The Obsidian Tower – A Tall Success

50147675._sx0_sy0_The Obsidian Tower, by Melissa Caruso, is the first in a new spinoff series set in the Tethered Mage world. Normally, I am not one for spinoff series; I enjoy jumping into new worlds rather than returning to ones I know for what is often a B-list version of the original series I liked. However, in Caruso’s instance, I made an exception as she continued to expand the scope of her world and story from the original series and left a lot of room for exploration. In addition, her writing quality has improved with each book she has put out, and I was curious to see if this trend continued. So I decided to dig into The Obsidian Tower, and am happy to say it is a delightful book filled with delicious mysteries.

If you are new to Melissa Caruso’s work I recommend you start with her first book The Tethered Mage (reviewed here). But, if you just can’t wait to read The Obsidian Tower, it is a completely standalone series set sometime after Caruso’s initial series. Caruso’s world is one of rampant dangerous magic and antagonistic empires that love political cloak and dagger shenanigans. The protagonist of Obsidian is Ryx, a royal mage whose job is to guard the aforementioned obsidian tower that has been in her family for generations. No one knows what is inside it or what it does, but the family lore is quite clear on what her duties are – don’t let it be opened. Unsurprisingly, Ryx fails at this duty almost immediately at the start of the book, and the tower is breached. But what Ryx finds inside is confusing and puzzling, and sets off an exciting investigation as to what the purpose of the tower was and why was it sealed.

Caruso’s original series was primarily a political drama, with some romance splashed in on the side. The Obsidian Tower is a mystery book first, with a large side of political drama. I really enjoy this genre change-up and actually think that Caruso is a stronger mystery writer than she is a romance writer. The tower is a fun enigma, and I was very much invested in pulling apart its secrets. Caruso is very skillful in how she parcels out information, and the pacing of the book is excellent, constantly sitting at a low burn.

In addition, Ryx is an excellent protagonist who brings a lot to the table. For starters, she is a viviomancer – a magic-user whose power is directly entwined with the land her family controls. It is a unique and interesting magic that was used primarily by the antagonists in Caruso’s first series, and it is definitely fun seeing it used from the POV of the characters you are rooting for in Obsidian. Ryx has the added complication of her magic being “broken.” She had an accident while growing up, and it caused her magic to somehow go wrong. Now she is a magical Midas, siphoning the life energy out of anything near her and killing literally everything she touches. Caruso did a lot more with this premise than I was expecting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the story. Ryx essentially has to live like a combination of a cripple and leper – using specialized tools that she can’t break with her power and never coming near another human for fear of killing them. There is a nice exploration of what this does to her emotionally and I really enjoyed hearing a story from someone in this POV. A+ protagonist, sign me up for more.

However, I was less impressed with the supporting cast in Obsidian, especially compared to Caruso’s first series. The side characters consist of primarily three groups: 1) Ryx’s family members and servants, 2) envoys and ambassadors from various other political powers who are in her home for a summit, and 3) an independent group of mages from different countries who investigate magical disasters like a fantasy United Nations. There were a few interesting individuals from each of the three groups, but I found most of the supporting cast forgettable and wish they had more depth (like the large support cast in Caruso’s first series did). On the other hand, the worldbuilding and prose continue to improve with every book Caruso writes. Obsidian benefits massively from the groundwork that the previous series laid, but does a fantastic job expanding the maps and magic of the world. The prose is slightly better and I am constantly impressed by Caruso’s drive to improve and streamline her writing.

Overall, The Obsidian Tower is a great spinoff and fun for new and old fans of Caruso’s writing. The book is packed with fun mysteries and a highly original protagonist with a unique POV. The pacing and prose are good and I found almost nothing to complain about. The Quill to Live gives a warm recommendation that you check out The Obsidian Tower, and also Caruso’s previous books if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Rating: The Obsidian Tower – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Harrow The Ninth – Sure, Ok, Yeah

9781250313225God, it’s like assembling a fusion reactor without a manual. I am honestly surprised at my perceived commercial success of Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series. Not that it is bad in any way – in fact, we gave book one a stellar review and listed the series as one of our top Science Fantasy books of all time. It’s just that these books are so confusing that you will literally never understand what is happening, which is usually a huge turn off for most readers. I am pleasantly surprised that the general public has collectively decided these books are worth the time and effort.

So, Harrow The Ninth, the second book in the series, is coming out soon. You might be sitting on your couch right now, browsing this review on your phone, and thinking “oh a Harrow review, maybe he will say the books get less confusing.” Well reader, no, unfortunately, I cannot say that because I don’t understand half the plot, and the other half I do understand is basically all spoilers. And yet, I absolutely do recommend this stellar second installment of the series. This puts me in an awkward position because I usually use the plot and story as the foundation of why I like a book like Harrow the Ninth. Thus, much like The Locked Tomb’s storytelling, this review is going to be a little unorthodox.

So what can I tell you? Well, Harrow the Ninth picks up our story shortly after the end of book one from the perspective of the other half of the delectorable duo of Gideon and Harrow. If you are completely new to this series, in Gideon the Ninth our duo represents a tag team of warrior/bodyguard (Gideon) and space necromancer (Harrow) competing in a strange unorthodox game of sorts and told from the POV of Gideon.

In the second book, Harrow the Ninth, Harrow is the frontliner and it leads me to my next profoundly gushy thought about this series. Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure when flipping from the POV of Gideon to Harrow, and yet both styles have extremely excellent prose. This prose and style shift is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. It reminded me of my The Black Company, by Glen Cook, and if you have read my large thought piece on the series, you will know that is a good thing.

Harrow the Ninth is split into two narratives because Harrow essentially lobotomizes herself at the start of book for… reasons. This metaphorical icepick to the brain is a key factor in how Muir completely alters her prose to evoke Harrow’s POV. Half the story is a strange heavily changed retelling of book one, and the other half is Harrow trying to piece her mind back together post lobotomy. This means that Harrow is doing one of two things to the reader at all times: 1) actively lying about how events happened or 2) being so confused about what is going on that she might as well be lying. Harrow might win the award for the single most unreliable narrator in the world, and it’s amazing. See, Harrow the Ninth is less about telling a coherent narrative and much more about watching a character claw her way back to sanity – and at this, it succeeds magnificently.

Without a clear plot to coherently grasp, I feel like there was a lot of pressure on the characters and world to grab the reader hard. Luckily, both of these aspects of Harrow are phenomenal. The magic in The Locked Tomb continues to be the only series that uses necromancy as its main magic in a cool and innovative way. The blend of fantasy and science fiction is delightful and otherworldly. While I may still be very confused as to what is happening in the plot, book two does a lot to better at fleshing out the magic and technology of the world and puts a ton of cool new tools in the reader’s hands. The characters are also unsurprisingly phenomenal. Harrow is an all-star, and I actually think I like her more than Gideon. Gideon was complicated, amusing, and fun as a protagonist – but Harrow has uncharted depths that I just want to dive into. The supporting cast also continues to be a small set of well fleshed out foils. This book has a lot going for it.

However, I did have one small complaint about Harrow the Ninth that knocked it from getting a perfect score from me. As I mentioned before, a large portion of the narrative is devoted to an altered retelling of book one that has had a ton of facts changed due to Harrow’s brain damage. In the end, I very much understand why Muir added these sections to the story, but I feel that there was too much page space devoted to them. They add very specific elements to the atmosphere and character growth, but I don’t think they needed roughly 30-40% of the page space to do it, and some of the sections can drag. I definitely got the feeling of “why am I rereading this again” a few times.

Harrow the Ninth is a stunning, impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Rating: Harrow the Ninth – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Unconquerable Sun – It Will Brighten Your Day with a Nuclear Radiance

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never read a Kate Elliott book before. I didn’t even realize how prolific a writer she is until someone recently pointed it out to me. While I consider myself pretty adventurous, this definitely feels like a glaring blind spot. Absent literally any other segue, what caught my eyes about this book is it’s marketing tagline “gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” Normally, I don’t care for marketing, but something as simple and high concept as that will reel me in. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott, is a thrilling and intricate space opera that excels in worldbuilding and character development while delivering a relentlessly paced and heart-pounding plot. 

The book follows Sun, the current presumed heir to the Queen Marshall Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia. She just declared a major victory in a battle with one of the Republic’s oldest enemies, the Phene Empire, and is hoping to be announced as successor. However, her mother Eirene has other plans for her and sends her on a tour of the solar systems within Chaonian control. During this quasi victory parade/media relations tour, someone makes an attempt on Sun’s life, making her think a larger plot is afoot. Meanwhile, Persephone, a daughter of one of the major houses within the Chaonian court, is being roped back into the family’s political games after running away to the military academy. She doesn’t know what they have in store for her, and she wants no part of it as she becomes one of Sun’s Companions. As the intrigue of succession becomes more palpable, the Phene Empire and its sometimes friendly rival, the Yele League, plan for revenge to put the Republic of Chaonia back in its place. 

Let’s get this out of the way. Unconquerable Sun is a blast that glued my eyes to the page every time I opened it back up. Elliott spends an incredible amount of unwasted effort building the world her characters inhabit. She spreads a metric ass-ton of detail through the entire story, and does so with finesse, never bogging down the rest of the story. Elliott leaves no stone unturned as she describes everything from the military impact of a technology that enables interstellar travel, to the cultures that make up the different empires. Elliott adds a weight to the history of these galaxy-spanning empires I rarely experience, let alone find as captivating as the Republic of Chaonia and its struggle for autonomy. If I were to list everything I found cool about this book, it would take up several pages, but even that wouldn’t cover the effort Elliott goes through to make these little details add up and feel relevant to the story being told. 

Speaking of the plot, this book felt like riding a roller coaster while also spinning plates, and Elliott pulls it off. It’s bombastic, and constantly feels like the tension is rising. There are one or two moments of breathing room to allow the reader to digest everything happening, but I never felt that I couldn’t keep track of everything happening. Elliott really covers all the bases in Unconquerable Sun with political intrigue, chase scenes, one-on-one combat sections, epic space battles and powerful character dynamics that drive the emotional arcs of the main characters. On top of all that, the characters are wonderful to read, with more depth than I was expecting for something that already felt filled to the brim. I could lavish the rest of the review about Sun and Persephone and how fun and thoughtful the side characters were, but I’ll just say this: the characters are fantastic top to bottom in the book, and there are too many to really get in-depth about. 

Instead, I want to talk about Elliott’s writing, which is easily my favorite thing about this book, even after everything else I’ve mentioned. Her prose is not particularly flowery, but it is also more fleshed out than functional. Descriptions serve a purpose but add a little whimsy to everything to make it feel fantastical. However, her choice to tell Persephone’s story (and a few other side characters’ stories), through the first person, while telling Sun’s through a third person is absolutely masterful. I don’t know any other way to put it that is less gushing. It lent a human touch to Persephone and the people surrounding Sun while imbuing Sun with this mythic quality. The audience receives no inner monologue from Sun, dispelling any chance at understanding her doubts and fears. The reader is subject specifically to what Sun’s companions see, and what Elliott chooses to express in the third person. Because of that, Sun is an avatar of indomitable will, pure conviction, and ruthless cleverness. She will win, or die trying, and Sun does not try. Not only does Elliott manage to bestow this mythic quality on Sun, she tells you she is doing it, and got me rooting for her like some ecstatic fan all the same. 

Unconquerable Sun is not without fault, but the few issues I had were so inconsequential they were overpowered by everything I already mentioned. The book is through and through a delight to read. The world feels grounded but incredibly rich and new. The characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to, even Sun who always feels slightly distant. I cannot wait for the next book in the series, and I will definitely have to look at Elliott’s other books to fill the void. 

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10 

We Ride The Storm – All Prosed Up And Nowhere To Go

51gyn6ucmblSelf-published books are a really interesting conundrum. On one hand, they represent some of the best finds and recommendations a reviewer can make due to their unknown nature. On the other hand, while there are some very good self-published books, there are a lot of really bad ones. What is particularly exciting is when other reviewers, or publishing companies, find great self-published books and bring them into the limelight – doing the work of discovery for you. This is the case with We Ride The Storm, by Devin Madson, a finalist of Mark Lawrence’s self-published blog off and a new acquisition by Orbit publishing. I was excited to dive in when Orbit sent me an early review copy so I could lavish praise on this interesting new series, but I soon realized that would be complicated.

We Ride the Storm uses a classic epic fantasy format: three distinct POVs each tell a piece of a collective story, trading off the narrative lead in succession. First, we have Miko, a princess held captive by her step-father who resents her for her true lineage. Then we have Cassandra, an assassin with a ghost riding in her head with some addiction problems. Finally, we have Rah e’Torin, a warrior exiled to a foreign land who finds himself forced to fight in a war he has no stake in. These characters do a great job fleshing out different parts of the world and slowly building out a world-building tapestry that does a great job painting the Asian-inspired epic as a living and breathing place. The cultures do a nice mix of drawing from multiple Asian cultures, including Mongolian, but don’t rely too heavily on the real world. The various nations and peoples of Storm have their own flavor and flair, and it is a nice mix of old and new. However, while the world is pretty fantastic, the characters that live in it are not.

Each of the three protagonists I mention sounds engaging and exciting on paper, but ultimately they fall flat. As a reader who primarily seeks out character-driven stories, I struggled to enjoy Storm because I disliked almost every character. I enjoyed Cassandra the most, but she was still fairly irritating for most of the story. The other two leads (Rah and Miko) had interesting backstories but felt like they had zero agency for too much of the story. I really didn’t like the side cast members, and some of them did things that were almost offensively dumb. My personal favorite was when a character went into a throne room and committed really aggressive treason when he knew the penalty would be death. When he was asked what his plan was he essentially says “I didn’t have one, I guess I will die,” gets executed, then the book tries to paint it as tragic. No, I will not mourn that dumb-as-bricks idiot. Hard pass. And while I understand that each of the characters lacking control in their lives was a major theme of the story, it led to no one feeling like they had agency on the plot.

But, while I didn’t really connect with any of the cast, I was impressed with the mechanical writing of the story. Madson’s prose is surprisingly good for someone who has primarily self-published. The narrative has a perfect mix of detailed descriptions that aren’t too flowery but really pull you into the rooms, buildings, cities, and outdoor locales that the various characters visit. I was easily able to distract my frustrations with the cast by listening to Madson describe the beautiful and horrible sights you travel through in the course of the book.

We Ride the Storm was very much a mixed bag for me. My frustrations with the cast really hurt the chances this book was going to hit it off with me, but the world-building and prose did an impressive job keeping me invested and intrigued enough to finish it. I likely won’t be going back for a second installment of the series but if you like the characters I can definitely see why some people love this novel. However, it personally wasn’t for me.

Rating: We Ride the Storm – 4.5/10
-Andrew

Sea Change – Be That You Wish to See

Nancy Kress has been on my to-read list for a while. She has a weight to her name, especially when it comes to her treatment of genetics and bio-engineering. I have not made my way to her earlier works yet, but I was presented with an opportunity to read Sea Change, and I decided that something new could be a good entry point. Sea Change is a short read with overt themes, forcing readers to ponder the use of genetically modified foods in preparation for climate change. While I think it handles that discussion with care, I was not entirely enamored with the characters or the story itself. 

Sea Change is told through the perspective of Renata Black, an agent of the Org, an underground group of environmental activists, scientists, and farmers who are secretly working on GMO variants of food. After a biopharmaceutical company caused The Catastrophe, GMOs were banned in the United States, and continuing research on them was forced underground. Renata herself is an agent who runs communications between a small splinter cell within the Org. She is in charge of making sure that the secret laboratories stay functional and hidden. Communications are handled through a very specific shade of paint, Tiffany Teal, and in small personal groups to avoid widespread uncovering of the group’s activities. However, Renata is sure there is a mole within her cell, and it’s up to her to make sure the offender is found before real damage is done. 

I will be honest, it’s very hard to write about a book like this. If you have read some of my reviews over time, you’ll know I often try to parse through the work and talk about the author’s handling of their more overt themes, focusing on the characters and the development of the theme throughout the book. Sea Change is weird to me because I think Kress handles the themes very well in terms of overall portrayal; she does not beat around the bush when it comes to instilling a specific message. Kress presents facts in such a bare and blatant manner it’s hard to look away. However, I had trouble reconciling this with the rest of the story as portions of it fell flat from a narrative perspective. Chiefly, I had issues with the main character Renata Black. 

Renata Black never felt like a full character to me. Part of that might be an issue with the book’s length, but I felt as though a lot of it stemmed from her development. A lot of her dialogue is delivered in a straightforward and factual manner. Every event within her life has a cause and effect stated very plainly through the narration, and very often her interactions with people felt transactional. There is a distinct lack of internal life that felt disruptive and weird. This could have been interesting if Renata herself had something to hide, or she was ashamed of something she was defensive about. It inhabited this weird space where she was talking to the reader and monologuing to herself, but never really accomplishing either. In some ways, there was a lurking sense of depression, but it never really solidified. When she became suspicious of those around her, it just fell flat. I was not in her head, feeling her concerns. While Renata’s life and choices were interesting and daring on paper, I never felt like she was in danger. There was no thrill or anxiety, but neither was there the confidence that comes with experience. The only times I really felt her come through were when she dealt with the people of the Quinault Indian Nation, but even these sections though had a perfunctory vibe to them.  

That being said, I think Kress handles science in this book with a level reverence I rarely see. She spends time teaching the reader about the facts and engages with the arguments for and against the topic at hand. Kress does not get overly detailed to a point that turns the reader off, and she employs a laser-like focus when it’s necessary to press a point home. When she describes incredibly weird things within genetic traits that could cause massive problems or be enormous boons, it never feels like a lecture. Kress disengages from the usual “technology good/bad,” and instead contemplates who stands to benefit and who should be making decisions regarding the use of GMOs. It never feels like a clever “both sides” argument either as Kress shows that ordinary everyday people are most often hurt. Power discrepancies are rarely shown in this subtle, but unforgiving way and Kress handles it incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed this “fight with what you have” mentality that was imbued within the different members of the Org and the Quinault Nation. Even though we did not get to see much of the side characters, we at least got to see their strengths and callings be emphasized within their roles.In the rebel groups, everyone was necessary regardless of skill or ability, which felt incredibly important to highlight in the times we are currently living in.

If you’re looking for a book with a targeted message as well as an engaging and educational discussion of a real-world topic, Sea Change is definitely for you. However, if you’re looking for a thriller that tries to balance all of the plates while doing the above, I think this book falls a little short. It’s a decent narrative representation of the dangers and benefits of GMOs, but it can be tough if you don’t buy into Renata Black. Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to more of Kress’s work because of this. 

Rating: Sea Change: 7.0/10
Alex

Soulkeeper And Ravencaller – Bringing The Magic Back

41885689._sy475_Today, I’m reviewing Soulkeeper and Ravencaller, the first two books in The Keepers trilogy by David Dalglish. I read Soulkeeper a few months ago but decided to hold off on reviewing it until I read the sequel. This was because the books in this trilogy do not tell independent pieces of a story, but feel like one long book that was arbitrarily broken into multiple pieces. There are pros and cons to this strategy that I will get into later, but the first con to this style is that it makes reviewing sequels difficult. So I decided to take the time to read both parts of this series in order to give it a full review because it is definitely worth talking about.

The Keepers is an odd story in that it seems to eschew a number of traditional storytelling elements – in a good way. The premise of the story is this: humans have lived in relative peace and happiness for 1000 years under the guidance of the church of the Three Sisters. The church worships three very real deities that govern creations, life, and death in what feels like a reimagining of the fates from Greek Myth. The Sisters each have various wings of the church dedicated to them, and each wing has different day-to-day jobs that serve the people of the world. According to myth, The Sisters vanquished evil fantasy creatures of the world long ago and built a perfect world for humanity. Turns out that the Sisters actually just blinked all of the magic creatures out of the world, then froze them in time, but they have started to come back. And while they aren’t exactly evil like the lore says, they are definitely angry and looking to take out their rage on humanity.

51vv6wsr2lWhat is interesting about The Keepers is there isn’t really a road map to what the story is about, and it results in the narrative feeling very surprising, fresh, and delightful. There isn’t a clear cut good or bad side, and there isn’t a clear way forward. An outside influence shafted two groups of people who both wanted the same pieces of land, and because both groups hold a good claim to it, they started murdering one another. It feels like a fantasy take on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and while I don’t think The Keepers is going to provide the solution to a conflict that has lasted decades, I do think Dalglish approaches it with mindfulness and thoughtful exploration.

Our cast is a very large collection of character POVs from all sides of the conflict, but there is a focus on a trio from different wings of the Three Sister Church. Devin is a Soulkeeper, traveling through remote villages as a preacher and undertaker of sorts. Adria is a Mindkeeper, who functions as a priest and healer. Tommy is a Wise, a scholar who studies legends and lore to inform the present. Each of them is related through blood or marriage and each of them finds themselves awakening with magical power as the various magical races return to the world. The group acts as the voice of reason in the rising conflicts between human and magical beings, and they collect a number of allies, both human and magical, through the story as they try to keep everyone from killing one another. The three lead characters are all likable and relatable, but I would mostly describe them as inoffensive. I was much more attached to many of the magical side characters, like a sentient fireball named Puffy.

On top of an unusual plot, the series has incredible worldbuilding and magic. The lore, which is extremely relevant to the plot, feels very fleshed out and original. There are “schools” of magic in the world, and each has its own domain. My personal favorite school is “change magic,” which focuses on transmutation on a large and violent scale. One of the antagonists of the story, a magical being named Janus, is a master of this discipline and fights by changing everything he touches into horrific new substances. The fantasy races are also all imaginative and fun. The deer, rabbit, and owl people, in particular, tickled my fancy. In addition, the politics and bureaucracy of the story are well thought out to the point that they feel very believable while providing tons of roadblocks and speed bumps to easy conflict resolution between all the various sides.

Now that you have heard about all the good, let’s talk about some of the bad. First and foremost, I don’t like how The Keepers uses sex as this strange combination of currency and moral compass for the human characters. For the human protagonists, it feels like their “reward” for doing good deeds or saving the day is getting to bone someone. For the human antagonists, it feels like Dalglish is always showing us some horrible sex crime that they committed that indicates how evil they truly are. I thought the relationships, writing, and diverse ways the various characters paired off was well-handled – I just found it strangely discordant that there was so much focus on sex when the major themes of the book seemed to be focused elsewhere. Especially because sex is not used to break down barriers between any groups in conflict. However, there is an antagonist who is a straight-up incel, which felt like it added some interesting commentary. In addition, while I generally liked the prose of the books there were a handful of scenes that definitely felt like the writing was forced or awkward. The difficulties usually had to do with changing between set pieces or character objectives. Some of these transitions could have felt a lot more natural.

The Keepers is a very interesting and original series that most will find refreshing. I would recommend that you wait for all three parts of the trilogy to be out before picking it up, but definitely make sure to read it when you can. Soulkeeper and Ravencaller have some of the best worldbuilding and magic I have read this year, and every page feels filled with mystery and wonder. I know these books are a lot of pages to take on at once, but they are worth it.

Rating: The Keepers – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Kushiel’s Dart – Not My Fetish

51y9zn4wtel._sx310_bo1204203200_We have been recently cooking up a new series we are calling The Book Rookie, which you can find here. The idea behind it is that we pair a reader who is fairly new to the SFF genres, and one that is more well-read, and read breakout genre hits and have a discussion. I am one of the self-proclaimed “well-read” readers in the segment, but in the process of talking about the fantasy landscape as a whole, I realized I still have a few fantasy top hits I haven’t gotten around to reading. One of these genre favorites is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. So I thought to myself, “perfect, I will pick it up, read a guaranteed great book based on public sentiment, expand my list of recommendable female authors, and have an easy review.” That is not how things worked out.

I want to put my closing thoughts upfront this time so you can keep them in mind as you read the rest of the review. I think Kushiel’s Dart is a well-written book with excellent political intrigue and great worldbuilding. However, I think its extremely graphic sexual nature is inseparable from the story – and if you do not find the idea of masochistic play appealing, you are not going to enjoy it. I ended up quitting the book at about 50%, or about 500 pages in.

Our story follows Phèdre nó Delaunay, a woman sold into indentured servitude as a child. She is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with a Count of Monte Cristo-esque quest, and she is plunged face-first into a world of politics and court intrigue. The unique selling point of Phèdre that makes her different than all the other indentured sex slaves in the land, is she is pricked by Kushiel’s Dart (a small mote in her eye), chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Essentially, Phèdre has some nerve endings crossed by magic, and her pain and pleasure receptors are the same thing.

The initial part of the book follows Phèdre’s training in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, as she learns to be a courtesan and a spy. In this portion of the story, it is almost like a magical sex school and I was very much feeling the narrative. Phèdre is an interesting and likable character, and she is surrounded by an equally well fleshed-out cast. The names are a bit difficult to remember at first, but Carey put a lot of work into making every character have their own identity, which quickly helps the reader adapt to the naming conventions. I was very pleased, due to the book’s huge page count, to find that character growth starts early and the reader gets a real sense that Phèdre is being shaped by the world around her. She also feels like she has strong agency and a lot of ability to shape events around her with meaningful decisions and actions. Overall, Phèdre is a very solid character.

Phèdre’s set up is very clearly a convoluted set up to write BDSM and make it logically appropriate for the story and world. But, I will give Carey this, she sells it really well. The prose and poetic nature of Kushiel’s Dart is phenomenal – arguably some of the best prose I have read. Everything is poetic and descriptive and lush with details. To my delight, this made the worldbuilding and politics extremely immersive and expansive. To my displeasure, this made the sex and the torture (often the same thing) unpleasantly graphic. My biggest problem with the book was that over time, the focus starts to shift away from the world and politics, and to rapid-fire sex and torture scenes. In the first quarter of the book, the sex and violence make up what felt like 10-20% of the pages. By the end of the second quarter, the focus felt like it had shifted to be about 80% of page content going to BDSM. It was at this point that I found I couldn’t get away with skimming over Phèdre getting beaten and burned (and liking it) and still follow the plot, so I decided to call it.

If the idea of well written BDSM appeals to you, Kushiel’s Dart may be your next favorite book. Its prose is incredible, and the politics is up there with some of the best court intrigue fantasy I have read. However, if BDSM does not appeal to you, or if you don’t have any feelings about BDSM, then this book is probably not for you. Jacqueline Carey is a wonderful writer but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that this book is mostly sex and violence. It was an interesting reading experience, but Kushiel’s Dart was not for me.

Rating: Kushiel’s Dart – DNF/10
-Andrew

Gun Of The Dawn – Rise Up And Love

a1g9z73urdlIt has been an interesting week in America. We have been seeing unprecedented protests against corrupt authority figures and for the rights of Black Americans, and it has made it difficult to find the desire to write about books. Thankfully, I recently read Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which feels somewhat fitting to the current developing social situation. While not a perfect fit, it is the only book I have in my back pocket that feels appropriate to talk about this week. So let’s talk how about war, oppression, and greed are the worst and how there is nothing more precious than human life.

Guns of the Dawn is a standalone flintlock fantasy anti-war book. Our story follows Emily, a minor noblewoman of Lascanne – which feels like an allegory for the British during the revolutionary war. At the start of the book, Lascanne receives news that their neighboring country of Denland (who feel like an American colonies allegory) has, “selfishly and evilly risen up and killed their wonderful perfect monarch who never did anything bad ever”. The Lascanne news then begins to report that the Denlanders, now intent on remaking other countries in their republican image, are coming for Lascanne. This begins a protracted, slow, and costly war between the nations. As a result, the King of Lascanne begins drafting a few men from every household to join the army, then all men, then women.

The story of Dawn is divided essentially into three sections: pre-war (approx 20%), war (approx 65%), and post-war (approx 15%). All three of the sections of the book are good, but they come in two very different flavors. The pre-war and post-war sections feel like they are drawing from Pride and Prejudice. They paint a very impressive victorian-esque tale of Emily navigating political and familial challenges that stretch her intellectually and emotionally. I found it a well-written character growth based narrative. However, the war portion book reminds me of my all-time favorite anti-war book: Armor, by John Steakley.

The war portion still has some character elements but feels like its focus shifts to larger anti-war and anti-authoritarian themes and points that resonated more strongly with me. The war portion of the book has an excellent exploration of a number of topics that I really appreciated in the current social climate. One, in particular, was the idea of how effective propaganda is at convincing people of an alternate reality. Tchaikovsky spends a lot of time establishing how steeped in loyalist rhetoric Emily is for the first half of the book and then shows how it can result in complete denial of reality when presented with contradictory facts. Only through repeated exposure and slow deprogramming can Emily start to realize a lot of what she has learned has been a lie and (spoilers), unsurprisingly, the authority figure in charge of her country is a selfish monster.

While I liked all three sections of this book a lot, and think that Dawn has a very unique story and experience to offer its readers, I do think it has a major flaw. I don’t really think the two styles of the book blended together well at all. In reality, it felt like I read half of one book, changed to an entirely different book, then went back and finished the second half of the first book. Independently, I think I would have given both styles of the story a higher score than I will give them combine. In the end, I felt like they detracted more from each other than they added. I also ended up liking the war section a lot more, but that might be because of the current social context. The war sections felt a little heavier and more appropriate to what is going on in America right now.

Guns of the Dawn is a unique story with a lot of competing elements. It manages a delicate balance between character and theme focus and does an excellent job with both. The combination of victorian love story and anti-war paper is not quite seamless, but it is definitely interesting and original. I definitely recommend Guns of the Dawn, both as a generally enjoyable book and as somewhat topical for current events. It is a story that talks about the power of love and standing up for what is right at the same time, both of which are things we could use right now.

Rating: Guns of the Dawn – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Daytripper: Life in Snapshots

Twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá have inked their way into the graphic novel hall of fame with Daytripper. The Brazilian brothers crafted a genre-bending work of art that brought me joy from start to finish. 

Brás de Olivia Domingos writes endings–namely, obituaries. His dad is a world-famous writer, and Brás grapples with his own place in the world and whether he lives in his father’s shadow or will build on his father’s legacy. Daytripper follows Brás through his entire life, capturing little snapshots of the moments that have mattered to him. Each issue, collected here in a hefty but breezily readable volume, offers an impactful vignette that explores Brás’ life and death, as any reader will quickly find. 

Daytripper seems enshrined in an air of mystery, and some readers may feel the urge to “figure it out” or “solve” the riddles within. I recommend approaching it from a different angle: enjoy the stories of Daytripper as art, and live Brás’ life alongside him. Dwell on the details, but don’t parse them out with yarn and a bulletin board. Moon and Bá have a knack for putting a world–their worldon the page. The art, the characters, and the dialogue combine to form one powerhouse of a story chock-full of joy, loss, and sadness. The brothers have, in other words, condensed life onto the page. 

I won’t offer you much by way of a summary. Daytripper reads at a quick pace, and the stories within capture formative moments: first kiss, first love, the fading of friendship, having a child, and more. The volume’s back-cover blurb asks the question “But on the day that life begins, would he even notice?” Daytripper presents a number of possible contenders for the moment when life slaps you in the face and begs you to live it. 

But the point, as you may have guessed, is that none of these moments can possibly define a life. Instead, they shape it. Every day, new moments and fresh experiences glom onto the ever-shifting mold of your path through the universe, and you’re responsible for holding on to them or letting them pass. Nobody, no all-knowing force, will tell you when to pay attention, and Brás’ stories teach that lesson artfully. 

Daytripper offers some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel, and it’s matched exquisitely by deft characterization and poignant stories. I know this is ostensibly a review of the piece, but I hesitate to dive any deeper. Just as the graphic novel shows Brás’ personal journey, your reading of Daytripper will inevitably strike you in a different way than mine did for me. I loved it, and I hope you do too.

Rating: Daytripper – 9.0/10

Cuphead Carnival Chaos: A Gollywompin’ Good Time

When you see Cuphead Carnival Chaos on shelves, be they virtual or digital, you may ask yourself: who is this book for? Fair question. There are two answers. One is obvious, and the other is semi-obvious. The obvious answer: Cuphead Carnival Chaos is for fans of Cuphead. The semi-obvious answer is that this book is for kids. I know nothing about kids, other than having virtually identical hobbies to most elementary-level young-ins. Carnival Chaos won’t reinvigorate your love of prose, nor will it take your breath away with nuanced characters. You know what it will do, though? Make you exhale through your nose in that pseudo-laugh we all do when nobody else is around to laugh with us. 

So if you’re a kid (or you have one) who could use a fun little book, pick this one up. If you’re a Cuphead fan looking to dive deeper into the lore, then you probably look like this:

Anyway, to the book. Ron Bates does a wallopin’ good job at capturing the essence of the Inkwell Isles in Carnival Chaos. You’re on an adult fantasy/sci-fi review website, so if you’re reading this review I’ll just assume you fall into that Cuphead fan bucket I mentioned earlier. Here’s the skinny, fellow Cuphead fanatic: this book evokes the 1930s cartoony feel of the Cuphead universe. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s wacky. But it’s also–as I warned you–for kids. Cuphead Carnival Chaos expands on Cuphead’s world in tame ways. For example, Cuphead apparently goes to grade school (didn’t he make a deal with the Devil at a CASINO in the video game?!), loves baseball, and can’t resist the allure of an obviously villainous carnival that just happens to show up on the day of Elder Kettle’s surprise birthday party. 

Carnival Chaos’ paper-thin plot is just fine, to be honest. Cuphead and his pal (actually his brother, but you can be friends with your brother, I think my sister considers me a friend… anyway) Mugman are tasked with buying Elder Kettle a gift, but the temptations of the titular carnival whisk them away into a world of treachery, thievery, and classic carney scams. The story serves more as a vehicle through which we experience the Inkwell Isles and their many wonders than it does as a worthwhile narrative, and that’s okay in a book marketed to kids and that nerd pictured above. 

When you pick up Carnival Chaos, you’ll be treated to such verbal morsels as “humdinger” and “gollywompers.” Bates plays around with language in a way completely befitting Cuphead’s signature style. My eyes awooo-gah-ed out of their sockets a few times to appreciate the linguistic inventions on the page. The imagery packs a punch, too. I remember one segment vividly, in which Cuphead is a nickel short when he’s paying for an item. He reaches into his pocket and his hand, walking like a person using the index and middle fingers as legs, traipses through “pocket world,” a literal universe made of lint in his pocket. The hand asks one of pocket world’s citizens for a coin. The linty denizens oblige, and I can only assume Cuphead is their god and is swindling them and/or dropping huge metal discs onto the poor saps. But damn if that visual isn’t striking as heckaroo. 

I have one gripe with Carnival Chaos, and it has nothing to do with the writing, story, or characters. My edition of the novel skipped from page 220 to 253. From there, it continued through to the end, then resumed on page 221 after the author bio. Unless this is some late-90s choose your own adventure BS (trust me, it’s not), it’s just a blatant misprint. I sat, shook, staring blankly at the page and wondering what I had missed for about five minutes before I realized the error. And I’m a 28-year-old man. Maybe sharp-minded youth will notice the issue faster, but buyer beware. 

Carnival Chaos, like its video game source material, is fun and wacky. As a kids’ book, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly difficult as the game is, but it does offer a bright story that showcases author Ron Bates’ respect for the Cuphead universe. He had “too much fun” writing the book, according to his bio appearing smack-dab in the middle of the story, and it shows even beyond the misprint. 

Rating: Cuphead Carnival Chaos – 8.0/10