The Starless Sea – Beauty And Dreams Personified In A Body Of Water

81h2bkqvsgylOur second-place book in The Quill To Live best-of-2019 list was The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. However, given that the book was released about a week before we had to make the list, we unfortunately did not have a chance to review it yet. Now, we are remedying that and are here to give you a sales pitch for a positively incredible book. Given that we rated The Starless Sea as the second-best book that came out in 2019, you can probably guess that this is going to be a laudatory review. But, given the astounding success and popularity of Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, I doubt I will be the first to tell you that her second book is another masterpiece that will emotionally move and astound you.

The Starless Sea was a weirdly personal book for me and I don’t really know where to start with the plot. At the highest level, the story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a son of a fortune-teller who moves through life without a lot of direction. He eventually stumbles upon a secret entrance to a strange magical underground library that is oceanic in size. However, the library is clearly not what it once was and is, in fact, showing signs of imminent destruction. Can Zachary puzzle out the mysteries of what happened to this titanic magical place and do something to save it?

The Starless Sea is a quiet, somber, and evocative love letter to storytelling. It feels like The Night Circus and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, had a love child that was cherished and well raised. It is a slow and meandering book that explores captivating mysteries and masterfully controls the release of information to keep you fully invested. To me, its most powerful feature is its ability to effortlessly transport you into the role of the protagonist. The Starless Sea is both a story about stepping into books and appreciating the power of storytelling and it is a catalyst to pull the reader entirely into its own pages and tales. In addition, the characters are phenomenal. Full disclosure, the main character and yours truly share a frankly alarming number of similarities, so it was a lot harder to shake biases and give the book a neutral assessment than usual. Yet, I think almost anyone who picks up this book would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the small cast. The single thing I didn’t love about the book was how few characters there were. Morgenstern seems to prefer to focus on a very small group of individuals to tell her stories. While this worked extremely well in The Night Circus, where the romantic focus benefited from its smaller focused cast; The Starless Sea was about an entire magical world and the emptiness sometimes broke my immersion. Then again, one of the themes of the book is feeling isolated and alone in the world at large, so even the one nitpick I had still contributed to the majesty of this novel. The tight cast does allow for a lot of powerful character development that would be harder to accomplish with a larger group of people. Given my similarities to the protagonist, I found his introspections particularly insightful and felt like I learned things about myself over the course of the book.

Despite all the praise I have heaped on The Starless Sea, I have saved its most powerful asset for last: the prose. For better or worse, Erin Morgenstern is a sample size of one when it comes to her writing style. She has a unique storytelling style that is whimsical, aesthetically gorgeous, and polished at the same time. There are a number of “parts” in The Starless Sea that break up the story. Each part has two different POVs: one from Zachary that progresses the overall story forward, and one that consists of chapters from a book from the Starless Sea. Each book in the various parts represents a different character in the narrative and helps to subtly expand on their character. The books all have unique styles of storytelling and do a lot to make the primary cast feel very deep. The books also do an incredible job of getting the reader emotionally invested in the story and help to create huge moments of payoff.

On top of the prose feeling like borderline poetry, the world that Morgenstern builds is a delight to explore. The Sea is a truly wondrous and imaginative place, and you would have to have a heart of stone to not feel its call. The sea spills off the pages as Morgenstern captures so many small details like grains of sand at the ocean’s edge. From the way the stories are kept, to the way the entrances are guarded, to the people who travel its waves, the Starless Sea feels like a real place the reader could go out and find. Morgenstern has created a living and breathing new world, and I want very badly to go there.

The Starless Sea is a masterpiece of prose, character growth, and worldbuilding. It is a treasure that is unique from other books I have read, and a monument to the skill and imagination of Erin Morgenstern. If you have ever felt that stories are more than words on a page, if you have ever wanted to change the choices you have made in life, or if you have ever wanted to be part of something bigger – The Starless Sea will tackle your heart in an explosive hug. I have only captured a fraction of its magic and ideas in this review, but you will have to discover many of its secrets by yourself.

Rating: The Starless Sea – 10/10
-Andrew

The Light Of All That Falls/The Licanius Trilogy – A Time-Travel Cage Match

41d26na70klOriginally, I was going to open this review with a roast of the book titles because they are so long, but honestly, given how appropriate the names are and how boring most fantasy book titles are I have no ground to stand on. Okay, so today I want to spend some time talking about a series that way too many people are sleeping on that deserves your attention. If you somehow have gotten this far without reading the title, I am talking about The Licanius Trilogy by James Islington. I have talked about book one, The Shadow of What was Lost, briefly here, and gave a full review of the second book, An Echo of Things to Come, here. I enjoyed both books immensely, but it was not until I read the recently released third and final book, The Light of All that Falls, that I truly understood what a gem I had discovered.

On its own, The Light of All that Falls is a very strong book. It does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor, and has a strong interesting plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

If there is one criticism I have of this series, it’s that it’s designed to be read in one continuous sitting. The books are extremely complicated, and despite Islington adding a very nice preface that summarizes past events, it is not comprehensive enough to remember all the nuances of the story after a break between books. But, the reason a synopsis isn’t enough is that these three books form an elegant exploration into time-travel and the way time functions. If you read my review of Echo, you will get a good gist of the plot of all three books, but I will summarize it here:

The Licanius series takes place in a magical world where a good god and an evil god went at it. The good one lost (and presumably died), but not before locking the bad one behind a giant magical barrier in the north of the world. Since then, humanity has tried to survive in the south with the traditional set-up of multiple countries that hate one another. In addition, the world has three distinct groups of magic users that have fallen in and out of favor over time. The first and most common are the Gifted, mages with the ability to alter the world around them – usually with some form of telekinesis. When our story begins in book one, they are an oppressed and feared people due to their powers, but allowed to live with a brand that makes them unable to use their magic to harm others. Next, we have the Augers; these much rarer mages have various abilities to manipulate time and occasionally see into the future. The augurs, after ruling the world poorly in the wake of the evil god’s containment, have been hunted and killed wherever they are found due to their dangerous abilities. Finally, we have the Venerate, a small group of super augers who have ascended to deity-like power and are essentially immortal. The books follow a group of individuals from a mix of these magical (and other non-magical) groups as they help the reader piece together the history of what happened in this world and how to stop the release of the evil god stuck behind the barrier.

The above is what I wrote upon finishing Echo, and it is still a decent in-the-weeds summary of the plot of the book. On the other hand, it doesn’t touch on the high-level idea of Licanius, which didn’t become clear until I was close to finishing the series: this is a trilogy about two competing schools of time travel. On the one hand, you have the antagonists. The villains of the series believe that time is malleable. They are convinced that if they can change the world in certain ways, often through horrific actions, they can learn how to alter the past – thus going back and fixing tragedies and erasing the horrible things they have done to get there. The protagonists believe that time is fixed (spoilers: they’re right). Although you can travel in time, there is nothing that you can do to change the events of the past. If you go back in time, you were always going to go back in time, and you are just fulfilling an action you have always taken.

This thought experiment, and Islington’s exploration of it in particular, is absolutely incredible. First off, it paints the antagonists as incredibly relatable and human. They are simply people who are doubling down on a bad bet that they think will solve everything. It is more akin to reading about a family member with a gambling problem than a megalomaniac bent on destroying the world. Second, because all time-travel has already happened, it was always going to happen, and is happening – the books are constantly evolving in your mind. You read the series linearly in time, seeing these time travelers pop out of nowhere to do things. And as you get further and further in the series, you start to understand the circumstances that caused them to come back and watch the characters wrestle with the knowledge that they already know what they are going to do. It creates this insane logic puzzle you get to wrestle with as you try to figure out the chain of events that encompass the book. One example of how this is explored is one character has already seen how he dies (which is metal as all hell by the way). Because he knows how he dies, in the past, he constantly grapples with the idea that he might be unkillable in the present, but that he also HAS to go back to the past to die. It is an incredible situation to watch this character grapple with, and Islington is a master of exploring their emotional response.

Another thing I love about the time travel in Licanius is that since you cannot change the course of history, Islington never uses time travel to fix events. The stakes always feel real because there are no do-overs and no changing what happened. The series has an interesting balance – with the page space devoted to time manipulation heavily weighted to the later books. Shadow is mostly an epic fantasy with a few small time-travel elements, Echo starts to treat them as equals, and Light is a cornucopia of time travel shenanigans. Finally, Islington must be some sort of five-dimensional chess player because every single plotline, every single question, and every single weird event that the reader experiences, comes together in the end. It just locks together in this incredible mosaic of storytelling that is satisfying on a deep emotional level.

The Light Of All That Falls is a shining jewel in an already exemplary series. Although the series takes a serious time commitment to best enjoy it, The Licanius Trilogy is worth every second of the time that you give it. These books shimmer and shine with Islington’s unending passion for the world and enormous skill as a writer. The passage of time will reveal Licanius to be a modern classic that readers will enjoy for years to come. Do yourself a favor, carve out a solid month of reading, and sit down with these books.

Rating:
The Light Of All That Falls – 9.5/10
The Licanius Trilogy – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10

Blood Of Empire – An Empirically Sanguine End To The Year

81ioqfizh4lOur best of 2019 list is out, but that doesn’t mean 2019 is done giving us fantastic reads. We always roll December releases over into the next year in order to get the list out, and it can sometimes result in the powerful end-of-year releases not getting the accolades they deserve until the following year. This is one of those instances. Brian McClellan released Blood of Empire this week, his third and final installment of The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, and it has likely already earned itself a spot on our 2020 best-of list. This is a fantastic conclusion to an already great trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with this series you should read my reviews of the first two books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire. But, if you are here to find out how McClellan ties up his second trilogy in this magic world then I have some good news for you.

The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy has an…interesting…structure. In a good way. To me, it seems to eschew the traditional set-up for a trilogy of an introduction first book, bridge second book, and climactic final third book. Instead, Sins of Empire was a powerful introduction book but McClellan jumped straight to a powerful climax in Wrath of Empire, skipping the bridge. This left space for Blood of Empire to be something a bit different. While the book does have a fantastic final climax, it also focuses more on the aftermath of battles and the cleanup that often goes unmentioned. The series usually pulls me in with its epic scale, but I found myself drawn into the politics surrounding the deployment of foreign armies, recovery of soldiers with PTSD, and how war strains relationships. They were all fresh takes on the genre that drew kept the series exciting by upending my expectations for a concluding book in a trilogy.

While there is a lot to praise here, the greatest strength of Blood is its characters. I have always enjoyed McClellan’s talent for writing interesting characters, and he’s only getting better at it. This series has a fantastic cast of POVs; Vlora, Styke, and Michel are all deep characters with vivid personalities and clear strengths and weaknesses. Oddly, the three leads spend almost zero time interacting with one another in the entire series, and it is almost like reading three entire independent stories that create echos that affect one another. However, the three narratives create this beautiful balance that makes the books a very easy and fun read – always switching up the prose and style of the story every chapter keeping you fresh. Although the entire series has strong character stories, Blood takes things up a notch by focusing on how each of the three leads overcomes their own weaknesses. Without going into detail to avoid spoilers, each of the POVs finds themselves in new surroundings with a job that demands skills they are terrible at. Styke has to be diplomatic and level headed, Michel has to be courageous and honest, and Vlora has to be trusting and learn to delegate. Each of the leads is awful at these things, and the book is a case study in how they struggle to improve, avoid, or think around their own flaws. It makes for a book with some truly memorable character growth and a kick-ass ending that I would recommend to anyone.

There are a number of other positives about Blood of Empire. The combat continues to be exciting. McClellan has done a fantastic job of balancing returning characters from his first trilogy and fun new faces. We get to see a new continent and part of McClellan’s very well developed world. In keeping with the more challenging themes, McClellan put a lot of effort into humanizing or at least digging into the mentality of the “enemy” in the series – which I liked a lot. There is an astounding level of detail in his worldbuilding and I definitely think that McClellan could just keep making new series in this universe and they wouldn’t get old for a while. The mysteries and plots of the series as a whole all come to satisfying and emotional conclusions. The only real criticisms of Blood of Empire are that the pacing could sometimes feel slightly uneven, especially in Vlora’s POV. Sometimes the book could feel like it was stalling in flight as the chapters dragged along and other times I felt like they were moving way too fast and I wasn’t getting enough time to luxuriate in major character or story moments.

I really liked Blood of Empire. It does an excellent job capping off a fun and thoughtful trilogy that significantly expanded McClellan’s world in positive ways. The structure of the final book alone makes it a worthwhile read, and the book feels particularly topical to today’s world events in ways that I couldn’t get into to avoid spoilers. If you are holding out on this series after reading Powdermage, are even slightly curious about ‘flintlock fantasy’, or are looking for a good story with excellent character growth – I recommend you pick up this series ASAP.

Rating: Blood of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons – This is the Longest Review Title Ever

Memoirs don’t typically fall within The Quill To Live’s purview. But Ben Folds, in a move reflective of his genre-bending career as a musician, has broken the mold and crafted a decidedly whimsical and punk autobiography that hooked me, a near-exclusive SFF reader, from start to finish. Ben Folds fans will likely flock to the artist’s book, which shines with the same exuberance and flair that he so often pours into his music.

Ben Folds, in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, weaves tales that cover an impressive range of emotions and topics, reflecting his songwriting. Sadness, anger, hardship, and moments of success color the book, boosted by Folds’ signature voice. That voice, stripped from its usual sonic medium, hops off the page and makes Fold’s unique brand of celebrity feel accessible to readers, even without his expertly crafted melodies setting the stage for the prose. Like his album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” A Dream About Lightning Bugs makes its creator intensely relatable, even as he tells stories of performing on stage for thousands. 

The book succeeds because it is unabashedly Ben Folds. I usually steer clear of memoirs for fear of ghostwriters diluting the subject’s personality. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, though deftly edited and polished, bears no signs of outside influence. It reads like a Ben Folds song sounds, and his tales mirror the music he produced during the time in which those stories took place. 

A welcome wave of relief rushed over me when I discovered that Ben Folds’ life is actually interesting. Too often authors, in their autobiographies, try to make something out of nothing. Folds has a way of packaging the seemingly mundane in evergreen life lessons. When he explores his later work, he calls back to the earlier struggles that influenced it. This is all to say that Folds knows the story he wants to tell, the message he wants to share, and he does it well by carefully choosing the right anecdotes to grace the page. 

Certain moments stand out to me personally because I’ve always imagined Ben Folds a certain way through the lens of his music. Folds is Dad-like, unafraid of controversy, and willing to be himself without hesitation. Moments in the book showcase that he is that person (and much more) while also highlighting the moments that shaped his confidence as a musician and a person. He’s honest about his shortcomings. He accepts responsibility for his wrongdoings, including events that led to his multiple marriages and subsequent divorces. He describes throwing his shitty drum set into a lake as a rage-addled end to his time in college. He considers the good and the bad equally, and his memoir feels utterly balanced and satisfying as a result. This isn’t the story of a man justifying the things he’s done wrong. It’s the story of Folds coming to terms with his hardships, self-inflicted or otherwise, and understanding their role in his eventual (and continuing) success. 

After finishing A Dream About Lightning Bugs, I felt a new appreciation for Ben Folds. Reading his story in his own words lent me a new perspective on his music, which I’ve listened to voraciously for years. On the heels of this memoir, I’m more excited than ever to see what he does next. 

Rating: A Dream About Lightning Bugs – 8/10

Upon The Flight Of The Queen – A Clipped Wing

9781250148803In a few weeks, we’ll release our top books of 2019 list! This has been a strong year for fantasy and sci-fi; with a number of powerful debuts, and the countless sequels and new releases made narrowing down our list very difficult. However, one debut that has definitely earned a spot on the list is For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones. A stunning take on a number of classic fantasy tropes, this book burst onto the scene in February of this year and secured a spot on our top 2019 picks (the review can be found here). Interestingly though, Jones has managed to put out the second book in his trilogy, Upon the Flight of the Queen, just last week, and given my love of book one, I jumped right into it. Unfortunately, in this particular instance lightning does not strike twice.

Upon the Flight of the Queen, or Queen for short, is an enjoyable book that fails in a number of the traditional responsibilities of a sequel novel. Kings introduced a fantastic world to explore, a large cast of complex and interesting characters, a political hierarchy that dripped with intrigue, and high stakes that got you invested. The first book did an amazing job of pulling you in and telling a cohesive part of a multi-part story. It was nicely self-contained, and although there is still a looming threat at the end of the book, you got the sense that there was a fully fleshed out start-to-end narrative in the book. Queen, on the other hand, felt more like “DLC” for Kings than an actual fully fleshed out novel.

Queen hit the ground running, picking up in the aftermath of the end of book one and focusing primarily on cleaning up lingering plot points from Kings. However, it doesn’t feel like it really has a cohesive story of its own other than turning the tide in one long three-hundred-page battle. It follows a similar set of POVs from the initial book (Elenai and Rylin for those keeping track), but adds a few new ones as the story progresses. One of Kings’ strongest characteristics to me was its excellent pacing and balance between the POVs, spending the perfect time with each before alternating. In book two, instead of being a strength, the pacing is a weakness with the POVs feeling choppy and unbalanced. I felt like I was riding in an unsecured pickup bed on the highway and being flung about. In addition, the powerful worldbuilding in Kings is expanded upon in Queen, but it feels like a footnote and I found myself eating up huge amounts of pages without actually understanding more about the world. However, it isn’t all bad as the character development in Queen continues to be phenomenal. Although I didn’t enjoy that the book was one long war scene, I did enjoy the complex character arcs that it put all of the cast through. There was powerful and meaningful growth with almost everyone and it kept me invested when I thought other elements of the book were falling short.

In the end, Upon the Flight of the Queen is a fun and captivating book that I enjoyed. However, it fails as a sequel to For the Killing of Kings by not appropriately progressing the story, not standing on its own as a complete narrative, and declining in some areas that were strengths in the first book. I still absolutely recommend that everyone pick up this series and give it a spin, but I am hoping that Jones pulls out the stops for book three and returns the narrative to the high bar he set with the first entry.

Rating: Upon the Flight of the Queen – 7.0/10
-Andrew

System Failure – It’s All Fun And Games Until The Universe Is Ending

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.

If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.

Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.

If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.

System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.

Rating: System Failure – 8.5/10
-Andrew