Heartstone – Pride, Prejudice, and Dragons

30037275The lovely people at Harper Voyager must think I am super lonely, because they keep sending me fantasy romance novels (don’t stop). As this is the week of Valentine’s Day, I decided it would probably be appropriate to review one of the standout reads from the group. That one in particular is Heartstone, by Elle Katherine White. I am not immensely familiar with the works of Jane Eyre, but the book distinctly feels like a piece evoking her writing style in a fantasy setting – a version of Pride and Prejudice I can really get behind. It turns out the addition of dragons makes almost any book something I am interesting in.

Heartstone tells the story of Aliza, a quaint farm girl, who is the middle daughter of a fairly large family with a ton of girls. Her home is being raided by wild griffons, and things have come to a head when the most recent attack leaves her youngest sister dead. To deal with the menace, the town bands together and spends enough money to hire riders – essentially mythical exterminators, The riders are all warriors that have bonded with mythical animals to help them combat other creatures, and the warrior’s companions run the gamut from large super bear to wyvern. However, there is one family – and only one – that have bonded with one of the greatest creatures of all, dragons. Our male love interest in the story is, of course, from this family, and is one of the riders who comes to the village to deal with the griffins. While I am no expert at romance novels, this seems to me a fairly standard set-up for most novels (minus awesome dragons) and I was ready for a decent story with some of my favorite giant lizards thrown in for some flair. What I was not ready for was how good Elle Katherine White is at worldbuilding.

The characters in Heartstone are good, interesting and immersive to the point where I was invested in their lives and story, but what really drew me in was the world that White has crafted. The setting and politics of Heartstone are extremely well developed, making the world feel like a real place that people inhabit. The creatures and places of the story are some of the coolest I have read in recent memory. You have things like forge-wrights, creatures of flame and metal that work smithies and craft things out of heartstone (the hearts of other mythic creatures) with their bare hands. Or several locations with rich histories and vividly described towns and homes that stand out in my memory. This is a world I want to be in longer and more. The riders themselves fascinate me. White dives in to their training and history slightly, but not nearly enough for my liking. This story left me wanting to hear more and more of White’s world because I didn’t get nearly enough.

The issues of Heartstone stem just from that, it is too short. I felt like White needed to make this a trilogy – something I don’t often say – because it just needed more space. I felt the relationships in the story developed a little too rapidly, the ending was a bit abrupt, and I was left wanting to see a lot more of the world than I got to. However, as they say, if your critique of a book is that there needed to be more of it, it is a sign you were enjoying yourself.

As I said, I do not usually go in for romance novels, but Heartstone had me invested from start to finish. While its short length took away from a bit of my enjoyment, I have also marked down Elle Katherine White as one of the most exciting debut authors I have read in awhile. I will certainly be paying attention to her future releases as I think she will have a successful writing career ahead of her. I would love to see White write an epic fantasy with this level of worldbuilding. Regardless, if you are looking for a little romance this week, or like Pride and Prejudice but think it needed more dragons, The Quill to Live recommends you check out Heartstone.

Rating: Heartstone – 7.5/10

Red Sister – The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

red2bsister2bcoverSo I read an ARC of Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence, back in December but I have been holding off talking about it because I wanted to review it closer to publication date, and because I needed to calm down a little so that this review wasn’t the word vomit equivalent of “go buy it now”. I like to think that Mark and I have a fairly interesting relationship in that I have moved from one of his loudest detractors to one of his larger fans. The Thorns trilogy was really not my thing, but I found The Red Queen’s War charming, fun, exciting, and very well written. When Mark announced that he had a new series coming out, in a completely new setting, I was excited. I looked forward to seeing if my enjoyment of Mark’s work would continue to grow, and maybe his new book would be his best yet. I was not ready for Red Sister.

Red Sister is of a fairly different style than Mark’s earlier books, but is still completely him. The book feels like the spiritual sibling to Name of the Wind and Blood Song, but might surpass them both for me.  The book tells the story of Nona, an orphan of sorts who enters into the Sisterhood – an order of battle nuns that specialize in training girls to be Sisters. Sisters are trained to be warriors, scholars, tacticians, and magic users all in the service of a well rounded education in being awesome. The book’s plot is character driven, revolving solely around Nona’s life and various challenges and events that confront her and how she handles them. Mark has always been an excellent character writer, and a focus on this as the driving force of the book was an excellent choice – as he has only gotten better. The cast is fantastic, and the book places a large emphasis on friendship and the development of relationships that really struck home for me. Red Sister takes place in a magic school of sorts, and the teachers are some of the best since Harry Potter. Their charismatic classes, weird personalities, and clear love of their students nailed my guilty pleasure of magical schools when it comes to fantasy.

The characters are phenomenal, but the world is no slouch either. In traditional Lawrence style, there are some interesting things going on in the world that I won’t spoil, but the magic system might be one of my favorite of all time. The world of Red Sister has four ‘schools of magic/powers,’ each based on bloodlines. People of the world are descended from four distinct groups, each with their own powerful traits. While most individuals have had so much mixing they do not have the powers of any, a small collection are still able to access the powers, abilities, and traits of their ancestors. Some of these people can even access to more than one. Gerants are gigantic, hunskas can move at extreme speeds, marjals have small unique magic powers that remind me of the x-men, and quantals can manipulate energy around them to powerful effects. Nona is a hunska – but we see action from all four and the interplay between these groups is some of the most exciting reading I have done in a long time.

Speaking of Nona and her hunska abilities, the combat in this book is astoundingly good. Red Sister would do Joe Abercrombie proud and has some of, if not the, best fighting I have ever read. As mentioned, hunskas can move at extreme speeds but they also can perceive time more slowly allowing them to assess their fighting as it happens. Nona’s ability to have an inner monologue of analysis while she is fighting for her life enhance the thrill and adrenaline of fights greatly. In one particular scene involving a test, I got so immersed in what was happening my significant other started shaking me because I had started screaming aloud without realizing it. The combat is that good.

Red Sister also feels like a kinder and more mature book than Mark’s earlier work. While it is not as grim or dark as his first two trilogies, it is certainly not a bastion of sunshine. In the past I have had minor difficulty following the plot of some of Mark’s books, but Red Sister strikes the perfect balance of keeping you in the know and letting mystery build. The book grounds you in the world, establishes the status quo quickly, but then centers you on Nona’s life as a focus. This allows for a great structure, but also leaves tons of room for Mark to improvise to keep things interesting (which he does in spades). In line with this, Red Sister tells a very full and satisfying story but it only feels like the tip of the iceberg. On finishing the last page I got the sense that he is just getting started and it is only going to get better from here.

I don’t actually have any criticisms for Red Sister. It is always possible for a book to be better, but I personally can’t think of a way I would improve Mark’s newest creation. It is definitely going to be a contender for my number one spot of 2017 and I suspect it is going to sweep the awards this year. 2017, the gauntlet has been thrown and the challenge has been sounded. Red Sister has set the bar high for fantasy this year and we shall have to see if anyone can meet it. The Quill to Live unequivocally recommends Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, go buy it now.

Rating: Red Sister – 10/10

Gilded Cage – A Glittering Debut

30258320I was going through the upcoming releases when I saw that one in particular, Gilded Cage by Vic James, was getting a lot of buzz. After taking an initial look at it, I acquired an ARC from netgalley and decided that it was likely going to be a book I was supposed to enjoy more than I did. You know the type, something that is hyped as the next Game of Throne or Harry Potter, but never lives up to the sell. So I tossed my copy on my to-be-read pile and forgot about it for a month. I eventually decided I could use a break from fantasy with some historical fiction and maybe see if Gilded Cage might be ok, and then I promptly had to eat my words and feelings because it is pretty damn good.

I say it is a historical fiction, but I realized near the end that it is more akin to an urban fantasy (look a lot of people were on horses and I jumped to conclusions about time periods, it is the present. My track record with this book is embarrassing). The story is set in a present day London, but with a radically different world than ours. In the world of Gilded Cage, there are two groups of people; the skilled (called equals) and everyone else. The skilled are those who can perform magic, and it sets them above their fellow man. The skilled are treated differently in every society (some that we hear snippets of, such as Americans who hunted their into extinction) but in London they formed an aristocracy that rules over the land. In England, in order to keep the economy afloat, each unskilled must submit to ten years of slavery at the time of their choosing. Some do it young, some do it old, but they all do it. The slavery can take the form of anything from back breaking manual labor in the textile industry to being the butler or personal slave of a skilled. But no matter what the experience is horrible and usually changes the person for the worst. Our protagonists are two families, one skilled and one unskilled. The skilled family is one of the leading aristocratic families, with an older son who is a brute, a sweet middle son who is unskilled, and a strange youngest son Silyen who is quiet and eerie but is unprecedentedly skilled at… well, skill. The second family is a group just entering their slave days, some in a back breaking shanty town and some at the gilded palace of the Skilled. The plot follows several POVs in each family and what a plot it is.

The prologue of the book left me a little disappointed and made me think that the story was going to be a melodramatic sob story, but once again I misjudged it. Despite the upsetting topic of slavery, Vic James does a great job exploring the horrors of the subject without being too over the top. In addition, the skilled families are painted with a variety of personalities and shades of grey that make it both easy to hate some and hard to hate others. The book’s primary strength definitely resides in its characters, both main and support. Almost every character is well fleshed out and interesting, but for now I will focus on the three main POVs. Silyen, as mentioned before, is the youngest and most skilled of one of families. He is unhappy with the status quo of the world and dislikes that skilled live lives of luxury while the unskilled do labor – but not for the reason you would expect. See Silyen isn’t a romantic revolutionary – he is obsessed with the skill and feels that the equal’s slavelord status has keep skill from improving. Abi is the oldest child of the unskilled family and is helping protect her family in a skilled household and dig up secrets on their reclusive kind. Finally, Luke is the middle child of the unskilled family and has been shipped off to the machine shops in the worst part of the country. There he joins a revolution fighting against the equals. All their stories are fun, exciting, and filled with twists and intrigue. I really enjoyed the plot and am excited for more.

The only major cons in the book were that the ending felt a bit abrupt and that some of the details of the world could be fleshed out a bit more. The ending is a huge cliffhanger and it left me feeling like I didn’t quite get a full book. However, it certainly left me wanting more and it isn’t going to stop me from picking up the sequel as soon as possible. In addition, I felt it hard to understand the time period and state of the world occasionally and I wish that the same level of attention given to building out the cast was spent on their surroundings.

Other than these minor nit pickings, the Gilded Cage delivered a much better story than i could have imagined and is well on its way to earning a spot on my best of 2017, and it is only February. Vic James has created a fascinating new entry into the fantasy genre that is hard to classify, other than as good. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you learn from my mistake and pick up and read Gilded Cage with little delay.

Rating: 8.0/10

Bone – Worn To The Bone

bone-completeAs I have mentioned in a few earlier posts, I am trying to branch out a little bit. One of the ways that this has taken form is in looking at new and interesting mediums, such as graphic novels, to read and experience fantasy. I got the chance to check out a few fantasy graphic novels, but invested most of my time into reading Bone, by Jeff Smith. Bone is a fairly well known nine book graphic novel series about a classic farm girl/boy fantasy tale starring a princess and three anthropomorphic bones, Fone, Phoney, and Smiley. The tale follows them as they leave their hometown to escape a riot and travel through a new kingdom filled with dragons, magic, and an age old conflict.

The set up sounds fairly run of the mill, but Bone stands out as a unique take on the classic fantasy hero’s journey. Fone Bone and Thorn, a human he meets right off the bat, are the two true protagonists and they both have a lot of depth to them. Bone is dripping with charm and atmosphere and has its own unique feel, one that I like very much. Smith has a clean and punny sense of humor that I really enjoy, and it makes most of the dialogue in the book excellent. I rarely found myself laughing out loud, but was often smiling to myself as I read the nine books. The cast of characters is quite large, but they are all very well developed and likable.

The quests and tasks that the cast have to endure are quirky and weird, but in a good way. Jeff Smith has a talent for taking concepts that seem childish and ridiculous and making them very enjoyable for an adult. For example, here are a few of the topics the novels cover: a massive cow race in which everyone enters cows to race against one human, an intricate economy based on eggs, a three story French mountain lion who takes hostages, and a romance for the ages between a human and an anthropomorphic bone. All of these things sound weird, but Smith makes them work really well – all giving Bone its unique fun flavor. One final positive, the art of the novel is also fantastic. Smith has a fairytale style that suited his story really well and I loved the art from start to finish.

Despite all these positive things, I had one major issue with the series. Bone is often regaled as being great because it was written as one cohesive planned out storyline, not nine separate episodic books, something rare for graphic novels. This supposedly makes the story feel much more fluid and well written compared to its compatriots. However, if this is the case, I wonder why I felt so bored with it toward the end. The fun feel of the books never diminished, but as Bone continued into its sixth, seventh, and onward installments I just felt like I was seeing the same plot arc over and over again. The rebellious princess remained rebellious, the trouble making cousin continued to learn nothing from past failures, the protagonists continued to have the patience of angels as the support cast wore on them, and the doomsday like antagonist continued to loom in the distance. In addition, when the resolution finally came in the final book I actually found it fairly anticlimactic – especially when I thought about how much build up went into it. Bone has an amazing world that I enjoyed being in, but I left it feeling like I wished more had happened.

If you had asked me to rate Bone when I was in the first three books, I would have given you something very high. The charming cast, world, and story are all delightful and I would hope everyone would check it out. But, as the books went on the plot started to wear on me until I found myself a little bored with it despite the world still being great. Bone is certainly worth checking out, but I think I will continue to look for alternative fantasy graphic novels that have plots I might enjoy more.

Rating: Bone – 6.5/10

Wrath – The Wrap Up

27411345I feel like I am trapped in a hundred ongoing series these days, so it is both relieving and alarming to actually finish one. I recently got to wrap up The Faithful and The Fallen, by John Gwynne, with the fourth and final book in the series, Wrath. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, I have talked about it before and even had an interview with Gwynne about it. The story is a classic fantasy tale about a farm boy with a destiny, but the twist is there are multiple metaphorical farm boys. The series has been the freshest addition to the genre since The Wheel of Time finished a few years back, but does the final book of the quartet continue the tradition of excellence or fall short?

The short answer is it does both, but let me take some time to lay out what I mean. The strengths of The Faithful and The Fallen (TFATF) are John Gwynne’s punchy short form narration, great characters driving the story, and a constant shifting of the balance of power between good and evil so that each is constantly clawing their way to be slightly above the other in strength every few chapters. These elements combine to make TFATF a fast and exciting read, despite the books actually being quite large. The story itself is not the most original of all time, a chosen one of the forces of good must fight the chosen one of the forces of evil – it actually reminded me a lot of the plot of Star Wars. However, the strengths mentioned earlier on make TFATF shine like a bright light in the landscape of similar books.

Wrath continues to have excellent characters, and Gwynne’s great short form narration, but i found that with TFATF I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. Wrath does a fantastic job ending the story of TFAFT, nicely closing off a ridiculous number of plot lines with elegance that makes it clear Gwynne planned out his series meticulously. That being said, I liked the build up and twists of all the stories much more than I enjoyed their actual conclusions. Wrath has a lot of major battles in it, and looking at what my fellow reviewers are saying, a lot of people like that! On the other hand, I found the personal stories of the 100+ characters in TFATF the reason I came back to the series over and over again, and Wrath feels much less like all the characters getting personal endings, and much more like a grand fireworks display.

Despite my earlier comments, I can’t hold any of my complaints against Wrath because all the elements I don’t like revolve around the fact that the story is ending. The real reason I am upset is that TFATF is over. It is such a funny thing that all of us complain how long some series take to finish,  but when I finish a great one like The Faithful and The Fallen I am heart broken that there won’t be more coming. John Gwynne has been very successful with his first series and has been talking about a new one coming out in the future, and I cannot wait to see what he has planned for us next.

Wrath – 7.5/10
The Faithful and The Fallen – 8.0/10

Super Extra Grande – ???

super_extra_grandeThe Quill to Live is approaching its 2nd birthday, and correct us if we are wrong, but I think we have proven we are pretty good at reviewing books. We have a diverse group of readers in the back slaving away reading books, compiling our thoughts, and synthesizing analysis as to whether or not a book is worth your time. I like to think we are getting good at breaking down and objectively thinking about the quality of books. However, this month we have read a book for our book club that calls our skills into question because a lot of us honestly can’t decide what we think of it.

Introducing Super Extra Grande, by Yoss, a short book about the life of a space veterinarian who specializes in very large animals. The book tells the story of Jan Amos Sangan Dongo, a boy who grew up to be quite large and decided to study animals who shared this trait. The book starts with him treating an animal, then spends some time talking about his life, and ends with him treating another large animal. In the course of these three events he exposes a lot of philosophy and world advice that runs the gamut from enlightening to offensive. The book is all over the place and each of us had a wildly different reaction. Due to this, we are casting aside our traditional synthesized opinion and breaking our reactions out:

Andrew –

I don’t get this book. At first I thought it was just a fun jaunt, but it got a little too offensive too quickly for me to enjoy it with just that mind set. It is highly misogynistic on paper, but by the end I started to realize that it might be satire that was completely going over my head. I really enjoyed the world building, but the setting seemed at odds with the protagonist whose outlook on everything seemed to come back to how it would benefit him. He seemed like he might be an unreliable narrator, but I genuinely couldn’t tell if that was intentional or not and it left me reeling. By the end I guess I enjoyed myself while reading the book. I was a fan of the large animals, but the commentary kinda left me upset. It puzzles and upsets me that I could read a book and my big thought when I come to the end is “I liked the animals”.

Will –

Super Extra Grande was a strange book for me. I’m normally not a fan of shorter books. I’m normally not a fan of unlikeable protagonists. I’m normally not a fan of sex (intercourse and gender) being such a major factor in the story, one way or another.

That’s where it get’s weird for me, because…well, I still don’t like those things but I really enjoyed Super Extra Grande. The protagonist was something of a misogynist, but it never felt mean-spirited or like he was trying to explain it away. I didn’t like him, but not only did I get the impression that I wasn’t supposed to, I felt almost as if the fact that he was mostly unlikeable was part of the commentary of the novel.

The juxtaposition of such a hilarious and fun concept (a future veterinarian who only deals with absurdly large and weird alien animals), with someone who seemed like the guy at the office that doesn’t really bother you on a personal level but you don’t want to spend a lot of time around really worked for me. It was reminiscent, to me, of the Alien films or the Star Wars franchise. Specifically the idea that even though it’s the future, people are still people and the problems of the world don’t really ever get solved so much as dealt with daily. I think that underlying message (at least that’s what I took from it), combined with a universe and story that reminds me of a hybrid of the Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stories really resonated with me. I don’t think everyone, or even most people, will like this book but I definitely recommend everyone at least check it out to form your own opinions.

Alex –

Super Extra Grande took time for me to orient in my head. The relationships that Dongo has with his secretaries initially bothered me because it didn’t explore them as people, and it saw them mostly as sex objects. However if your think about it in a satirical way, and see that as the most basic setup of the overall story line, it makes way more sense that he didn’t include more dialogue from the women in the book. Something that helped me orient my thoughts was actually reading reviews on both sides (highly positive and negative). The middle ground reviews were unhelpful, as this is a book that requires dissection and if you don’t dive in and break it down, you are going to bounce off. It’s a weird book and there was a lot that I liked, and not a whole lot that I loved. I almost want to read it a second time and see if I change my mind.

In conclusion, for once we don’t really have a recommendation for Super Extra Grande. Instead, we would love any readers who have read the book to tell us what they thought of it in the comments to this post because we are dying to hear more.

The Mirror Empire – Great Ideas Hurt By Bad Prose

20646731This is both a review for The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley, and a commentary on Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone, which was previously reviewed in a guest post by one of the editors (you can check out his great post here). I lump these two seemingly unrelated books together because I believe that they both suffer from the same problem: the author has built an amazing and interesting world with cool concepts and ideas, but the fun of it is sucked out by generally bad character writing and prose. Sorry to spoil my final synopsis in the introduction, but today I am going to be talking about how no matter how cool your book is – if all your characters are terrible I do not want to read it.

Let us start off with the good. The Mirror Empire has without a doubt one of my favorite magic systems I have ever read. The magic of the book is based on four moon/satellites that orbit the planet – waxing and waning on different schedules. Various mages and kingdoms are attuned to different moons, and their strength waxes and wanes with them – on average coming into power for 10ish years and then being powerless for the next ten with lots of overlap. What this does is create an extremely interesting setting of countries going to town on one another as they rise and fall in strength. It creates a very believable scenario where people are being invaded and invading others on a decade cycle that is unending and I love it. The plot of the book revolves around the small dark moon that no one thinks about coming into power for the first time in a long time, and how it is mixing up the landscape. Additionally, there is a parallel dimension where the moons have different alignments and different people have different powers and it all somehow comes into play making everything go topsy turvy. I say somehow because I did not finish The Mirror Empire, and stopped at about 50%.

If the last bit of the previous paragraph sounds confusing and overwhelming, than you would have the same feelings I did when I eventually put The Mirror Empire down.The book has a lot of great ideas floating around in it, but it feels like there are too many and that they bog down the plot and make it incomprehensible. I am ok with being in the dark and learning as I go – but when I hit the 50% mark and still didn’t really understand what was happening, and then Hurley introduced the fact that there were also going to be unexplained multiple dimensions in play, I felt overwhelmed and decided to just put the book down. This was also not helped by the fact that I did not enjoy any of the characters at all. They all seemed indistinguishable from one another to me, with the rare exception of a few being irritable to read about. I know that seems harsh but there is a lot more time spent developing the world in The Mirror Empire than the people. The characters feel like hollow vehicles that are used to push the plot along in order to showcase more cool ideas.

As mentioned, this is the same problem I ended up having with Two Serpent Rise, by Max Gladstone, despite my editor’s praise. The characters in the book just came off as truly unlikable, but mostly uninteresting. As a result, the book started to feel like a loosely threaded connection of cool ideas for a world that were stuffed into a book with no cohesion. However, those ideas are really, really cool. To give credit where credit is due, in both books I found the worlds amazing, and with a better cast I would be unsurprised to find them rising to the top of my recommendations.

Both of these books are prime examples of a personal cardinal rule for me as a reader. I will read, and love, a character driven book that has a boring backdrop hanging around it. However, no amount of cool settings will allow me to get past unrelatable characters. A book needs more than good ideas, it needs a cohesive and well written narrative to help those ideas grow and flourish. As a result, I ended up putting down The Mirror Empire and I do not recommend you pick it up.

Rating: The Mirror Empire – DNF