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

The Girl and the Stars – Not Exactly a Light in the Dark

I haven’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s work since Emperor of Thorns back in 2014. I was particularly put off by the final book in that trilogy, and I could not bother to pick up any of his later books, despite hearing reliable appraisals for them. It was just one of those rare instances where I gave up on following the conversation. So when Lawrence announced a new trilogy, I saw the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse with The Girl and the Stars

The book follows a teenage girl named Yaz. A member of the Ictha tribe, she’s reached an age where she has to pass the test that would solidify her within the tribe. The Ictha, along with other tribes, live within the northern icy regions of a planet called Abeth. There is not a lot of food, and no shelter as these tribes wander the frozen wastes, and only the fittest can survive. You couldn’t be too big, lest you eat too much food, and if you were too weak, you were a waste of energy to carry. So, children were tested, and those found wanting are tossed into a large pit within the ice. Yaz feels she will fail the test and be tossed into the hole. However, she passes, but her brother does not. As he is pushed down, she jumps without hesitation. At the bottom Yaz finds the Broken, a society made up of survivors of the fall. Unfortunately, they also have their own problems.

I’m going to rip the band-aid off right now. I had trouble with this book. Don’t get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff in here, but ultimately my experience was akin to Michael Bluth opening the famed paper bag in the freezer labeled “Dead dove do not eat:” “I don’t know what I expected.” I wouldn’t say Girl and the Stars is a bad book, but I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the world Lawrence built an incredible amount. Abeth is a really fantastic example of a new and interesting world. It’s a planet at the end of its ability to support human life, with undertones that the folks who live there are descendants of a space-faring human civilization, who have also forgotten that very fact. It’s such a satisfying and tasty seed from which to grow, and it scratches an itch and inflames a curiosity I haven’t had in a science fiction world for a while. 

However, while I enjoyed the end product and the horizons it presents, I did not like the actual worldbuilding in and of itself. Many reviews I read led me to believe that if I had not read Book of the Ancestor, I would miss nothing here. Now in some ways, this lack of context was interesting. The characters felt within their world, no need to explain the types of people that inhabited the wastes of Abeth. But with that also came a very distinct feeling that I should know, and therein lies the problem. Rarely do I reread paragraphs in books, but with Girl and the Stars, I found myself rereading whole chapters as if I missed something only to discover I was not missing anything from the text I had been given. Which leads me to my next gripe, Lawrence’s writing style. 

In this book, Lawrence writes from an informed third-person perspective, tied to Yaz. For half the book, this did not present problems. I often felt like I knew how Yaz was feeling and her immediate reactions to events. Unfortunately, Lawrence felt that this was occasionally limiting to describing what you might consider “cool events”. There are moments where, without warning, I was pulled out of Yaz into an out of body experience to witness something outside her senses, with narration to match. A paragraph later, I’m back with Yaz, my brain scrambled and without any greater context. This happened frequently enough to disrupt the whole experience, but not enough to build a pattern wherein I could expect it. It also felt as if sometimes this was used to hide information, moving the action forward without time to think about the implications of how something was said. It was incredibly jarring, especially when Lawrence eschewed all sense of place in an underground network of ice caverns by providing the barest minimum of descriptions. There was no sense of scale or understanding of where the characters were relative to anyone else. In some ways it can work, highlighting the labyrinth that is the underground, but Yaz doesn’t even mention it. Not even a single sentence of how confusing it would be to wander on her own without the help of the Broken. I just never got a sense of place or any sort of grounding, so the whole place just ran together.

Speaking of Yaz and the Broken, there was not a single character I could really get into – including Yaz herself. She seemed to fill the fairly typical YA female lead character role. She was indecisive, brash, and ended up finding a leadership role among an incredibly small group of folks to achieve her one goal – find her brother and leave, regardless of the harm caused to those around her. All the other characters could be defined using their name and a single sentence; and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t remember most of their names. I don’t want to skip over the fact that Yaz also seems to be entangled in a love square, but I also don’t have time or energy to get into that whole thing beyond the mere mention of it. I found the society of the Broken to be a cool concept, but we don’t get to see their lives. We don’t get to hear about how hard it is to scrape a living together at the bottom of the world. The reader is barely even given a hint to their struggles beyond “this guy wants war, and this lady doesn’t and it makes them mad at each other.” When characters died, the only thought in my head was “well that’s one less name to remember,” and that’s never a good thought to have. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate, I have not read Lawrence since 2014. I walked in with reservations, regardless of how open I was to the idea. I may have been led astray by other reviews in what to expect in terms of accessibility. You could even blame my fellow reviewers, people who know my opinions, and say “why would you do this?” All of those are very real points, and I think satisfying enough that if you like Lawrence, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl and the Stars. This was my experience as someone who has moved away from his work long enough to feel refreshed and ready to look at it with new eyes. So if you’ve had similar experiences in the past, the paper bag is best left unopened. If you’re newer and still curious, I would suggest starting somewhere else. 

Rating: The Girl and the Stars 5.0/10
-Alex 

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Fantasy Cop Throw Down – A Triple Review

I’m switching things up today and reviewing three books at once. Why? Because I accidentally read three fantasy cop stories in two weeks and I don’t think I have it in me to review each one separately, but I want to talk about all of them. So the question of the day is this: which of the following fantasy cop novels takes home the golden gumshoe? Is it a) The Last Smile In Sunder City by Luke Arnold, b) The Last Sun by K. D. Edwards, or c) Titan’s Day by Dan Stout? For full transparency, Sunder and Last Sun are both the first book in their respective series, while Titan’s Day is a sequel to Titanshade, a book I have already reviewed. It’s possible that because of this I came into this showdown with a favorite, but let it be known that I attempted to curtail my bias to the best of my ability.

Next, let’s establish some judging criteria. I want to keep this clean and easy, so I’ll judge the books on three categories: worldbuilding, plot, and characters. For worldbuilding, I am looking for reasons this story couldn’t just be a cop drama – show me a cool world that adds something to the story and tension. For the plot, I am looking for a mystery or drama that is exciting and keeps me guessing. For characters, I am looking (begging) for a cast that breaks out of the bottomless pit of cop tropes and tired cast members you can find in any cop show. Now, let’s meet our contestants.

Sunder City is about a former soldier turned PI named Fetch Phillips. He is searching for repentance in a ruined world that he had a hand in destroying. Years ago he was part of an army that accidentally ripped magic out of the world, badly disfiguring and killing the majority of fantasy creatures that lived in it. Now he tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined.

The Last Sun is about Rune Saint John, the last child of the fallen Sun Court. John is the last remaining member of an aristocratic Atlantean family. The Atlanteans are essentially high tech magical elves who resurfaced the continent of Atlantis to live alongside humans because they were bored (I am not doing it justice, but it’s complicated and not well explained). There are TONS of magical families in Atlantis with different powers, and John is hired to search for a missing son of one of the most prominent ones.

Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and tells the next chapter of Detective Carter – a good cop who isn’t afraid to do the right thing no matter what. This book follows the discovery of a new source of energy in an oil town that is desperate for something to restart its dying economy. While political factions squabble over the new lifeblood of the city, Carter single-mindedly pursues a seemingly unrelated murder case of a “candy”. He is forced to navigate political pressures and resist becoming a pawn in the struggles tipping the city toward anarchy. But when more innocent lives are lost and time runs short, he’s forced to decide if justice is worth sparking an all-out war in the streets during the biggest celebration of the year: Titan’s Day.

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Category one: worldbuilding. Worldbuilding (to me) in a fantasy cop story is more important than in a normal book. The author has to justify placing the story in a fantasy setting instead of just writing a piece of fiction. In addition, the best fantasy cop stories tie the investigation/crimes to the magic while making the worldbuilding clear enough that the reader can use it to solve the crime themselves. What I don’t want, is to read a cop story in a cool world where the magic is just a backdrop.

Sunder City starts us off strong by killing it with the worldbuilding. Luke Arnold has crafted an impressively detailed magical world then pulled the rug out from under it. He does a fantastic job of showing the reader how magic was a foundation that his society was built on – and how it crumpled, was rebuilt, and evolved once the magic disappeared. The worldbuilding is brilliantly interwoven with the mystery, and he empowers the reader to solve it themselves. Sunder City gets 4 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

The Last Sun, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. On the good hand, the world and magic are cool as heck. Each house has a different set of powers and there is a fun and inventive magic system involving the use of trinkets called “crests”. On the bad hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t quite feel coherent. It constantly feels like Edwards is giving the reader just enough information to get them through the current scene and that the world beyond the current situation is unfinished. I didn’t really believe the world was a real place. And while the magic was integral to the mystery of the plot, I didn’t really feel equipped to solve it. The Last Sun gets 2 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Titan’s Day likely had the strongest worldbuilding of the three, but I need to ding it slightly. If you read my review of the previous novel you will see that the series has an impressively well-realized world. Stout put an agonizing amount of detail into how his magic and worldbuilding are fused into the world and the story. The rules and restrictions of the magic are set down like laws and it empowers the reader wonderfully to enter the mind of the protagonist and solve the crimes. However, one thing I was unimpressed with was I did not feel like Titan’s Day did a good job expanding the world past the road that Titanshade paved for it. Titan’s Day gets 3 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

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Category two: plot. This one in my mind is the most subjective. I don’t have crystal clear criteria for the plot – but what I am hoping for is a story that isn’t predictable, is exciting, and has some good twists.

Sunder City has a perfectly serviceable plot, but it didn’t really impress me. The story focuses primarily on how the case takes Fetch through a cavalcade of situations that are difficult due to his involvement in the destruction of magic. The plot feels more like a vehicle for character growth than a good murder mystery. At the same time, it isn’t terrible, and there were a few good twists. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for plot.

The Last Sun was my frontrunner for plot. Despite the fact that the book didn’t set me up to solve the mystery myself, I was extremely invested in what was happening and urgently turning pages to find out what happened. In some ways, Edwards’ loose worldbuilding helped the book here as it provided a stronger sense of mystery and intrigue. In addition, The Last Sun has excellent combat and action scenes that put it at the top of the group in terms of excitement. The Last Sun gets 4 out of 5 for plot.

Titan’s Day continues to make this competition difficult by being complicated. On some level, I actually think Titan’s plot is phenomenal – but I am the wrong audience for it. Titan focuses on hyperrealism and trying to make the book feel like it uses real police work. I am sure there is someone out there who will really appreciate this, but it is not me. I found Titan’s Day’s plot boring — a rehash of the same exact story as Titanshade. The book felt like it had almost no growth whatsoever, and I didn’t like where it started. Titan’s Day gets 2 out of 5 for plot.

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Category three: characters. With characters, I am looking for all the usual hallmarks of good character design: depth, growth, relatability, and originality. In particular, I was hoping to see something beyond the usual tropes you see in every cop drama on TV.

Sunder City has good characters that pull you into the story. Fetch is a complicated person with some very believable demons. The slow reveal of his past over the course of the story is a masterclass example in how to control what information to give the reader when. On the other hand, the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sunder City is the Fetch show and it doesn’t feel like there is much room for anyone else. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for characters.

The Last Sun does well on characters. John is fun, relatable, original, and deep enough to stand out in this crowd. In addition, there is a plethora of supporting cast members who stand well on their own and do a lot to enhance the story. I was invested in almost every character who made it onto the page and I think Edwards killed it on their character writing. The Last Sun gets 5 out of 5 for characters.

Titan’s Day has terrible characters. I don’t know how else to phrase it. They are box standard tropes of the timeless cop identities. The characters have almost no depth. They demonstrate little to no growth over two entire books. I didn’t really like or care about any of them. After two books of no one growing or evolving, I found myself frustrated with the cast and considering giving up on the book entirely. Titan’s Day gets 1 out of 5 for characters.

Final Scores: The Last Sun just barely edges out The Last Smile In Sunder City to take my top spot of cop books I have read within the last two weeks – which is clearly a prestigious victory. Coming in way beneath both is Titan’s Day, which struggled to do anything with the excellent groundwork that Titanshade built. If I had compared Titanshade to the other two books I think the competition would have been a lot closer to a threeway tie – but I don’t think it would have taken the crown. Though each of these books has its strengths and weaknesses, The Last Sun is my recommendation for any of you looking for a good fantasy cop drama right now.

Rating:

The Last Sun – 7.5/10
The Last Smile In Sunder City – 7.0/10
Titan’s Day – 4.0/10

-Andrew

The Flight Of The Darkstar Dragon – Flight Of Fancy

51qrje8hdulAlright, let’s reveal a fun, embarrassing, personal fact. Ever since I was a young boy I have usually used the same moniker when playing videogames. As you might imagine, being a boy of about seven when I first came up with it, I was not particularly creative. I went with “Darkstar” because I thought it sounded cool as hell. Well, here we are decades later, and I still think the concept of a star made out of darkness sounds cool as hell. The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is a new self-published book by Benedict Patrick – who is better known for his other self-published book with a really long title: They Mostly Come Out at Night. When I saw a book with the word “Darkstar” in the title, I bought it without reading the back because of a) how bad could it be? And b) look at that kickass cover. This was the largest case of “judging a book by its cover” I have ever experienced… but you know what they say about that…

… That sometimes you make a fantastic decision. Flight is a portal fantasy, a genre I naturally gravitate away from. For those unfamiliar, portal fantasies are stories about individuals going through magical portals to other worlds and strange lands. Usually, they focus on the protagonist becoming instantly important for the unearned reason of having general basic knowledge from a different universe that makes them god-like in their new surroundings. Often, portal fantasies are lazy, poorly written, power fantasies that border on masturbatory – so I tend to give them a wide berth. However, that is definitely not always the case and there are a number of books I have seen that do more with the genre – and Flight is an example of that.

Flight is a fast-paced and well oiled short book that has a very clean plot and not a lot of worldbuilding. The story revolves around a ship that is ripped from their world into a strange parallel dimension with a dark star and a massive dragon. Their new surroundings are confusing, deadly, and fascinating – and the crew must cobble together a solution to get out of this dangerous realm before it kills them. They do this by exploring additional portals out of the ‘Darkstar Realm’ into other realities like interdimensional scavengers. That’s pretty much the whole plot.

On top of having a cut-down plot, the majority of the characters are shallow with the exception of the protagonist and a key support character. The POV character, Min, is great and shows growth – but the rest of her crew are definitely there just to support her story. So, with a thin plot, light worldbuilding, and simple cast – why do I like this book so much? It’s because Flight is a simple book that was written as a pet project out of love to explore one key theme – wanderlust. And it nails it. Flight is a story about how there is joy and fulfillment in making a living out of wandering the stars and seeing new and unknown. It is a story about how the universe is filled with more beauty than you can possibly imagine, and all you need to do to see it is go out and look.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is not an epic fantasy with every detail methodically written out, with epic prose and a once in a generation plot. And that’s ok. It is a short story investigating a wonderful theme with brilliant clarity and execution. I in absolutely no way regret my impulsive decision to pick up this book and I am overjoyed to find another example of portal fantasy done right. If you find joy when you look out at the wonders of our world, or if you want to, this is a book for you.

Rating: The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex