The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew

The Kraken’s Tooth – What’s Krakenalackin

the_krakens_tooth_by_anthony_ryanThe real takeaway I got from The Kraken’s Tooth is that Anthony Ryan is a strong writer. I obviously already knew that, given my familiarity with his other work, but it’s nice to be reminded that the authors you like are good at their craft. The Kraken’s Tooth is the second installment of a seven-part novella series called The Seven Swords that Anthony Ryan is writing for Subterranean Press. In my opinion, the physical copies are a bit cost prohibitively expensive due to being collectible (which is a bummer for physical book lovers), but the digital versions are very reasonable. Normally I don’t mention the price and publisher when talking about a review, but in this case, I think it’s important to point out the roadblocks that will keep this body of work from being better known because I want you to jump them and go check The Seven Swords out.

The series tells the story of a man questing to find seven magical swords for reasons I don’t want to spoil. My review of the first book, A Pilgrimage of Swords, dives deeper into the series’ premise. All you really need to know is The Kraken’s Tooth picks up where Pilgrimage leaves off and unsurprisingly tells the story of one of the seven swords our protagonist (called the Pilgrim) is seeking. The plot brings our Pilgrim to a new Venetian style city, where the entire urban area is supported by a kraken’s heart deep underneath the streets. The Pilgrim’s arrival kicks off a multi-party race for the heart to see who will reach it first and claim the power of the heart for themselves.

I think what’s really interesting about The Seven Swords is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novellas are unfinished, but that they are stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It feels like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

On paper, The Kraken’s Tooth is a dungeon crawl where the party needs to surmount traps, decipher riddles, and kill monsters to reach the treasure beneath. What I love about it in practical terms is it refuses to be boring. Ryan never phones it in, and all of his ideas stick in the mind. It’s a raucous story that is easy to consume and discuss. It’s the perfect snack to bring a little fun and excitement to this depressing year.

There isn’t much else to say about The Kraken’s Tooth. It’s fun, easy, and you should definitely make the extra effort to check out the series. I really hope Subterranean eventually puts out a compilation book as I would be willing to stand on a street corner and hawk it. Don’t let a little leg work distract you from this excellent read.

Rating: The Kraken’s Tooth – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10
Alex

A Fire Upon The Deep – Golden Goodness

b000fbjago.lzzzzzzzA Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, is a 1992 sci-fi modern classic that is getting a re-release this year from Tor. While it is not a golden age sci-fi, missing the era by about 50 years, it definitely feels like a tribute to the great classics. At the same time, it is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction novels to come out in the last 30 years. So, is this modern classic worth your time? Is the reprint something to look forward to? The answers are a resounding yes, so let’s dive into what makes this book popular.

A Fire Upon the Deep, on top of being written by an author with one of the coolest names ever, is an epic science-fiction story that explores a galaxy-spanning conflict that is being determined through medieval warfare on an unmapped planet. One of the best things Deep has going for it is, despite its size, the story starts off like a relay racer hearing a starter shot. The prologue begins with a human expedition exploring an archive/prison outside reality. Almost immediately, the group accidentally releases an ancient AI/consciousness with godlike powers. This universe is filled with beings that have ascended to higher planes of existence, so initially, this is taken as a mild problem – but then the being immediately starts to rapidly devour reality at an unheard-of rate. Realizing that this expedition has colossally shit the bed, they try to flee the being after grabbing a database containing methods left by the jailers to defeat it – only to get slapped massively off course and crashland on a primitive world with a species of dog-like alien. These aliens immediately kill most of the expedition and then rival sides in a medieval war capture the survivors (who are young children). Then (yes, after all this) things start to get interesting.

The book splits into three storylines. One is from the POV of the children who are trying to navigate a completely unknown world without advanced technology and get back to their ship. The second is from the POV of the dog aliens, who are trying to steal the technology that has fallen out of their skies, then learn to harness it to win wars. The third and final POV is a group of individuals trying to find this unmapped planet in order to recover the crashed archive to figure out how to stop this ascended being from destroying all of reality. The pacing is fast, the stakes are high, and the conflict is extremely gripping.

However, while the plot is great, where Deep really shines is its exploration of three key ideas in its worldbuilding. First are the zones. The zones are areas of space that represent different realities where the laws of physics change. High zones allow for much more flexible and powerful technology while low zones cause most tech to simply drop dead due to reality simply not supporting their functions. The planet where this archive has crashed is located in a very low zone, making it extremely hard to extract once it has been located. The second idea is around bootstrapping innovation. As the war between the sides of the dog aliens escalates, humans try to shortcut the growth of the species by showing them tech and skills they are eras from discovering. Thus, we get a thought experiment that represents Star Fleet’s worst nightmare: what could you achieve with a nascent species if you messed with their evolutionary path as much as possible.

Finally, the most interesting idea that Deep puts forth is how the minds of the dog aliens work. They are pseudo-hive minds and have a very creative form of intelligence. Each individual isn’t very smart, so they congregate in groups of 3-6 to bootstrap their intelligence by combining their minds. Each alien added to the group fundamentally alters the personality of the whole as their identity is incorporated into the collective. If the collective grows too large, the cohesion of the mind begins to fail. The aliens are constantly balancing improving their intelligence, keeping themselves sane, and not washing out their personality with unwitting pairings. It was a really original take on the hive mind idea and is absolutely fascinating to explore. There are tons more detail on how their minds work, but to learn more you will just have to read the book.

The character writing in Deep is above average, with almost every individual in the story representing a complex and deep combination of quirks and personalities. There is a surprising amount of character growth for a single book – but the story’s giant size makes that possible. The prose is also intense and powerful, resulting in a number of memorable quotes that will stick with you. Really my only complaint about Deep is that it’s a shame that all its narratives aren’t equally good. The two planetside stories around the children and aliens are always fascinating and engrossing as you slowly understand how these alien minds work and the gritty in-your-face conflict grows. The third narrative about a strike team trying to recover the archive and fight the big bad universe-eating being had a tendency to occasionally drag. There are some sloggingly long passages where it is just a group of people sitting in a traveling spaceship talking about things. It reeks of telling instead of showing and it can really break up the otherwise fast pace of the book.

I think it is fantastic that A Fire Upon the Deep is getting a re-release, as it is a great book that needs more readers. Deep’s modern ideas and old school feel make it appealing to a very wide range of sci-fi fans and will be sure to entertain anyone willing to give it the time of day. Make sure you don’t sleep on this winner or Tor will have to re-re-release it in another 30 years in an effort to give it the attention it deserves.

Rating: A Fire Upon The Deep – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex

The Doors of Eden – A Window Into What Could Have Been

the-doors-of-eden-hb-coverI am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed The Doors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.

The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.

The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.

The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.

The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.

Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.

Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.

Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.

In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.

Overall, The Doors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.

Rating: The Doors of Eden – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Nine Realms – Four Spines To Bind Them

Today we have a full series review of The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff. The series is a quartet of books and in a break with publishing traditions, they all released in the same year over the course of four months. The series contains the following four books: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. This review will be a mix of talking about the series as a whole and diving into various pieces and highlights from the individual books. Spoilers for the fairly large review that follows: we recommend The Nine Realms. It’s an interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes and tells a well-contained epic fantasy story. However, there are some quirks that make it tricky to outright recommend.

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Here is a lightning-fast rundown of the plot of the entire series. The books tell the story of Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, and her journey to take back her throne. A Queen in Hiding tells the story of how her mother’s country (Weirandale) is overthrown and how she barely escapes with her life into hiding. The Queen of Raiders covers her teen to early adult years where she starts waging a guerilla war against people who damaged her land. A Broken Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers from the trauma she received in the war and how she makes her way back to her homeland to reclaim her throne. Finally, The Cerulean Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers her throne and begins to change her kingdom for the better. I am massively skipping over a ton of important side characters, general plot elements, and subplots, but I just don’t have the space to list them all out here. Know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s start with one of the series major “problems” first before we get into all the positives. Initially, I was confused as to why all four books were published so close to one another – but the answer presented itself to me as I got near the end of book one. The Nine Realms is less a quartet of books and more a single 2000 page book that had to be drawn and quartered. I imagine there was a conversation at Tor HQ between Kozloff and her editor that went something like this:

Kozloff: “Well, here’s my amazing book!”
Editor: “Uhhhh, this is 2000 pages long.”
Kozloff: “And?”
Editor: “We can’t just publish a 2000 page book, it might fall off a shelf and kill someone.”
Kozloff: “Well we can’t really cut it up, so what are we going to do?”
Editor: “I guess we will just cut it into four pieces and hope no one notices.”

The illusion doesn’t work. It will be clear to anyone that these books are not four distinct stories. The narrative flows between the books without stop and I suspect I would have been frustrated were I to get to the end of A Queen in Hiding to find the story cut off mid-sentence. But, you may have noticed that when I said this was a “problem,” I put dramatic quotes around the word. Since all the books in the series are already out, this is more of a feature of the series more than an actual issue. The only actual problem here is if you are willing to commit to a fairly long time investment, at a higher price point than usual, for a good story. Personally, I think The Nine Realms is worth it for the following reasons:

  1. The Nine Realms has the depth of a good epic fantasy without the bloat – I really enjoy digging into a meaty epic fantasy with a ton of content I can sink my teeth into. One of the downsides of these huge sweeping series is they tend to have a lot of dilly-dallying. Thankfully, The Nine Realms has the depth of a large scale epic, without the filler content. While it isn’t a Wheel of Time and some parts are over simplistic, the series is well-paced, easy to read, and you get a lot of bang for your buck.
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  2. The magic system is both familiar and original – The magic system revolves around two core concepts. First, each country has a different patron spirit, based mostly on the elements. Each of these spirits imparts different kinds of gifts on their people based on the spirit’s nature. Second, our story mostly focuses on Cérulia, who was granted the ability to speak to animals by the water spirit. Now I have seen a lot of “can talk to animals” powers in fantasy and I was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind by this concept. However, Kozloff’s take on the power is much more strategic and innovative than I was expecting. It is less “talk to animal friends” and more “horse, dog, and wolf general leading her troops into battle.” Cérulia uses her connection to advance her march to her throne, and that leads to some grizzly scenes like when she has to eat a horse she is close with to survive starvation. It’s a new take on a classic fantasy power.
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  3. The story goes beyond the standard good vs. evil trope – Initially I thought this was going to be a black and white story about a princess reclaiming her throne from the bad guys. What this story is actually about is Cérulia slowly understanding why her mother was overthrown, connecting with the common people of the world, and getting a first-hand education of the plights of her country and what needs to be fixed. There is a lot more context to Cérulia’s battle than this type of story usually goes into, and it delights me.
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  4. The world is nicely fleshed out and fully explored over the course of the book – As I mentioned, each country in The Nine Realms has a patron spirit that imparts gifts and shapes their land. I was happy to see that over all four books we get to visit and explore all nine of the countries that give the story its title. While there were a couple that were forgettable, the majority of them have memorable differences and cultures that really bring the world of the series to life. It was a fun place to explore, even if a depressing amount of it involved watching poor people suffer.
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  5. The story is well-paced and easy to read…mostly – Once you get past some initial slow build-up I will talk more about below, the story moves at a nice and exciting pace. I originally planned on just reading book one, but I ended up getting pulled into the story and reading all four over the course of a weekend. There is a very nice flow between the different conflicts and the different characters that keeps everything moving at all times.

There are still some additional road bumps, though. I am not really a fan of the time skips between chapters that keep track of how long has passed since Cérulia fled her home. The skips are meant to give you a sense of urgency because early on you are told that Cérulia has 10 years to reclaim her throne or all goes to hell. It feels like a completely arbitrary timeline that is never actually relevant to the progress of the story. When Cérulia decides to take back her throne it is because she believes she has grown enough in power and maturity to claim it – an element of her character I really liked. In addition, sometimes the books will tell you months will pass, but characters will still be in the same place/time/conversation they were in “three months prior” which disillusioned me to the skips.

Next, let’s talk a little bit about each book and rank them in terms of their quality:

51s938lhwgl1) A Queen in Hiding – Unfortunately, the first book is easily the worst. While there is a lot of fun worldbuilding and introduction to characters, the narrative can be painfully slow at times as the story begins to build up steam and momentum. The other awkward part of the book is it feels like the “prologue” section of the narrative goes on too long. There is a large portion of the book devoted to Cérulia’s mother, and how she lost the throne. Her mom launches a naval war against some pirates to try and rally her people back to her side and win back her throne. However, while it does set up some interesting themes and character development for Cérulia – it is very hard to be invested in the conflict since you know from the back of the book her mother will fail. This subplot lasts almost three fourths of the book, and I wish it was slightly less prominent.

51r04ry5zfl2) The Queen of Raiders Fortunately, the second book is the strongest of the series and helps get the reader back on track. Really, the story takes off in the last 20% of Hiding and Raiders just carries on the torch. Raiders is where we see the biggest character growth in both Cérulia and a lot of the supporting cast. It is also where a number of previously unconnected plot lines begin to come together. The world-building continues to expand and Cérulia’s use of magic starts to get a lot more inventive. All of this combined with a climactic finale that actually lines up with the end of the book makes this a great read.

91omg2eocl3) A Broken Queen – This installment Is third when ranking best to worst, but it is much better than Hiding. A Broken Queen focuses mostly on the damage the conflict has been inflicting on all sorts of characters in the series – and how they heal from it. In addition, book three is where the antagonists start getting a lot of page time in order to give them depth and complexity, getting the reader much more invested in a complicated situation. A Broken Queen was where a lot of the series themes and ideas came to the surface and the book had a nice thoughtful quality compared to the other three installments. Where Broken struggles is the fact that the entirety of the book feels like a slow build-up to a major climax…that happens 20% into book four. This leaves the book with a lot of slow thoughtful moments, but not many big set pieces to remember it by.

71ltzhdknrl4) The Cerulean Queen – The final book in the quartet is a winner, coming in at second best. Cerulean was a very interesting book because it feels like the majority of it is an epilogue but in a good way. Unsurprising spoilers: early on in the final book Cérulia reclaims her throne – and it’s awesome. But, instead of ending the story at this natural point, Kozloff spends the majority of the rest of the book showing how Cérulia implemented everything she learned in her time as a fugitive to become a great queen. It’s a really great example of satisfying character growth and execution of themes at the same time and it really helps the series stand out in the fantasy landscape.

The Nine Realms is a worthwhile mini-epic that has a nice mix of originality and classic flare. It has some issues, but they are easy to ignore with its fun ideas, flowing characters, and engrossing plot. If you are interested in reading this series, I highly recommend you carve out the time to tackle all four books at once. If you give it time, you will likely find that Cérulia’s story is a fun and worthwhile adventure.

Rating:
A Queen in Hiding – 6.5/10
The Queen of Raiders – 8.5/10
A Broken Queen – 8.0/10
The Cerulean Queen – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole

Architects of Memory – Unforgettable, Mostly

What’s that? It’s time for another dark horse review? Oh man, well I think I just used up that idea for an intro. Oh well, I got to it first so it’s mine now. I should be talking about a book right? Well, I’ll be honest, the first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. The description only sold it more, but that title really got to me. It felt like it could mean so many things, and I think that still remains true after completing the book. If you have somehow missed the title of this review so far, I am going to be talking about Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne. It’s a solid debut with a compelling main protagonist, and a dreary future setting that succeeds despite some of its drawbacks.

Architects of Memory follows Ash Jackson, an indenture with the Aurora corporation. Ash and her coworkers are corporate scavengers cleaning up the debris from space battlefields in the aftermath of a major war with an alien race known as the Vai. After she and her fellow salvagers soon encounter something they don’t quite understand, they bring the mysterious salvage down to a planet to run studies on it, thinking it’s a zero point battery (a device that would fix the energy supply issues of space travel). While on the planet, another corporation makes its move, and the hunt for Ash and the object begins. The result for the reader is a book where sabotage, espionage, and kidnapping become tools of war for corporations  as they compete for ultimate control of weapons that could defeat the ever present threat of Vai.

In general, the story was enjoyable. It had a few slow moments while it transitioned away from a MacGuffin-centered storyline to a more character driven narrative about how to handle the MacGuffin. While I found myself drawn in by the plot in the beginning, Ash became the main reason I continued to read the book. Her journey from ‘corporate can-do’ to becoming her own person was a nice read. Osborne really captures the sense of trying to do everything you can while greater expectations are piled onto you until you reach a breaking point. Where this arc really succeeds is Ash’s breaking point does not make her a good person, and instead forces her to reckon with all of the bad she did beforehand, while attempting to do the right thing in the future. It was a nice addition that really fit into the universe of the book.

Speaking of, I enjoyed the indirect ways Osborne introduced the world of Memory to the reader. There aren’t any expanded monologues about how the world became the way it is. Most of the details are revealed through dialogue between different characters and diving into the history of the main character as she talked to herself and the ghosts of her past. I appreciated the slow rolling that let the characters breathe in the world that molds them into who they are without forcing it down the reader’s throat. Their choices highlighted what was important to the society they lived in while setting up crucial character moments for those who do develop. However, if you’re someone who wants more worldbuilding and intricate details, it leaves a little to be desired.

I did have a couple issues with the book. As I mentioned, the first portion of the story revolves around a MacGuffin, which didn’t really compel me personally. However, that became less an issue as the story evolved. The second issue is a little harder to ignore and her name is Kate Keller. Keller is the second POV character, and I did not connect with her or find her interesting until about two-thirds of the way through the book. I think part of it is that her sections were often shorter, infrequent, and felt like they were meant to break up Ash’s chapters to provide narrative tension. Unfortunately, a lot of her characterization was done by her own internal comparisons to Ash, leading to a much more direct style that felt disjointed compared to Ash. It makes sense that this sort of characterization happened through the lens of their romantic tension, but it made Keller feel like an accessory for most of the book instead of a full character in her own right.

Despite forgivable issues, I adored this book. Osborne’s metaphors were vivid and tactile, providing such a lush picture of place especially when it was important. Her aliens, the Vai, are weird, and wonderfully alien. Finally the ending to this book is as astounding as it is horrifying.  Overall, Osborne’s debut is an enjoyable read. It has a likeable protagonist, the world is interesting, and while not overly detailed, fleshed out enough to feel pervasive and weaved throughout the character’s lives. The issues I had did not push me away, but still feel important enough to point out that could affect your experience. There is still much to enjoy, and since the second half of the book is much tighter than the first, I think there is much more to look forward to from Karen Osborne.

Rating: Architects of Memory – 7.5/10
Alex

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant – Too Much, Yet Not Enough

91-weu6eyalI don’t really know what happened between me and Seth Dickinson’s The Masquerade. I thoroughly enjoyed The Traitor Baru Cormorant. It had a solid concept, with a great subversion of expectations, and an original theme. I should have put the series down, brushed off my hands, and walked away. But I decided to read the next two books, and they really weren’t for me. The Monster Baru Cormorant felt like Dickinson was going to end the series after book one, but couldn’t turn down the money for a sequel. It involves a major jumpstart to the conflict, an entirely new antagonist and plot to follow, and a mostly fresh cast. Monster isn’t bad, but it lacks the elegance and eloquence of Traitor and feels like a much weaker book.

Tyrant, on the other hand, was too much effort for me to even finish.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, or at least the half of it I read before I threw in the towel, seems to be a book about nothing that relies on your appreciation for the previous novels to get away with not saying anything. So much time in this book is spent building to things, and it exhausts me. It took something like 20% of the book for Baru to walk across a ship and have a conversation, and this is not a short book. Nothing happens; the characters just talk about how exciting the finale is going to be when it eventually happens. It is infuriating.

Previously, when I read and enjoyed The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I (and many readers) enjoyed Dickinson’s poetic, dramatic, and eloquent prose and how he wove it into his story to create a sense of drama and gravitas. The Tyrant Baru Cormorant reads like a soap opera had a child with a thesaurus. The verbosity is off the charts, and it makes processing even the simplest conversations a huge effort. It also helps hide the fact that, as I mentioned before, nothing happens.

There is also a lot of time skipping between the past and present, which adds additional confusion and difficulty in processing what was going on. All of this combines into a book that is a lot of work to read, isn’t fun, and doesn’t feel like it has a lot to say. I found it mostly tiresome, which is a shame because I really like Traitor and recommend you go read it. Just don’t pick up the sequels if you do.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is disappointing, to say the least. It reads like a modern-day case study about the hubris of trying to squeeze out every last dollar of something that performed well in the marketplace. The book uses an aggressive number of words to say very little, and there are better uses of your time than to struggle through its convoluted and overly stylized pages. If you like the book, I am genuinely happy for you – please come explain its redeeming features to me. I wanted to like it very badly, and I found that I could not even finish it. Do not recommend.

Rating: DNF/10
-Andrew