blowing to shock me out of the continuous grind that is my life. This book was a treasured experience and had it been a little less slow at the start likely would have topped the list.

7) Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell – It is hard to follow perfection, and that is just what Tyrant’s Throne had to do in the wake of its predecessor, Saint’s Blood, my number one book of 2016. Although the finale of the Greatcoats did not surpass the third book in the series, it was still one of my favorite books of the year – packed full of all the things that make the series one of my favorite of all time. This final chapter sent off our trio of protagonists in a manner that befitted them: with humor, heart, and life lessons that I feel have made me a better person. It is uncommon for me to be as invested in a character as Falcio and I am glad that his last story held up to the exemplary record established by the first three books in this series. With the close of Tyrant’s Throne, The Greatcoats has cemented its place in my tier one recommendations forever and will always be a series I ask new people if they have read.

6) The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan – I pity those out there who are refusing on principle to check out the Draconis Memoria because they didn’t like how Bloodsong turned out. The Legion of Flame was surprisingly good, and this is from a guy who was expecting excellence. The Waking Fire was a book filled with mysteries that were solved, a world that was explored, and a goal that was reached – leaving me wondering where the series would go next. The second book, The Legion of Flame quickly shows that the map we made in book one was only a fraction of what is in this story and that there is much more to come. With more characters, higher stakes, weirder mysteries, and a story that doesn’t slow down for a second, The Legion of Flame is likely Ryan’s best book yet.

5) Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This is the smartest book I have read this year, and I am including several excellent non-fiction books I read in that ranking. Ada Palmer is the first person I have read to rival Ursula le Guin in knowledge, intelligence, insight, and revolutionary thought. Seven Surrenders was work to read, but every second of that effort felt like it was repaid tenfold. The story in this series feels like a Russian nesting doll, each outer layer revealing more and more underneath. I don’t really understand how Seven Surrenders can tell such a different story than its previous novel, Too Like the Lightning, and feel like it goes toe-to-toe with it on every possible metric. It is extremely apparent that Ada has planned every single sentence of these books to the letter and watching her plots unfold has given me my favorite new science fiction series since The Expanse.

4) Kings of the Wyld by Nicolas Eames – This is the first time a debut novel has gotten this high on one my best-of lists, but this spot is well earned. Kings of the Wyld has everything I love in a fantasy novel and invents new things that I didn’t know I wanted. It evokes all the old tropes I grew up loving and breathes fresh life into them. It has a memorable, unique, and lovable cast that I was heavily invested in. It has an original theme based on 80’s rock which has changed my music tastes. It has an engrossing plot and captivating world that keep you coming back for more. Finally, it has humor and heart that lead to moments of levity, heartbreak, and warmth that had my crying on like page 17 (which is ridiculous). Everyone I know has it as their best debut of the year, go read it.

3) Red Sister by Mark LawrenceRed Sister is everything I have wanted from Mark Lawrence since I read Prince of Thorns years ago. The book is dripping with excitement, each page digging its claws into you and refusing to let go until I finished it in almost a single sitting. Mark has found his stride with me, toning down his usual brutality slightly and giving me a character to root for. Red Sister is an adrenaline rush from start to finish and on more than one occasion had me so immersed that I thought for a moment I was in danger and found myself screaming aloud. The cast, world, powers, story, action are all best in class and I am counting the days until I can get my hands on Grey Sister. I could read 100 more of these books assuming my heart didn’t explode from the strain.

2) Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson – I am a bit late in getting this list out this year and it’s solely because I wanted to finish Oathbringer to know exactly how high to place it. Oathbringer. God I am so happy you are here. I feel like I just had a child that I want to introduce to the world. Stormlight has been the big gun in my arsenal since I started doing recommendations. It is single handedly responsible for convincing at least five people I know the value of books in general. Sanderson is nothing if not consistently excellent, but I am so happy that Oathbringer did not break that trend. If you know what Oathbringer is you are probably going to read it but know that it continues the family tradition of absolute brilliance. What’s really impressive is that something managed to top it.

1) City of Miracles by Robert Bennett – I had a solemn moment back in February when I closed the last page of City of Miracles and realized, ‘nothing is going to beat this’. City of Miracles is a masterpiece of writing that I will reread for years. Its execution in both telling Sigrud’s story and closing The Divine Cities series is flawless and is the only series as a whole I have given perfect scores. The book is simply beautiful. It tells a story that is tragic that left me emotionally wrecked for almost a month after finishing it. There are a few passages in the book that make me emotional thinking about. Normally this wouldn’t be enough to surpass the competition but there is something about City of Miracles that is uncomfortably real. The struggles are awful and they feel like they are happening to you or someone you love. Bennett achieves all of this without feeling like he is trying to make a point or break your heart, but instead just feels like he is giving you a window into the realities of what the world is like good and bad. And dealing with the truth that bad things can happen to good people, or that you can make mistakes that can’t be forgiven, is awful. Miracles doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t let you escape to fantasy, and it made me evaluate my own life in ways that were scary. However, while Miracles evokes that harshness of life, it also paints the future with some hope. It is a cracked, tarnished, and flawed hope – but a hope that feels beautiful for its honesty. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read.

-Andrew

The Riyria Revelations – Classic Fantasy At Its Best

I am wildly behind on books to review due to two hulking 1000 page behemoths (To Green Angel Tower and Oathbringer), so I have decided to talk a little bit about a series I love: The Riyria Revelations by Michael J Sullivan. This self-published marvel came out in 2008 with the first of six books, The Crown Conspiracy. The books were so well received that Orbit picked Sullivan up as an author and created three compilation books, each containing two of the previously self-published novels. Since then, Sullivan has gone on to make four spin off books and two novels of a prequel series.

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What makes Sullivan’s work stand out so much is a dedication to older fantasy tropes with incredible execution. Riyria follows the story of Hadrian and Royce, a human swordsman and half-elf rogue who are trying to steal a sword when they are framed for the murder of a king. It’s a classic fantasy plot and the story is built around a world where elves and humans don’t like each other, in particular because the elves are a superior race in most ways. After the framed murder is resolved, the duo need to go on a quest to find a powerful wizard, journey to ancient cities to locate powerful artifacts, and find a chosen one to lead the humans in a coming conflict against the elves. All of these themes you have likely heard before, they have been around in fantasy since Tolkien.

However, Riyria doesn’t feel at all like books that are just trying to rip off older classics to sell a copy. The book is incredibly original, but uses popular classic tropes in its story, which results in a book that evokes all sorts of warm and positive feelings about it that remind me of how I felt reading fantasy when I was younger. Riyria came out during a period where fantasy was trying to find the next best thing. Grimdark and parodies were both getting really big and no one wanted to tell a classic quest tale in order to stand out from the pack. As a result, Riyria really does stand out to me as one of the most wholesome things published in the last decade that everyone will enjoy.

On top of being fun, the series is really funny. The first book opens with Hadrian and Royce being ambushed by bandits while they argue like an old married couple. In the middle of their domestic spat, they also make time to critique the robbers technique and give some helpful pointers for future robberies so that the bandits might have a little more success. You can read the first pages on the amazon link on the book picture, I guarantee you will not be able to do it without smiling. The entire series is that funny, constantly having fun contextual humor and witty one liners. It is a very easy read, especially in our current landscape of dark and depressing books.

Despite all the great things I have said so far about the books, their true strengths are their characters: in particular Hadrian and Royce. While the side cast is also excellent (in particular Esrahaddon who might be the best wizard since Gandalf), the two leads steal the show and have anchored themselves in my top character list forever. They are deep, interesting, grow as the series progresses, and I never get tired of their witty banter and clashing ideals.

If you are looking for a classic fantasy with good deal of humor and a lot of heart, I recommend you check out Riyria. The delinquent duo of Hadrian and Royce still continue to sit in my top character lists to this day and I can’t imagine anyone not laughing at some of the scenes in the story. You will have a good time.

-Andrew

The Left Hand Of Darkness – Gender Politics

left-hand-of-darkness-design-alex-trochutToday’s post is more of a thought piece than a review, because no one needs another positive review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. It is one of the best science fiction books ever written, has won a number of awards, and is considered one of the most iconic books ever printed – if you haven’t read it you should. I will say that I have been making my way through a number of iconic sci-fi novels this year, and have had a few that didn’t quite live up to my expectations like Stranger in a Strange Land. However, I am happy to say this was decidedly not the case with The Left Hand of Darkness and it is definitely worth a read.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Darkness is a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of semi stand alone books that catalog the stories of the lives of ambassadors for the Hainish empire. The Hainish are a consortium of planets who possess methods for instantaneous communication, but not instantaneous travel. This means that planets can talk to each other to trade ideas and technology, but visiting other planets is a colossal effort. For this, and a number of other reasons, when the Hainish discover a new planet they want to bring into the alliance they send a single ambassador to study the planet and convince it to join. Darkness in particular tells the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador to Winter. Winter is a cold and icy planet with a very interesting adaptation from the humans who live there – they can freely switch between male and female genders, but mostly remain androgynously between them.

Darkness tells a wonderful story that is worth reading, but it also contains a large thought experiment on the meaning of gender and our unconscious assumptions about both genders. I will say right off the bat I have not read a better book at helping me discover some of the unconscious biases for both genders I apparently personally hold and clearly need to work on. Before reading this I would have said I didn’t have any bias at all, but Darkness has a way of digging deep and, ironically, letting the light in. The power of Darkness is in its subtlety. The book doesn’t focus on the genderless aspect of the story, instead treating it as almost background information that occasionally gets brought up – usually by the narrator Genly Ai as he reacts to people flipping genders around him. Le Guin instead takes the characters, who have been wiped clean of any gender identity, and put them into situations that have traditional gender roles and identities attached to them. She then pulls apart our expectations about those roles and how it influences how we think of the genders. I know that seems confusing as an abstract so let me give you a concrete example. One of the eye opening things for me was the monarch. Winter has a royal ruler, a king/queen. While there are of course any number of queens, a monarchy is something that I (and I assume others) associate as a traditionally male role. In addition, the monarch is arrogant and stubborn which are two additional things I apparently associate with being male. Using these primers, Le Guin got me to think of Winter’s monarch as a man, but then as I got to know the monarch I found I was uncomfortable and confused when they both revealed themselves to also be nurturing and motherly, in particular when the monarch eventually gets pregnant. Darkness is just clever and subtle in its gender manipulations and it is something I really appreciate about it.

While reading Darkness, my mind often jumped to two recent popular sci-fi novels that both play with gender politics: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I have talked about both before, and like both of them. Both books have clearly taken some of Le Guin’s ideas and taken different directions to explore the reader’s assumptions about gender (I am oversimplifying but Justice is told from the perspective of an AI who can’t tell gender apart and Lightning constantly lies to you about what gender people are). However, I found I liked Darkness’ take on gender most because of the previously mentioned subtly. With the two newer books the gender discussion is at the forefront – always present. The Left Hand of Darkness’ clever use of it as a subconcept hidden in the noise in the story allowed me to have a much higher degree of self discovery than in Justice or Lighting. As such, if you have not read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, I definitely recommend that you do. You might learn something about yourself.

-Andrew

Soul Of The World – An Interview With David Mealing

51vgtpwurcl-_sx322_bo1204203200_I have been really lucky recently, getting the chance to talk to multiple of this year’s debut authors. This week I got to talk with David Mealing about his massive new book, Soul of the World. It was a huge debut novel that impressed me with its numerous magic systems, giant scope, and interesting world: you can find the review here. Due to how big an undertaking the book seemed to be, I had a lot more questions about Mealing’s writing style compared to past interviews I have done, but there is still some great teasers for book two if you are looking for hints as to what is going to happen! Enjoy:

How would you elevator pitch Soul of the World? When I talk to other people and recommend it I find myself just gushing endlessly as I try to explain all the cool things in it. How would you sell it in one breath?

Fantasy is *so* hard to pitch. I’m terrible at it. That said, my go-to is: “French revolution with magic, set in an alternate-world colonial America. Think Marie Antoinette alongside a magic-infused Iroquois Confederacy.”

There’s a lot more going on in the book (and thank you for any gushing over it!), but I think that’s a fine starting point.

What is your writing process in general? What is the anchor or starting point for your story and how much of it do you map out in advance and how much is made up as you go?

I’m very strict on process. Three sessions per day, with a spreadsheet to track the output from each session against an overall daily/weekly/monthly goal. I’ve always found it hard to work for long periods on any given day – I need at least a few hours in between each writing session to let the scene and story arcs soak before I continue. Usually I’ll do 700-900 words right after I wake up, another 400-600 after lunch, then 500-1000 in the evening.

On the story side, I’m almost a pure discovery writer. I always know what to expect in the scene I’m writing now, the scene I’m writing next, and where the current ‘chunk’ fits in the overall arc of the book & series, but I’m also willing to let the story surprise me and take me in a different direction than I expected it to go. I’ve killed off characters and destroyed entire story arcs because an unexpected death fit the scene I was working on. And I’ve gone back and re-written 40,000+ word chunks because I had a better idea during editing. I find my discipline with daily output gives me the freedom to explore while also meeting deadlines – the best of both worlds, as it were.

Why so much magic? Did anyone tell you having so many magic systems was a bad idea? Did people think it was a good idea? Please tell me more about what your writing process for your magic was like.

Hah! Yes. This is one of the more common fights between me and my editor. Not that she doesn’t love the magic, she just wants to be sure I’ve fleshed each idea out enough and made it grokkable so it has the impact I want it to. (And incidentally, a light book 2 spoiler – let’s just say my editor and I have quite a bit more fighting to do about the number of new systems and powers introduced in the next volume in the trilogy!)

As for where the magic comes from – I write what fits the scene in my head. If it calls for a new magic system, I make one on the spot and polish it during revisions and editing. Very little to no planning beforehand; all the details, rules, powers, etc come about because a particular scene wants to showcase something new.

If you could only have one of your magic systems, which would it be?

No fair! I need them all to tell the story. And which one is my favorite depends on whichever scene I wrote last, most of the time. So right now, that would be a magic system you haven’t seen yet, from one of the epilogues in book 2… 🙂

All three magic systems were amazing, but I enjoyed Arak’Jur’s totem-esk magic the most. Do you have any magical beasts and powers that you rejected or removed from your novel because they didn’t work? If so, why?

Well thank you. I enjoyed writing those scenes immensely. Arak’Jur’s magic had almost no changes from the first draft, as far as how it worked mechanically. There was one power I gave him in an early scene that I cut and replaced with him using mareh’et instead, strictly to consolidate the number of powers and keep it grokkable. Otherwise it’s all as-originally-written.

One of the most interesting aspects of you magic was the effects of combining the various schools into new powers. Have you mapped out what all these combined effects will do already or are you playing it more by ear?

This was originally *much* more prevalent in the book, for Order magic (the leylines) especially. Originally every binding had different effects when paired with other bindings; at one point I’d mapped out a big matrix of combinations in a spreadsheet trying to keep them all straight. In the final draft though, we opted to streamline this and keep it much simpler – one of my editor’s better ideas, I think. She struggles to rein me in, and most of the time she succeeds, to the book’s benefit.

Where do we go next? The ending of your first novel was fantastic, but I don’t even know where we go next. What is the next stage/arc of your story (if you can share it)?

Again thank you! My goal for the series has always been to peel the onion one book at a time. In book one I introduce a core plot that’s mostly resolved by the end, with a metaplot revealed around the edges of the main story. Book two will fully reveal and resolve the metaplot from book one, but also reveal an even deeper layer, which will then be the focus of book three.

This was your first novel and a huge undertaking, What lessons have you learned from working on Soul of the World that you want to apply to writing book 2?

SOUL OF THE WORLD was my first attempt at writing creative fiction of any kind. I grew an enormous amount as a writer while writing & revising it – with full credit to my editor, my agent, the agency president, and all of my other advance readers (especially my wife!) for helping me get there. As a result, book two’s first draft was a much tighter manuscript than the first drafts of SOUL. I had to rewrite over a hundred thousand words of SOUL before it was ready to shop to potential agents; book two should hopefully see us spending more time on polish and less on fixing rookie mistakes. Otherwise, book two is already turned in and I’m currently waiting for first reactions from my editor. So let’s hope it goes smoothly from here!

In Soul of the World we saw that most of the action in the story is happening in the colonies, but that there is an entire second continent with it’s own countries and people. Since so much of your magic is tied to location, do you plan on visiting other lands in the story or focusing just on the current surroundings?

As the series progresses we’re going to travel a *lot*. Book two will take us west across the New World, across the sea to the Old World, even to undiscovered continents (plural!) that wouldn’t have appeared on any maps in book one. The story gets bigger in a hurry, though I still try to keep things focused on the characters as they respond to the challenges in front of them.

Are you a big reader of fantasy yourself? What are some of your favorite books? What is the last book that you read (of any genre) that you would recommend?

Very much so. Jacqueline Carey’s KUSHIEL’S DART is my favorite book of all time. I grew up devouring and re-devouring Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series whenever a new book came out. I adore Robert E. Howard’s CONAN stories and other classic swords & sorcery stuff like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. N.K. Jemisin continues to amaze me with everything she writes. Additional plugs for Brandon Sanderson, Pat Rothfuss, Juliet Marillier, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Mary Robinette Kowal.

The last book I read was READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline. I loved the audiobook so much I went and bought a physical copy to read too. Can’t recommend it enough, both the audio version and the printed edition. Some of the most compelling storytelling I’ve consumed in years.

What in Soul of the World are you most proud of? Which character, magic, part of the world, or element were you most excited to share with other people?

This answer could change on any given day, but today I’ll say Sarine and Zi. I’ve been the lonely kid watching the world from a distance, and I would have given anything for a magical companion to share it with. These days I have my amazing wife & daughters, but I hope Sarine and Zi’s story connects with people and inspires them to want to be as creative and fearless as she is.

Thank you David for talking with me, and I am super pumped for book two. If you haven’t checked out Soul of the World yet, I implore you to go give it a shot!