Mexican Gothic – New Faces, Familiar Fates

Mexican Gothic CoverHaving read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, I was expecting another genre-bending experience when I read Mexican Gothic. But that is not how this story goes. The book reads like the well-loved gothic tales of old, and it will absolutely delight fans of this particular genre. This is not a bad thing whatsoever, I only want to admit that my reading experience was off-kilter because I was expecting a totally different story. Because of this, I found myself swirling in the slow, formulaic plot. But don’t let my misfortune bring you down. Gothic-literature stans rejoice, don your most billowing dress, and prepare for the dramatics because I have the perfect book for you.

Noemí Taboada is a socialite living a fun, fast life in Mexico City. She attends parties, flirts with men, and pushes the limits of her father’s patience. Her carefree lifestyle comes to a halt when she receives an odd letter from a cousin who had quickly married an Englishman and moved to the Mexican countryside. Concerned for the cousin’s wellbeing, Noemí’s father tasks her with visiting the cousin’s new home at the isolated High Place manor to get to the bottom of the strange situation. Noemí arrives at a decrepit house filled with strange inhabitants. She plans to get answers but ends up with terrifying questions as her cousin’s new family brings their dark secrets to the light. 

When I say gothic tropes were transplanted to Mexico, I literally mean that a storybook manor with all its textbook characters was picked up from the fog-laced hills of the English countryside and placed in Mexico. The traditional manor is foreboding, its occupants are shifty, and the same dreary weather clouds the landscape to obscure a cemetery. The traditional elements of this genre were all present, but Moreno-Garcia also uses the setting in Mexico to layer on even more terrifying themes. The native people are exploited by the foreign English family in horrifying ways. The family is also very interested in Noemí’s heritage, but I can’t go into much detail because…spoilers. There were several moments I forgot the story took place in Mexico because we’re trapped in that dreary English manor most of the time. I would have loved to see more of the Mexican culture but that would have been a different story entirely. 

I anticipated that a gothic-inspired story would produce a meandering plot, but this one dragged too much for me to enjoy it fully. Mexican Gothic progressed like some linear video game, Noemí forever followed one arc and each character dutifully popped up to push her forward. It resulted in a story that was a little too controlled for my taste as it never gave me the freedom to unravel mysteries on my own. The information was vague and doled out sparingly, which quickly extinguished my spark of curiosity. I would liken my reading experience to a 5 mph Doom Buggy ride through The Haunted Mansion. There’s a creepy story slowly unfolding around me, but I’m not actually a participant. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great ride, just don’t expect to take the controls and go off the track.

I also didn’t find the characters particularly exciting, as they fit snugly within their tropes. However, Moreno-Garcia did craft an interesting dynamic between the effervescent Noemí and the family’s endearingly shy Francis. Their interactions stood out among the repetitive nature of Noemí’s dealings with the other family members. Surprisingly Noemí’s cousin, who is the sole reason for visiting High Place, is a rare sight throughout the book, so much so that I forgot her name (It’s Catalina, and yes, I had to Google it). Noemí’s character was hard to pin down. She was depicted as more than a socialite with a clever mind. However, I found that her ingenuity was rarely showcased, and most of the time she responded like a spoiled city girl. She was TOUGH for sure and stuck to her guns when needed, but her character could have been more fleshed out to display her brilliance. 

Mexican Gothic commits to traditional themes which may enrapture some and disappoint others. I found the plot to be conventional. And although the setting may be in a unique region, the majority of the story keeps you locked away from the Mexican culture. I was expecting a modern twist on a classic and then found it hard to bridge the gap when the reality of the story unfolded. While it wasn’t necessarily for me, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a slow build and who doesn’t need to actively search out the story’s mysteries. Gothic lit fans, I have a good feeling you will eat this up, just stay away from the mushrooms. 

Rating: Mexican Gothic – 6.0/10


The Two-Faced Queen – Sequel Struggles

Last year, I chose Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars as one of my Dark Horse selections. In fact, it was one of two picks on my list. In my review, I lauded the book’s lightning-quick pace and worldbuilding, hoping it would herald a new fantasy saga to watch. The Two-Faced Queen, Martell’s second installment, dashed those hopes. 

The Two-Faced Queen picks up immediately after The Kingdom of Liars. Michael’s myriad quests begin anew, and plenty of novel challenges are thrown his way. Michael Kingman has been accused of murdering the king of The Hollows, much like his father was accused of killing the nation’s prince years ago. The accusation, though false, turns much of the country against Michael and leaves him with few allies. His saving grace is the Orbis Mercenary Company. Dark, a member of said company, saved Michael from execution by committing him to a blood oath that bound him to the group. Under the mercenaries’ protection, Michael seeks to restore his family’s legacy, prove he didn’t kill the king, and regain the memories he lost to Fabrications, the series’ magic system. But when a serial killer returns to The Hollows, Michael has to hunt the murderer down, too. 

I’ve managed a rudimentary plot summary here. But I have to confess: I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was going on in The Two-Faced Queen. Imagine a rock skipping across a still lake. It touches the water ever-so-briefly, each jump shorter than the last. And though the rock sends ripples across the lake, it only becomes a part of the larger world across which it travels when it sinks to the bottom. The Two-Faced Queen is all skip, no sink. There’s no moment to breathe. Michael jumps from one plot thread to the next with reckless abandon. Storylines from The Kingdom of Liars return, then new ones take the stage with tenuous (at best) connections to the overall narrative. The stone that serves as this book’s story simply skips along in perpetuity. We see the ripples, the surface-level impact of Michael’s actions, but we never understand what it all means. The history of The Hollows and its surrounding nations is so thin that there’s nothing to latch onto. I gave The Kingdom of Liars a pass for this very issue in the hopes that it would resolve itself in book two. But here, it’s worse. 

There’s a vibrant, glorious fantasy world hidden beneath the layers of Martell’s world. Unfortunately, it’s a world that seems better fleshed out in the author’s mind than it is on the page. So many factions and groups inhabit The Hollows, it’s hard to keep track. Beyond their distinctive names–Scales, Ravens, Skeletons, and more–it’s near-impossible to tell them apart. 

The same goes for the characters. Michael interacts with royals, Ravens, frenemies, tentative allies, mercenaries, and many others. On the page, the only thing that distinguishes one character from another is a name and possibly an ability to use magic. Most of the characters within seem to exist for the sole purpose of witty banter with Michael. They enter stage left, have a conversation with Michael (or a brief fight), then exit stage right. Rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the dialogue didn’t feel so forced and unnatural. There’s no difference in tone from one character to the next, and the conversational tapestry of The Two-Faced Queen is threaded with clichés. 

Fabrications and Weaving, two of the book’s magic systems, suffer from similar technical drawbacks. Weaving is only hinted at in this book, and will likely appear in the next. Fabrications remain an enigma, though the price of using them (losing memories) is still a cool-as-hell idea. The problem? I have no idea how they actually work. Some people are Fabricators while others are not, and it’s unclear how Fabricators get their powers. Again, hinted at in this book, but not enough to lure me to the next. When Michael uses his Fabrications, which can simply nullify other Fabrications, he mentions a “warmth” in his chest. He redirects it toward his target. The descriptions of the magic system in action leave a lot to be desired, and based on the limited lore the book doles out, I’m not exactly clamoring to learn more.

All-in-all, The Two-Faced Queen squanders many of the promises made in The Kingdom of Liars. And it’s important to note that some readers will likely enjoy the quickfire fun that this novel offers. But it lacked the depth I felt I needed after the first installment, and surface-level fun won’t cut it for another ~600-page book. 

Rating: The Two-Faced Queen – 4.0/10

The Last Watch – Rakes Aplenty

The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes, manages the impressive feat of being, and not being, a military science fiction story at the same time. It has all the trappings of a military science fiction: age-old alien threat to humanity, the grizzled old general who kicks ass, a new recruit who is complete garbage but shows potential, and more terminology and army buzz words than you can shake a rifle at. But, it’s actually about a group of soldiers doing their best to man a lifeboat and retreat from an oncoming calamity. Against that backdrop, the military aspect feels like window dressing. This makes the book feel very refreshing and the exact kind of hot take that I look for in one of our Dark Horse debuts.

The book follows two POV characters: Rake, the grizzled kick-ass general (called a Titan in this instance), and Cavalon, an exiled prince who has been thrown into involuntary military service as a fresh recruit. Both of them are members of the Sentinels, a group of universe gatekeepers made up of banished criminals whose job is to sit at the edge of the known universe and watch for attacks from hostile alien species. The book starts with Cavalon showing up on the Argus, the giant defunct capital ship that Rake commands. They go through the usual new recruit tropes (insubordination, creative punishment, moments of distinguishing valor, and slowly building respect on both sides). However, the wrench thrown into the formula comes when the universe starts to rapidly contract and begins eating all of existence. Now this crew of criminals on a busted ancient ship must find a way to save themselves before reality around them ceases to be.

The meat of The Last Watch sits upon a tripod of foci: Rake’s backstory, Cavalon’s character growth, and the mad sprint for survival from the shrinking edge of the universe. Rake is a decorated war hero who has been banished to the edge of the universe to babysit a bunch of criminals. Obviously, she has done something spectacularly awful to end up in this situation, and Dewes parcels out the juicy details at a glacial pace (in a tantalizing good way) over the course of the book. Some of her story beats are a little too trope-y for my taste, but she generally is a great character with a fascinating past that I was on board with.

Up next we have Cavalon, who was a mixed bag. He’s a spoiled brat, and a rake (which is ironic, given the other character’s name), which works nicely as clashing personality points to make him interesting. He is also desperate for Rake’s approval, which was an interesting character growth hook that I liked a lot more than I expected. But, I found that a lot of his sections felt extremely contrived and it often sucked me right out of the story. First, we have the fact that we have a derelict spaceship that suddenly needs to outrun the edge of the universe – so it’s so lucky that Cavalon, with his 3 spaceship repair degrees, arrived the same day. Then we have the fact that he is obsessed with “cutting the shit” – a request Rake makes of him early in the story. She essentially wants him to stop creating problems and just be a productive member of the team, but Cavalon makes being unproblematic his entire personality. There was a particularly unpleasant series of events where Cavalon gets tortured to the point he almost dies by another squadmate, and he doesn’t report it because he doesn’t want to be difficult?!?! WHAT? It just goes a little too far to be believable, and I wish his entire deal had been reined in a bit.

Finally, we have the mad dash for survival – and this is actually where the book shines the most. The escape from the boundary of space is exciting, and the various set pieces that the crew jumps around in their escape keep the book moving at a great pace with a lot of memorable scenes. The one problem I ran into a few times was struggling badly with understanding Dewes’ descriptions of actions. Despite rereading some scenes 5+ times, I just could not figure out what was happening in certain space maneuvers. I was left scratching my head when I was supposed to be exulting in moments of character triumph, which could be frustrating.

All in all, I definitely liked The Last Watch and recommend that you check it out. There are certain pieces of it that I struggled with, but the sum is definitely more than the parts. Its strange combination of characters and plot creates a wonderful vehicle for a wild and memorable ride and the character stories have me fully invested and excited for the sequel. I just hope that between now and the next book I find a way to better understand how to read some of Dewes’ big moments.

Rating: The Last Watch – 7.0/10

The Helm Of Midnight – A Steep Hike With A View

The Helm of Midnight, by Marina J. Lostetter, is a book with a lot of ideas. The first entry in The Five Penalties series, I find myself at a loss as to whether to recommend it or not. On the one hand, Lostetter has built a world just brimming with interesting rules and magic. On the other hand, getting into that world felt akin to wading through concrete. While I ended up wanting to continue the series by the time I finished Helm, there were a ton of instances where I almost quit the book and relegated it to my DNF pile. Yet, through clever writing, compelling mystery, and plot lines that I just had to see come together, Helm managed to keep its grip on me to the last page.

The back of the book will tell you that Helm is a story about chasing a killer who has donned a mask of one of the world’s most infamous mass murderers in order to gain his powers of destruction. Once I got into the book and started digging around I found this preview to be laughably oversimplified. Helm is a world of rules. The first page you will read shows the dictates of the five gods who rule over reality and what they expect of you. Violating any of their decrees will result in a horrific penalty, which is where the series gets its name. Existence in the world of The Helm of Midnight is more malleable than our own. The magic of the world allows people to store abstract concepts and emotions in physical objects. For example, emotions like joy and despair can be imprisoned in gems and then worn to evoke the desired feeling. When a person dies, their skills and abilities can be captured in a death mask that allows a wearer to recall their abilities. Oh, and the entire world exists in a giant bubble dome that keeps out apocalyptic flora and fauna that would obliterate humanity in a heartbeat if it got in. The only thing the barrier doesn’t keep out are the vargs – which are sort of like werewolves with special abilities depending on their breed. Some can teleport, others can read your mind, others can turn invisible. Vargs represent the largest threat to the world as they can’t be killed, only reduced to a mist that is then captured in bottles and stored in vaults. All of this just scratches the surface of the minute detail and whimsically grim nature of Lostetter’s world, and on top of all of this we have an intricate plot.

The story is split into three POV’s in three different time periods. We have Krona in the present, a cop who is trying to track down a lost mask of a serial killer and stop whoever is wearing it from killing more people. We have Melanie in the near past, a young girl who is trying to save her mother by wearing the masks of healers. Finally, we have Charbon in the distant past, the aforementioned serial killer who is living his life as a successful doctor.

The three timelines act as set up, catalyst, and execution of the mystery of the book. In Charbon’s period, we see a talented and kind doctor trying to save everyone and we wonder how this man became the mass murderer we know him to have been in the present. In Melanie’s period, we see new elements and rules introduced that start to change how we perceive the world to work and open up new possibilities. In Krona’s period, we get to see the payoff of all of the setup, but mostly we get to see her talk to her CI about nothing for a whole lot of pages. Maybe I just don’t like cops, but I struggled to be invested in Krona’s story – which is a bummer because her POV is easily the one with the most page space. I felt like nothing ever happened in her segments, while with Charbon and Melanie I was constantly learning more about the mystery that permeates the story and about the world that it takes place in. All three plot lines eventually do all come together, and I felt the book picked up massively at this point. However, this nexus is deep within the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if people dropped out halfway through.

Part of the problem is that while Lostetter’s worldbuilding and themes are fantastic, the prose can feel lackluster. She excels at grim imagery and violence but somehow seems to struggle with imbuing her worlds with excitement and feeling. Many scenes were objectively horrifying in their nature but had little resonance with me as I struggled to empathize with multiple members of the cast. The characters are wonderfully complex with a ton of potential, but it can feel like a lot of that potential is left on the table thanks to the language.

The Helm of Midnight is certainly a unique read with a lot of new imaginative ideas. If you feel bored by the current sea of fantasy offerings and want something off the beaten path, this book will definitely scratch the itch. But, beware of the slow ramp-up speed. The series is definitely going somewhere, it just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The first book provides an interesting blueprint, but I mostly see the potential of something to come instead of something concrete I can hold onto.

Rating: The Helm of Midnight – 7.0/10

The Slow Regard Of Silent Things – An Auri Story

Welcome, Rothfuss fans and/or angry mobs, to a review of “Kingkiller Chronicle 2.5,” which is a terrible moniker for this Temerant-set novella. The Slow Regard of Silent Things roots itself in Rothfuss’ imaginative world made famous by The Name of the Wind. But those looking for an extension of Kvothe’s story won’t find it here. In fact, Rothfuss writes a wordy intro to this novella explaining exactly why readers (or angry mobs) might not want to buy or read this story. And you know what? Good on him. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is so unconventional that it feels utterly distinct from the two Kingkiller books with which it shares a world and a character. And although I’d heard through the grapevine that I could easily skip this story, the short page count and my recent deep dive into The Wise Man’s Fear piqued my curiosity. So I read The Slow Regard of Silent Things, and I enjoyed it–to an extent.

Most of the points I’d typically cover in a review feel moot here. Rothfuss explains in detail why The Slow Regard of Silent Things won’t be for everyone. That’s because the story focuses on Auri and her life in the Underthing. It’s also because the novella “doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.” And it’s these two points that make the plot difficult to summarize. It’s not a continuation of Kvothe’s story, but you do need the context of the core Kingkiller books to feel at home here, which puts the book in a strange position. Auri’s tale doesn’t have a formal hero’s journey, climax, denouement, all that stuff. Instead, The Slow Regard of Silent Things follows Auri (one of my favorite characters from Kingkiller, by the way) over the course of a few days as she prepares for Kvothe to visit. For a book that’s ostensibly about Auri, it still feels like it’s just a Kvothe story in an Auri mask. 

During her preparations, Auri explores her home beneath the University. She loses objects and has to employ creative solutions to find them. She enters rooms that just don’t feel right, then takes it upon herself to fix them. She makes soap. For eight pages. She searches for gifts to give to Kvothe. Slow Regard is at once a long vignette and a series of tiny vignettes. 

Your mileage with this story may vary, but I enjoyed the short, breezy adventures within. Don’t get me wrong–it does not feel like a Kingkiller story in the epic, sweeping way that The Name of the Wind does. But Auri feels at home in her small world underneath the “real” one, and the story feels at home in the larger world Rothfuss is building throughout the series. 

At the same time, this story is uniquely Auri. Rothfuss’ prose in the core novels induces reading flow, sometimes making 50 pages feel like 10. In a way, it mirrors Kvothe’s proficiency with words. The lyrical writing gently urges the reader along as though transitioning from verse to chorus to bridge with lilting melodic flourishes. Auri’s story is different. She describes things with vague feelings. If she existed in modern times, you might say she observes the world as a series of vibes, and she seeks to correct the bad ones with an intriguing feng shui/alchemy analog. In true Rothfuss form, he has given us a glimpse into his world through a character that serves as a brilliant lens. 

Nate Taylor lends his illustrative talents to the novella, too, giving Slow Regard an added layer of worldbuilding and storytelling that is otherwise absent from the stories of Kingkiller

But…should you read The Slow Regard of Silent Things? That’s the question, and the answer eludes me like the ghost of a melody, fading into the recesses of my brain. The best I can do is this: maybe. If you, like me, loved the first two Kingkiller Chronicle installments and desire a quick step back into that world, chances are you’ll find something of value here. But Rothfuss makes it abundantly clear what this story is from the get-go, and you should heed his words. If you’re here for the red-headed bard, steer clear. If you love Auri and don’t mind a quick side-quest, give it a shot. 

Rating: The Slow Regard Of Silent Things– 6.5/10

Companion – Building a Sequel

Before I start, I need to point out something about how I read books in order for this review to make sense. I’m not a very visual reader, I see words and they echo in my head. Sometimes pictures come if I concentrate hard enough, but that slows down my ability to read. Intricate descriptions of an object’s physical properties do very little to paint a picture in my mind. Action scenes often have to ride on emotional momentum. For me, words inform the mood of a book and suck me in through intensity, atmosphere, and emotion. I think it’s why I tend to gravitate towards a large vocabulary; fine-tuned wording is more effective at enhancing my personal reading experience. So take the following review with a grain of salt as this inclination very much tailored my experience with Companion by Luke Matthews. Companion, also a self published novel, is a risky follow up to Construct. It bets on high characterization over the strong plotting seen previously, leaving me with mixed emotions. However, while I adored the introspective elements, the sometimes overly detailed stage dampened my enjoyment of the book.

Companion picks up a little while after the end of Construct. Jacob splits off from Eriane and Samuel, his plan is to close up some loose ends so they do not hinder the group in their ultimate quest. Samuel follows Eriane on her own separate quest to find the fabled Gunsmith. Eriane had broken her gun in their climatic fight in Construct, and direly needs it fixed. Unfortunately, in this world, even owning a gun, let alone using one, is grounds for execution. Then there is Dal, a man who has lost his memories and returns to his old crew by accident. Despite his former crew’s misgivings and suspicions about him coming back, he tags along for an escort mission through some of the most dangerous territory in the land. He doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for, but he feels he’s in the right place anyway, even though his life is very much on the line.

Alright, let’s dive in. I had trouble with Companion. While some areas of the book reduced my enjoyment, Matthews made some choices I particularly liked. I enjoyed Matthews’ switch to a more introspective story, especially given the ending of Construct. The characters each had their own journey, all of which feel earned and in some ways necessary for future installments. They each had their own pasts to resolve with their perceived futures and wanted to prepare for the fights ahead. There was a solid theme of identity portrayed through each character as they tried to reconcile who they were and who they are. I also appreciated that the introspection did not require fighting through bodies to come to their respective ends within the book. Dal was a wonderful addition to the cast that helped increase the weirdness within the world of The Chronicler Saga. He added some grit even though he was bewildered most of the time, trying to catch up with the madness of his previous life.

Their individual travels also allowed for a further realization of the world. Not a whole lot, but there were the beginnings of a larger place with small towns scattered about. It’s not as fleshed out as I normally would like, but the glimpse was nice and added to the dark western feel I got from the previous book. Matthews took a slower route this time, and it was scenic enough. But I think this was where I had some trouble. Where Construct hooked me with its driving plot and thick atmosphere, Companion had to rely mostly on the characters and a curiosity of the world. Both were handled, and in some cases handled well, I just didn’t particularly jive with some of the choices made throughout the book. Especially the decision to backseat Samuel’s own role within the story, but I digress.

Part of it comes back to the issue I described in the introduction. Companion seemed to be filled with more character and object description than I remembered from the first book. I don’t have the distinct feeling that it was as prevalent in Construct as it was here. There were intricate details of things in places that I didn’t really care about. People covered in trinkets, dusty tables covered in books, and other fantasy paraphernalia that didn’t add too much to the flavor for me. So I tried to ignore that by really ramping up my attention to the characters. The problem I ran into here wasn’t so much the development as much as there were no foils. The characters were different enough, I just didn’t get the distinct feeling that their journeys were very different from each other. Construct benefitted from the back and forth between the perceived good and bad guys, giving you a different taste of story beats. But Companion has three protagonists that are all on similar internal quests that lead to similar outcomes. The lack of variety made it feel slower and more of a trudge than the previous book, which was frustrating for me.

Ultimately I had a very middling experience with Companion. I didn’t hate it at the end nor did I feel betrayed, but in some ways I did feel appreciative. Appreciative that Matthews took some interesting risks that for me paid off two-thirds of the time. In part my particular reading style got in the way, but also because of those same risks. If you liked Construct, I think you’ll like this one and your mileage may vary depending on the kind of reader you are. The characters are better and more interesting, and the world just has a little more to it. I’m still interested in the world, and I really want to see Samuel’s and his friends’ journeys to the end and unveil the revelations of the Chroniclers. I didn’t like it as much as Construct, but don’t let that deter you if you’re curious. Matthews has certainly put in the work, and I hope he continues to do so in the next book.

Rating: Companion– 6.5/10

By Force Alone – Just Yank It Out

I have to tell you, kind reader, I am kinda over Arthurian retellings – or at least those that don’t have anything new to offer. There is an absolute butt-load (technical term) of books that tell the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Personally, when it comes to classic iterations of this tale as old as time, I think you can just read The Once and Future King by T. H. White and call it a day. I just think that the classic iteration of Arthur is kinda boring and we don’t need 45 books about how he yanked a sword out of a rock by virtue of cosmic destiny. But, interesting new takes on the Arthur legend with big spins, well now I might be game.

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, as the astute of you will have guessed from the title, is a grimdark retelling of the legend of Arthur with a focus on brute force being how he earned and kept his throne, not the divine right to rule. I suspect/hope I don’t need to give you a rundown of the plot of the book, By Force Alone follows the lore of Arthur more or less but with a couple of fun twists along the way. Where Force differs from other books in the genre is its focus on Merlin and Uther as the primary points of view. From this position, it serves as a major critique on divine right, stating that force alone and a tyrant’s willingness to use it secures the power of kings.

A focus on Merlin isn’t revolutionary in Arthurian tales, but this Merlin is certainly different. Tidhar paints Merlin as an “eldritch parasite” and I honestly could not come up with a more fitting description. Instead of your usual wise older teacher, this Merlin is young, shifty, manipulative, and obviously self-centered. He feels less like a mentor and more like that advisor character in Disney movies that is clearly the actual villain. When I started By Force Alone I was concerned that it might just be another grim-washed clone with hollow characters and I am happy to say that the cast has great depth. Merlin is an awful human, but he has layers of mystery and complexity that make him a fascinating POV to ride with. Merlins segments were by far the best and it felt like reading a new book whenever he took center stage.

The other character who steals the show is Uther, Arthur’s bombastic father who is often not talked about. Arthur actually doesn’t show up until a good way into the story and we begin our tale under the iron grip of his father. Uther is an awful tyrant to his core and builds the foundation upon which Arthurs criminal empire of knights will rise from. Uther doesn’t quite have the complexity of Merlin, but his POV is something I really haven’t had much time with when it comes to Camelot stories and it did definitely add a new dimension that I enjoyed.

As to the themes, I like them but I don’t think they are particularly poignant. I approve of the idea that the divine right of kings is bullshit and that history likely has painted conquerors with a golden brush when their legacy is actually stained by blood – but it’s not exactly a revolutionary take. While it’s fun to explore the idea of Arthur as a tyrant I don’t know if I needed a 400-page book making a detailed argument I think a lot of people would already agree with in this day and age.

Arthur himself, as always, is pretty boring as sin. In this instance I think that was the point, demonstrating that Arthur is nothing more than an idiot that was put on a pedestal, but that doesn’t actually make a very compelling character to follow. I don’t derive a lot of pleasure from seeing awful people bring about their own undoing with no outside agency, but that is a personal preference and I am sure that many will enjoy watching Arthur own himself.

In the end, By Force Alone does a great job distinguishing itself from other Arthurian tales through great characterization and original themes. But, the book didn’t give me a lot to think about or contemplate and that made it end up feeling a little shallow at the end. Still, if you are looking for a fresh take on the Knights of the Round Table then this could definitely be up your alley. It is probably worth reading for Tidhar’s brilliant Merlin character alone, but I am a hard sell on yet more stories about the jackass who yanked some metal out of a rock.

Rating: By Force Alone – 7.0/10

Double Review: Two Avatar Graphic Novels

Flameo, hotman! As the Quill To Live’s resident Avatar: The Last Airbender superfan, I take my duty to keep up with the latest ATLA releases very seriously. Need proof? You can see my dedication to the universe in my reviews of The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi. Today, I’m here to add a few more reviews to the growing Avatar stack.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver and Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy are the two newest additions to Dark Horse Publishing’s Avatar graphic novel pantheon. Both are backed by the same team of artists:

  • Script: Faith Erin Hicks
  • Art: Peter Wartman
  • Colors: Adele Matera
  • Lettering: Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt

Because the exact same team produced both works, and because they’re quite short, I’m combining them into a single review. Yip yip!

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver

The episode “Bitter Work” occurs about halfway through the original Avatar TV series, and it’s a gem of an episode that sheds light on the differences between each bending style. Aang, a defensive and generally nonviolent person, is forced to confront the brute-force, in-your-face style that Earthbending requires.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver takes place just hours after the events of that episode. After an unfortunate run-in with some Fire Nation soldiers, Katara is split from the group and stranded in an occupied Earth Kingdom village. Here she forms an unlikely alliance with a band of pirates to escape the clutches of the Fire Nation. Meanwhile, Aang, Sokka, and Toph trap a Fire Nation soldier and attempt to de-propagandize him. 

The narrative itself is telegraphed and in no particular way unique. For Captain Jiang and her pirate crew, this means the story compresses them into unmemorable archetypes. Just as the show already proved Katara’s toughness, it already handled pirates, too. 

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver serves as a fitting extension to “Bitter Work.” In the episode, Katara and Toph fight about the best teaching methods. Katara believes in positive reinforcement as the most viable teaching technique; Toph disagrees. The graphic novel is a clever attempt at extending the dynamic but ultimately feels overly contrived and redundant. Katara, separated…sticky situation. Katara, separated from her friends and feeling “soft,” puts on an air of toughness to get her out of a sticky situation. This plot, though, ends up feeling contrived and redundant, because Katara fans know she can be a terrifying opponent when pressed. In this way, Pirate’s Silver tries to prove a point that the show already hammered home on multiple occasions. The story is so paper-thin that any savvy reader will breeze through it in under an hour and gain little insight beyond a few fun scenes that would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor if this was a full episode script. 

All-in-all, Katara and the Pirate’s Silver ends before it can even unfurl its sails. It traverses ground that’s already well-covered by the TV series, so the result is a forgettable, but generally fun enough addition to the growing collection of Avatar graphic novels. This add-on to Avatar lore serves little purpose and shows that not every story is one worth telling. Avatar is known for hard-hitting narratives and heavy themes packaged in fun, lighthearted characters. Katara and the Pirate’s Silver has plenty of the latter, but none of the former. Fan-service can carry a book a long way, but when it sheds the qualities fans of the source material hold so dearly, it’s a struggle. 

Rating: Katara and the Pirate’s Silver – 5.0/10

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy

When you’re a legendary war hero, an undefeated earthbending master, and the inventor of metalbending, what’s your biggest enemy?

Ennui, of course. 

Following the events of the TV show, Toph Beifong has established a luxurious metalbending school, where hopeful students can learn her newly invented craft. But Toph is so proficient, so forceful in her teachings, that the school practically runs itself, giving her little to actually do. Her former students teach classes, the current students are progressing well, and life is good. For Toph, though, “good” is boring. Sokka and Suki visit Toph’s school and notice her predicament right away and take Toph to a concert (featuring an exquisite cameo from the SECRET TUNNEL band). Toph despises the concert, so she splits and ventures to an underground bending tournament for a bit of action. She even sees a lava bender compete. But when an audience member recognizes her as a friend of the Avatar, everyone bolts as though the police just showed up uninvited to an alcohol party at Josh’s house (his parents are gone for the weekend). Meanwhile, Toph’s students believe they are the reason for her boredom, so they resolve to prove themselves by entering the next underground bending tournament. 

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy is the fan-service I so desperately craved but did not receive from Katara and the Pirate’s Silver. Toph is undeniably her classic self, fed up with the day-to-day and abrasively supportive of her wards. Sokka and Suki are true to form, though they’re only briefly featured. Trustfully In Love (aka the Secret Tunnel band) is as much a ridiculous joy as they were in “The Cave of Two Lovers.”

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy manages to tell a complete story. The characters learn and grow, and we see a side of Toph that she only rarely lets loose. Unlike its Pirate’s Silver counterpart, this installment adds a worthy story to the larger Avatar universe, and fans of the show will love it.

The graphic novel leverages fan-service in a way that expands the world of Avatar. In the show, we never saw Toph struggle with the daily grind. She was constantly traveling with team Avatar, dealing with crises, and annihilating enemies with her expert earthbending. Here, we get a toned-down Toph who struggles to find her place in a world without the imminent threat of global genocide. And for a character who abandoned a life of luxury in favor of fighting the good fight, “normal” just won’t cut it. To see this new side of Toph is a real treat for Avatar fans. Not only that–this new facet is also a good enough reason for this story to exist. When Avatar stories trod new ground and explore different sides of the characters we know and love, that’s a win. 

And if these two graphic novels are any indication, it’s still possible for this world to feature new, enriching stories. If that means dealing with the occasional dud, that’s fine by me. 

Rating: Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy – 9.0/10

Memoria — Once Again, With Even More Feeling

I don’t know what’s in the water that some of these newer authors have been drinking, but boy am I jealous. Almost every sequel I’ve read in recent memory has been an absolute treat. Sometimes they just completely blow the debut out of the water, and others continue the legacy of the first, making no excuses. Just don’t let me get my hopes up too high now, or I might enjoy something for once. Memoria, by Kristyn Merbeth, is no exception to this rule. Fortuna, the first book in the Nova Vita Protocol, was an absolute delight, and I’m happy to report that the sequel did not falter. Memoria is an emotional rollercoaster that avoids the middle book slump with finesse.

It’s going to be hard to avoid spoilers for the first book here, so if you’re thinking about picking it up, turn back now. Memoria follows soon after the catastrophic events of Fortuna. The planet Titan is once again a cold dead wasteland, its population wiped out by a Primus bomb delivered by Auriga Kaiser herself on behalf of Gaia, a planet that was speedrunning it’s isolationist measures. Gaia itself was also turned into a wasteland due to latent alien technology, and it’s citizens were evacuated to Nibiru, which has caused some tension to say the least. The Kaisers are grounded without a ship, and Scorpia is feeling antsy, while Corvus is helping the rest of the family settle into life on Nibiru. However, an opportunity to get a ship comes up, and Scorpia takes it, even if it means taking it to Gaia to study the alien technology that has made it inhabitable. What they find sets her on edge, and makes Corvus think that the fight is only about to begin.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Merbeth’s characters are the highlight of the story. I fell in absolute love with them in the first book, and it was easy to slip into the Kaiser’s drama the second time around. They feel even more alive after having some time to sit and think about the events of the first book. Scorpia is trying to deal with her alcoholism, and Corvus, well…he’s being Corvus. Their siblings are also dealing with the events of the past, especially since they unknowingly had a hand in it. Scorpia wants to fly, while everyone else just wants to live where they can find a home. Needless to say, the tension is high between the members of the family and it won’t take much to tip the scales. It feels like Merbeth set up a pressure cooker filled with dynamite and beans, plugged the release valves, and stepped back to see what would happen. The drama and fights feel real, earned, and heartbreaking. Without the glue of their tough love mother, Auriga, it’s up to Corvus and Scorpia to hold them together, and they are failing.

The writing is still top notch. While I loved Scorpia in the first book, there was a sense of sadness I got whenever I read her sections this time around. She was still her charismatic, bumbling self, but there were times where she felt she didn’t quite believe in herself and had to put up a front for the rest of her family. It made it more heartbreaking everytime she thought about meeting oblivion at the bottom of a bottle. She’s still my favorite of the characters, and her journey just wrecks me. And oh boy, is Corvus being the most absolute Corvus he can be. He’s still detached, cold, and doesn’t know how much he should hold onto his old world. Even around his family he can’t seem to let go, and really ties himself to his Titan heritage. But even though he gets stuck in his own head, afraid to talk to others, he rarely fails to act when he’s needed. Everytime he goes out to do something he hates, I could feel his emotional armor cloak him until it was all over. And everytime it happened it hurt even more.

The stakes are even higher this time around, and Merbeth actually got me to buy in a little harder this time. My main complaint about Fortuna was that the events felt too big, and I had no real sense of scale. It’s still somewhat the case here, but it feels more purposefully nebulous. I mean, how can one capture a whole war through the eyes of two family members? The conflict is far more drawn out, with politicking and pressures building on the various factions within the story. Repercussions from Fortuna hang on every sentence that demands action. People died in fits and spurts here, on and off screen and everyone of them felt tangible. It certainly helps you get to see aspects of it through Corvus’ eyes, a veteran of the constant struggle on Titan. He brings a grim framing that feels like a horrible job that doesn’t necessarily need to be done, but he follows through anyway. It really made the war scenes pop in a way I wasn’t expecting. Plus, the Kaiser’s as a family never felt completely safe. Merbeth splits them up and it was incredibly nerve wracking as I waited for several of them to never come back.

I don’t know how many more times I’m going to have to end a review this way, but I hope it’s many more times to come. Memoria is a spectacular follow up to Fortuna. The characters feel like they went through some sewers in the first book, only to find themselves stuck in the waste treatment plant, with even less friends on their side. The writing separating the chapters was still tight, allowing each character to feel their own, and give different perspectives on the tasks ahead. And the family stakes were more cleverly intertwined with the grand stakes. There was a solidness to the events that made the war feel like a war. I am honestly afraid of what Merbeth has in store for readers in the next book, because I don’t think the Kaisers will ever catch a break.

Rating: Memoria 9.0/10

The City We Became – New York Really Said Catch These Hands

The City We Became CoverI have been to New York City exactly one time. I took a red-eye flight from Las Vegas and spent a week walking city blocks during a heatwave. I thought I knew enough about NYC that it would be familiar and welcoming. I was wrong. And the trip mirrors my rocky introduction to The City We Became. It was a difficult book to jump into and N.K. Jemisin’s first title in The Great Cities series has a chaotic start. The story has no build-up and things got super weird quickly. This may be exactly what you want in a book – diving in and getting to the good stuff! However, my confusion after getting thrown into the story was getting in the way and slowing down my reading at first. It was like a tourist standing in the middle of the sidewalk (oh god, is that a selfie stick?) playing defense against New Yorkers on their way to work. I had to make a conscious decision to stop trying to understand every detail and roll with whatever Jemisin threw at me. Only then did I begin to appreciate this unique story.

There is an evil entity from another dimension attacking New York City. A giant white tentacle rises from the ocean and destroys the Williamsburg Bridge, and frond-like substances are attaching to everything in the city. Problem is, only a handful of people can see these events unfolding. NYC is a living, breathing thing in need of protection, so it seeks out individuals to defend its existence. The main characters of this story (Manny, Brooklyn, Aislyn, Bronca, and Padmini) become avatars for the city, and they each represent the borough where they live. But nothing is ever easy in the city that never sleeps. The avatars have no idea what they are or what they need to do, and the enemy is one step ahead. 

There is very little worldbuilding. I never fully understood why things were happening or what the evil entity was. There are no established guidelines or rules. There were glimpses of the avatars channeling a ‘power’ to combat the enemy, but it was described vaguely. At one point Manny weaponizes a credit card. Padmini completes a math equation in her head and jumps through time and space. Also, King Kong shows up. This all sounds like the makings of a bad book, but I promise it’s not. It needs to be approached from a different angle. I think The City We Became is more about the characters and their New York-ness and less about the events pushing the story forward. Honestly, the avatars were as clueless as I was, so we were tackling the weird together.

I fell in love with the story through the well-realized avatars. Jemisin characterized the boroughs of NYC and described the city through the eyes of people of varying races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. It was a powerful experience hearing stories from people who are so often neglected. Diversity was an integral part of the book, and the villain often exploited prejudice and fear to accomplish its goal of taking over the city. And while this interdimensional creature was the main conflict, I was way more intrigued by the characters, their life experiences, and the culture that shaped them. I enjoyed the granular elements of NYC that Jemisin used to describe each borough and how it shaped its avatar and their personalities. This aspect of the book was insanely creative.

Unfortunately, not every avatar was given time to shine. The POVs are not weighted equally, so some of the avatars were fully fleshed out while others were just kind of there. The most love was given to Bronca, who easily became my favorite because she had depth and a colorful perspective. At the extreme end, there was Padmini who tagged along and contributed her concern now and then. She was apparently insanely good at math but I got, like, a New York minute’s worth of detail about that. There were a lot of interesting elements we could have explored with each character, and I mourn for the avatars I didn’t get to know as well. 

This book was one of the most unique stories I’ve read in a long time. A city was literally brought to life before my eyes. You might stumble a little at the beginning (What? Like keeping up with New York City is supposed to be easy?), but The City We Became is worth it. This story is more than urban fantasy. It’s about a city, its people, and the diverse cultures infusing its bones. It’s wild and weird and will make you see New York City in an entirely new light.

Rating: The City We Became – 7.0/10