The Ember Blade – A Modern Lotr In Many Ways

51asw0iub3lIn a very strange twist of events this week I ended up talking to my father, who doesn’t read much fantasy, for several hours about Lord of the Rings. He was interested in some of the characters and wanted to talk through their motivations for a project he was doing. Over the course of the conversation, I was reminded just how powerful and well written Lord of the Rings is, as well as just how high a bar it set for all the books that followed. This is why The Ember Blade, by Chris Wooding (a favorite author of Quill for his Ketty Jay series), is such an accomplished book. If you heard me mention this book before, it was probably from our “best of” list earlier this month (found here), where The Ember Blade slide into 19th place as the final book I read this year before making the list.

As I mentioned in my brief description, The Ember Blade is not a particularly innovative book. The book follows a group of adventurers, who fall into the range of classic fantasy classes (ranger, thief, warrior, druid, bard, etc.) as they embark on a quest to find a legendary sword. The book is told from a number of POV’s, but primarily follows Aren – a fairly typical “farm boy with a destiny”. The plot feels like a reimagining of The Fellowship of the Ring, where a group of unlikely companions come together to do something with a relic of power to save the world. However, despite its clear similarities to the grandfather of all fantasy, The Ember Blade never feels like an out-and-out copy. Instead, the book feels like a new epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into, while paying tribute to the series that started the genre. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head.

The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. The conflict revolves around understandable tensions between two nations: The Krodan Empire and Ossia. Ossia was conquered and colonized by a martially superior Krodan Empire and currently is occupied and governed by the aforementioned nation. The Ember Blade, the namesake of the book, is a sword that essentially works like Excalibur (conveying kingship onto whoever holds it), and our group of characters set out to steal it and start a revolution. The relations between the two nations are interesting and nuanced and both Krodan and Ossia feel like they have a well-developed identity and culture. In addition, the magic in the book is often subtle (much like LotR), but when it is present it is both imaginative and exciting. It really is a world you can get lost in, which is good because there is a metric butt-load of time devoted to worldbuilding. Have I mentioned this book is absolutely massive at close to 900 pages? We will come back to that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the cast.

I honestly expected Wooding to trope out on his cast. With such a large set of characters, it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them. Which again, is good, because they would need to be engrossing to carry your attention through the 900 pages.

The only problem I really had with The Ember Blade was its (surprise, surprise) colossal length. It is really hard for me to objectively judge if the book was too long. Longer books often present difficulties for reviews as they eat away at the time that could have been spent reading shorter books to make additional content. That being said, I do think that the first 20% of the book is a bit drawn out due to slow pacing. The actual story of the book doesn’t start until page 200 – but those 200 pages are still perfectly enjoyable chapters that establish the cast. It is really that I just found myself much more engrossed in the book for the back 600 pages compared to the first 200. However, I firmly believe that this book is worth your time despite its huge size and slow start.

To reaffirm what Wooding himself said, The Ember Blade is a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective. The book does an incredible job of melding everything that made Lord of the Rings incredible with all of the lessons the genre has learned since to create a modern classic. Mark my words, The Ember Blade will rise to a must-read on most fantasy lists in the next ten years so if you want to be ahead of the curve go check it out as soon as possible.

Rating: The Ember Blade – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The Rise and Fall of DODO – Extinction Should Be Permanent

51DmqLz01PL._SX335_BO1204203200_I absolutely detest books that feel like work. I don’t mean books that make you work to understand and finish them, but books that remind you of what it is like to wake up in the morning to go to a job you find utterly dull and unsatisfying. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (DODO for short), by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, is one of those books. At a whopping 750 pages, it demands the reader’s time and rewards them with very little. As my previous reviews have shown, I can stick through a book – but folks, this one took a toll. It has a paper-thin plot, boring characters and a grating lack of tension. DODO fails as a satire of bureaucracy as it builds to a mediocre conclusion that feels like a lead into a more defined narrative.

DODO is the story of a government agency – D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations)- that uses magic to travel back in time and create an alternate reality similar to our own present-day world. The story follows historian and linguist Melisande Stokes who is recruited by Tristan, a handsome and mysterious government agent, to do translations of ancient documents detailing the use of magic. They discover that magic existed at one-point, but vanished sometime in 1850. When the pair discover that magic and quantum mechanics are intertwined, they set out to recruit a team of witches and quantum physicists. Quickly they discover they can travel back in time, but to change the present, they must go back several times and affect different universes so that the majority of realities accept the changes they have made. As the department grows, a shadowy but ill-defined government organization begins to take control, and internal tensions grow and D.O.D.O.’s as-yet unstated mission changes.

The story is mostly told through Melisande’s eyes in a series of journals from the past recounting D.O.D.O.’s activities. Melisande, as she is quick to point out, has been sent to the past just weeks before the event that stops the use of magic as most witches know it. While this is set up as the main conflict in the story, much of its narrative tension is quickly dissolved. The reader is consistently reminded of this problem, almost jokingly every several chapters. That way when it finally is remedied, the reader could say “gee that was certainly a close one”. Luckily, this monotonous pace is broken when the journals switch between other characters recounting events, each with a somewhat distinct voice. Over time, however, the various journals start to feel more superficial and thin. Each one has an opening style that is intended to divulge something about the character, such as a diary entry, or the beginning of a letter, but rarely is it deeper than a street puddle. On top of that, all the entries essentially recount how the writer watches other characters do things while rarely participating themselves. I often felt extremely removed from the story, as though I was watching a commentary track where the reviewer filmed themselves explaining the movie while watching the real film on mute.

Luckily, the reader is spared having to read the same event in detail whenever the past has to be revisited, but they still have to read about it. It is hard to put into words how tedious it felt reading about the same event several times. Each time the characters did their job just a little more cleanly, with a little more finesse than the last time. For the video game nerds out there, it felt a lot like watching someone else play Dark Souls. Frustrating watching another player slowly get better at fighting a particular boss until they beat it, but you got to share in zero of the accomplishment. Then you had to watch that process, again, and again and again. It was almost as if the book was made purposefully big and heavy to smash your skull literally and metaphorically. Luckily for you, I did not, but boy was I close.

The characters were equally uninspiring, feeling like cardboard cutouts of stock characters. Melisande is a shy bookish type who mostly stands in the corner, and besides her first trip back in time, rarely contributes. While most of the book is written from her point of view, she mostly recounts how everyone else was doing all the work. Tristan is the gallant and muscular, yet geeky, hero who has a cute butt that Melisande and the other women unfailingly and constantly mention in their own narratives. He is gentlemanly, learns how to fence and never fails to be charming. He knows how to get the job done and has no noticeable flaws. If he does not know something, he goes away to learn more about it and comes back with a software update. Erszebet, a sassy witch from the nineteenth century, could easily be the most interesting character but she is treated like a finicky mechanical device. She is the only plot adjacent character who has a legitimate stake and power in the book. She essentially slows down her aging process to meet Melisande in the present, after being warned by her in 1850 about the end of magic, in the hopes to bring it back. But ninety percent of the time she just stamps her feet till she gets threatened with “no more magic for you” and then sends people back in time. This could have easily led her to be an antagonist with a very good reason but gets put in the backseat halfway through the book.

Unfortunately, there are also many side characters, but they do not have personalities or attributes beyond their physical description. For instance, the coffee shop barista is described the same way every time she enters the scene to the point where I wanted to skip every paragraph in the café because I knew how they would be written. The characters failed to create any of the conflicts in the book, and much of the narrative tension happens off the page. The most present antagonism to the main characters is the agitation created by the increasing levels of bureaucracy within D.O.D.O. and is almost fully ignored to the point that it feels non-existent. None of the characters change or learn anything from their time at D.O.D.O. Their experience often felt like something that happened in their lives and continues to happen, but they get no excitement or fulfillment from it. The single character who presents any sort of threat only chooses to go turncoat at the end of the book, leaving me to wonder if there will be a sequel in which things actually happen.

The theme of the book felt like it was meant to be a satire of bureaucracy and the meaningless pursuits of those who control such a system. It was less a book about time travel and its potential problems, and more about how bureaucracy can take an exciting concept like time travel and turn it into a chore. It was clear that the authors had an idea of how they wanted to portray this, using emails from the HR department detailing proper acronyms, or hidden sound recordings, and the occasional dossier. The intention was to build out a system that would allow for a backward look at the organization, but it ended up feeling overwrought with many different styles. Each iteration feeling shallower and simpler in a way that hoped to piggyback off the reader’s feelings of those systems. It could have been a fascinating look at the minutiae of real life intersecting with magic while grinding down its characters. Instead, it is a monotonous chain of procedurally planning multiple trips to accomplish one uninspired goal. While these journeys would truthfully require heavy coordination and preparation, ultimately it fails as a satire because none of the characters care about the process or how it affects their plans, let alone whether the goal was achieved. No one wanted to improve anything, and they remain complacent enough to put up with all the red tape, while never even complaining about the struggles of their job. They accepted whatever happened and moved on to the next unimportant task. It felt like the authors built a delicate Rube-Goldberg machine, and then kicked it over halfway through its cycle, and then laughed at you for caring. It just made me fatigued.

In the end, DODO was flat out boring. Honestly, I think the events of the first one hundred and fifty pages feel analogous to the whole book, so if you decide to read it you can stop there. The whole book followed a cycle of building momentum and anticipation, only to reveal a weak and uninspiring result. It is possible that that was the authors’ goal, but even if it was, it did not accomplish anything. It did not have a bite that made me think “yes, this is how it feels!”. The characters were unaffected. Unlike me, they did not become angry, depressed, or annoyed, nor did they appear to feel cheated by having their efforts amount to such paltry results. There could have been a fun book here if the mechanics were played with. The ideas were genuinely intriguing, and if the characters had more blood and life to them, maybe the realism of magic and time travel could have been a good joke against them. Instead, I felt that the joke was on me and that makes me sad and tired. Luckily for you, I already put in all the work to let you know this book is a disappointment, so you can avoid that pain for yourself.

Rating: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – I would rather take a cheese grater to my eyes than read more of this/ 10.
-Alex

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – Borderlands Meets Ready Player One

SuitsDavid Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits takes off at an epic pace and never slows down. Really, this futuristic sci-fi fever dream treasure hunt reads like one long crescendo, with some tasteful dips and peaks and some dull moments. As near-future over-the-top sci-fi goes, the novel carves its own niche and tells an interesting story, even if it’s a bit shallow. Protagonist Zoey Ashe receives news of her estranged father’s death, then immediately dives into a world of booze, crime, and loads of money. While she knew of her father–and his insanely enormous bank account–she didn’t know him. Turns out he was essentially the Godfather of Tabula Ra$a (yeah, that’s how it’s spelled), a desert city that can best be categorized as Las Vegas amped up tenfold. He was unbelievably rich and left something in a vault that only Zoey can open. She’s whisked away into the juiced-up sin city by holographic text messages and muscle cars, tracked the entire time by the feed of an all-seeing crowdsourced social network.

Her adventure to open the vault flavors the novel with a veritable smorgasbord of sci-fi wonderment that’s slightly reminiscent of Ready Player One, but without the needless onslaught of 80s nostalgia. [Mild Spoiler] The vault actually turns out to be a MacGuffin, and the crux of the novel sees Zoey coming into her own as a cog in the gears of Tabula Ra$a. Zoey’s journey after the book’s first third launches her headfirst, and with little preparation, into a battle with artificially enhanced thugs and a supervillain. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits wastes no time introducing countless action tropes with fresh twists. But Zoey and the surrounding plot are vastly overshadowed by the sheer wonder of Tabula Ra$a. The city’s starring role cannot be undersold. Wong weaves a setting of unparalleled vibrancy. Tabula Ra$a, built on the backs of criminal millionaires and fun-seeking hooligans, bursts with light, color, and life. It’s the type of world that begs to be explorable in a video game, and Wong knows precisely how to play that angle with fitting descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, buildings, and politics.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits struggles, though, when it comes to character. Zoey herself is a premier example. She cracks jokes and engages in witty banter, but that’s her whole schtick. Wong often uses his female protagonist as an excuse for lackluster innuendos, which mostly fall flat. It doesn’t help that Zoey is way out of her league relative to the trendy, cunning elite that keeps her company throughout. Her father’s former employees all ooze perfection in one way or another. They’re all dressed to the nines and oddly amazing at what they do. In fact, each is painted as so infallible that even the interesting backstory they’re given does little to flesh them out into more than one-dimensional secret agent archetypes. There are a few exceptions to this rule; Zoey’s bodyguard, Armando, is the best of them. He provides comedic relief and boasts a relatable and human backstory. Still, exceptions like Armando just aren’t plentiful enough to salvage the tepid characterization.

Like Tabula Ra$a as a setting, the book’s plot plays into the quirky nature of Wong’s oddball near-future. When robotically/surgically enhanced thugs start causing trouble and terrorizing the city during a hunt for Zoey, she and her cast of spy sleuth action heroes have to take the offensive. To be clear, the plot works and fits just fine within the world, but this book could have easily been about Zoey dealing with her Dad’s death in a completely foreign environment while adapting to a new life, and I would’ve liked it just as much. Essentially, the plot serves as a decent device and not a pillar on which the book could stand alone.

On a more genre-related level, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits yearns to be appreciated as its own unique brand of sci-fi that encapsulates elements of modern times, super-feasible near-future gadgets, and insanely advanced technology. In this regard, it clicks, and Wong’s treatment of his world and the characters within makes for a serviceable start to what could be, with some polishes and tweaks, an amazing sci-fi saga. Of course, that’s if he decides to write it as a series. For now, the novel accomplishes a bevy of sci-fi tasks and falls short on others. With an interesting world and loads of action, it’s a worthwhile romp with its fair share of flaws.

Rating: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – 7.0/10
-Cole

Charmcaster And Soulbinder – Fun Is King

While updating my Goodreads reading status for Charmcaster and Soulbinder, books three and four of the YA Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell, I noticed an upsetting fact: Spellslinger has a depressingly small number of reviews for its high level of quality. I have already spoken at length about both book one and book two and mentioned how much I enjoyed them. Recently, Orbit publishing was kind enough to send me ARCs of the next two entries in the series (thank you to everyone at Orbit). I am happy to say that the books continue to be amazing and that I read Charmcaster in two days and Soulbinder in a single night. Now that I have spent four books in de Castell’s incredible world, I feel better prepared to talk about what makes this magical series.

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In short, they remind me of Harry Potter. When I make that claim, I do not mean to imply that the books have similar plots, settings, characters, or even magic – although both books do follow a prodigal wizard as he sets about trying to save the world from magic evildoers. When I say the books remind me of Harry Potter, what I actually mean is that Spellslinger has the same emotional urgency and investment that I felt Harry Potter had as a child. Both series have ok writing, a fairly simple plot, and lovable but slightly shallow characters. However, both series are written with some of the best pacings out of any books I have ever read, cannot be put down once they are started, and most importantly – are just a lot of damn fun.

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I was talking with a co-contributor yesterday as I tried to get my thoughts in order about Soulbinder. Essentially, my issue was I didn’t know what kind of rating to give the book. On the one hand, Soulbinder (and Charmcaster) aren’t even in the top five deepest books I have read this month. They don’t demonstrate prose that stands out in the fantasy landscape. They don’t feel like brilliant works of literature. But, they are possibly the books I enjoyed most in the entire last year. These books are simply a good time. The plot may be simple, but I was more invested in it than the various other webs of intrigue I have read this year. The characters might not be extremely deep, but dear god does Kellen resonate with me. I slip effortlessly into his shoes, understand his woes, and revel in his victories. The prose might not be on par with Tolkien in excellence, but the books make me laugh. They are extremely fun, from start to finish. And as my co-contributor so helpfully pointed out, isn’t that the most important thing about reading?

People read for a lot of reasons: fun, prestige, self-improvement, aesthetics, and more. There isn’t a better or worse motivation for picking up a book. However, I personally will take a book that is fun over any other quality any day of the week. Charmcaster and Soulbinder both deliver fun by the truckload, as do the first two books, and I would recommend them to any reader of any age. They aren’t going to astound you with literary brilliance, but you probably have so much fun reading them you won’t realize what time it is until it is 4:00 AM – and here at The Quill to Live, there is no higher standard of excellence than a book that results in irresponsible reading until the early morning hours on a workday.

Rating:
Charmcaster – 9.0/10
Soulbinder – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Monster Baru Cormorant – The New Face Of War

91mf49yikmlThe Monster Baru Cormorant, which I will call Monster for short henceforth, is the kind of book that damages friendships. The reason I say it will damage friendships is Monster is a book that some people will love and others will despise. It is a book that one friend will read, think it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened, and recommend to a second, who will think it’s highly overrated. This is not to say I have mixed feelings about the novel – I feel the book is most definitely excellent. As the second book in The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the book is one of the most anticipated books of the year and a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. However, I can just look at this book, look at the taste of some of my friends, and know that they will not enjoy it.

This review would be easier if I had reviewed the first book (which I didn’t like an idiot). The plot of these books have had so many twists and turns that it is impossible to talk about what happens in book two without ruining it – so let’s talk about the plot of book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Our story follows the prodigy Baru Cormorant, hence the mouthful of a title. She is a young girl from the island nation of Taranoke, and the plot follows the slow fall and incorporation of the Taranoke into The Empire of Masks – a huge empire that is slowly absorbing all the smaller countries around it through cultural warfare. This is particularly distasteful as Taranoke is a society that openly embraces homosexuality (Baru has gay fathers, and is herself a lesbian) and The Empire of Masks sees homosexuality as a deviance that must be rooted out. Thus, Baru is pulled away from her home and taken to a re-education school, where she is taught both how to be a model citizen and to control her “flaws”. This leads to her rising up the ranks of the empire as an imperial accountant – until she eventually begins a rebellion against them.

This is the general structure of the plot, but the focus is on Baru’s journey through a political minefield and the effectiveness of cultural warfare. There is a boatload of political intrigue, scheming, economic manipulations, conflict of ideas, and spycraft in these two books that are a blast to follow. Baru keeps you on the edge of your seat, giving you enough insight into her mind to grow attached to her, but not so much that you can predict her next move. They are chaoticly fun, messy, books that move at a whirlwind pace. In addition, the prose is also fantastic, with Dickinson being excellent at both lavish descriptions and powerful analogies. I found myself laughing out loud fairly regularly at some of the analogies in Monster. The characters are also phenomenal, even though they can be a bit confusing. All the cast feel like deep three dimensional characters you can sink your teeth into, but they can be a bit confusing due to their sheer number and the lack of textual reminders to their identities.

On top of all of this, the world that Dickinson has developed is one of the best in recent years. In order to sell the idea of cultural warfare, he had to do a great job developing the cultural identity of the players in the book – and at this, he succeeded in spades. Each of the various nations have clear identities that feel unique and original and you will find yourself burning to unlock the secrets of each location. The agents of the various countries do their best to ruin each others economy, annex colonies, introduce problematic ideas or fads, start civil wars, and create a slew of other fun disasters for each other that are just fantastic to watch. The conflicts, especially in Monster, make the series stand out in the fantasy landscape as a breath of fresh air.

So why did I say some people will hate it at the start. Well, for better or worse the book is pretty self-involved. In order to sell you on the various cultures, Dickinson goes full ham on his prose and descriptions. Everything is overly dramatic, poetic, and ostentatious. It creates a really nice aesthetic feel to the book if the reader is into it, but there is also a chance a different reader might reject it as being up its own ass. Someone out there is going to read this book, think it is the pinnacle of original excellent fantasy, and hand it to a friend who thinks it is pretentious garbage.

So where do I stand? Definitely more with the former reader. Seth Dickinson started something brilliant with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that he only improved and expanded on with The Monster Baru Cormorant. The level of attention to detail, execution of original ideas, and emotional arcs of the characters make Monster one of the better books I read this year – and one I would recommend to anyone. Although there is a small chance you may hate it, there is a much, much larger chance that it is one of the best books you have read in recent years.

Rating: The Monster Baru Cormorant – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

Port Of Shadows – Nefarious Nethers

port-of-shadows_fullOh boy, oh boy, a new Black Company book. The Quill to Live kinda had a ton of success on a large thought piece on The Black Company, by Glen Cook, so it is a special series to us (which can be found here, and I highly recommend you read our original piece instead if you are unfamiliar with this series). It is the grandfather of grimdark fantasy, a touching piece of fiction based on the Vietnam war, and one of our all-time favorite series. And, it just got a new addition to the series: Port of Shadows. The book takes place chronologically between books one and two in the original series, and details a side mission that The Company was tasked with while working under the Lady. But, before I get too far ahead of myself, let me give a big general rundown of this book to help ground you.

Port of Shadows is a hard book to review because you need a grounding in the full series to understand much of what I have to say about it. Along this line, despite taking place chronologically at the start of the series I would definitely wait until you had finished all 10 other books before you read it. While I enjoyed the book (review spoilers), it is definitely not for someone unfamiliar with the full series story and I think it would make an extremely unsatisfying read for anyone who hadn’t read the other books first. That being said, here is a general rundown of the plot.

The book follows The Black Company, a group of elite mercenaries, as they do a job for The Lady – a legendary tyrant and all around Big BadTM. The job is to camp out in a small city and locate the “Port of Shadows”, a woman who carries the blood of “The Dominator” (an even more ancient and evil tyrant) and to stop her from conceiving a child, as this would allow The Dominator to be reborn – something The Lady is very keen to avoid. The book essentially follows a huge number of the old cast, and many new characters, as they sit in this town, look for the Port, and react to things continually getting weirder. There are two timelines in the book: one that tells the story of a necromancer from many years prior and one that tells the story of the company. Although it is not immediately apparent how they are connected, they are unsurprisingly intertwined by the end. The story has all the hallmarks of the rest of the series: a terse but lovable protagonist, rampant unreliable narration, and extremely gritty violence and humor. However, the book does seem to lack a little more polish and substance than its sibling books.

The thing about Port of Shadows is it was a very enjoyable book for me as a Black Company fanboy but definitely left a lot to be desired as a reviewer. The book essentially exists to answer a number of lingering questions from the series (which I will not list as they are inherently spoilery). These are definitely questions I wanted to be answered, and I loved the deep context and detail that Cook goes into while answering them. However, the book kinda had abysmal pacing, and barely anything happens in its entirety. Most of the book is spent sitting around a table playing cards. While this feels authentic to The Black Company lifestyle, it does make the book feel a bit overlong and slow. Port of Shadows definitely evokes the same feelings of despair and brilliance in its writing that the other books in the series do, but it lacks urgency in its plot and I think that only someone heavily invested in the story as a whole will have the patience to see it through to the end.

In the end, I find it very difficult to give Port of Shadows a “fair” review. I personally loved it, but I only know a single other person who I think will agree with me (and he’s a writer for the site). The book continues to demonstrate Cook’s incredibly flexible, deep, and rich author voice – but also feels a bit like fan fiction written just for the superfans. Port of Shadows is a strange and flawed book, but I am very happy that it exists.

Rating: Port of Shadows – 7.0/10
-Andrew