The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn — Adventure Awaits

Alright, so I might have made a miscalculation. Back in (and I had to check my calendar to verify this because time has become meaningless) the distant year of 2018, I read a book called The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. I thought it was decent and showed promise, but I was not overwhelmingly enthused. As a result, I slept on the sequel, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, for months despite having a lovely ARC from Orbit, thinking to myself it will be there when I get to it. Now having actually read the second installment I am confronted with the fact that I really liked book two and might have done a disservice to the first book. Now, before you get your pitchforks, I want to caveat that this isn’t entirely my fault. After some reflection, I have isolated that a large portion of my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that despite being marketed as a heist story, the series isn’t a very good one. However, what it is, is a very good adventure hiding behind a heist story. Let me explain.

So why do the Kingdom of Grit books not work as heist novels? For two key reasons. The first is that the world, plot, and magic of the story are way too complicated for what usually works for a heist novel. There are too many moving pieces, too much information the reader needs to ingest, and too much leg work that needs to be done to make the twists feel gripping. There is just so much going on in these novels that any time there was a major reveal my reaction was less “gasp, that’s amazing” and more “okay, I am confused, please explain to me how that worked.” Not all heist stories need to be simple, but often the best ones revolve around clear foreshadowing, high reader buy-in, and a protagonist that always feels one step ahead. This brings me to reason number two: I don’t buy Ardor Benn as a genius crew master.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Benn as a character plenty. I just have a hard time seeing him as the incredible mastermind. Whitesides does not show me enough evidence that Benn has his act together. Most of the justification of Benn’s brilliance is through his arguably unearned reputation and Whitesides just telling the reader ‘he is really clever.’ Every person in the world talks about how they’ve heard of Benn’s incredible exploits, and Whitesides constantly tells us how clever Benn was in a situation without actually showing us. All of this made the series as a heist a hard sell for me, but, when we flip the paradigm upside down and look at the series as an adventure story, I would argue it works fabulously.

Here is a list of things I really like about this series that didn’t fit into my original expectations of what the story was:

  • It feels like an epic fantasy. The stakes are world ending, the cast is enormous, the world is well-realized, and the action is extremely exciting.
  • The world is super interesting. All the different factions, races, and historical events weave a veritable tapestry that you can use like a warm, heavy blanket. This is particularly true in the second book, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, where the pacing was much improved and I found myself gliding through a panoply of interesting developments.
  • I constantly hungered to learn more about the magic. A huge portion of the second book revolves around a team of scientists developing new magical spells to change the world and investigating the implications. It was awesome.
  • The expanded cast is fantastic, and it is great to take the emphasis away from Benn for the aforementioned reasons.
  • I am extremely invested in the greater plot, and so are the characters. What is interesting about my points and book two is a major portion of the story is about Benn realizing there is more to the world than cons and starting to try to change the world for the better. This theme resonated with me enormously, as you can hopefully see mirrored in this review.

All of this goodness splashes together to form a really enjoyable book with minor heist elements. When I came out of The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn I gave the book a decent score, said it was a promising debut, and went on my way. When I came out of The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn I sat down to brainstorm how to write a review that is a thinly veiled request to Orbit publishing to forgive me and send me a copy of book three, which is already out because Whitesides apparently writes an 800-page book every few months. It’s very rare I am this excited about the second book in a trilogy; this is worth your time.

Rating: The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn – 8.5/10

P.S. A slight aside. Orbit also seems to have updated the cover art from the version I have for my ARC, and I am a huge fan of the new art of the series.

Ten Arrows Of Iron — My Port Of Call

Alright full disclosure, I am only writing this review because I was provided a nice free ARC by Netgalley, and I feel bad that I never actually talked about the book. I was hoping to let Ten Arrows of Iron, the second book in The Grave of Empires series by Sam Sykes, quietly sail me by and depart into the sea of memory like a ship in the night. Alas, my guilt over not reviewing the book has sunk that ship like a shark tearing a hole into the hull of a vessel. The only way I could think to patch this boat was to just sit down and talk about the book and come up with some interesting things to say. Like how this new book is about ships, which I subtly eluded to with my crafty analogies that you definitely didn’t notice. So, let’s keep this simple and clean. My thoughts on Ten Arrows boil down to three key discussion points.

Point one: The book is still super fun and if you liked book one (Seven Blades in Black) you will probably like the second one. If you were to click this link it would take you to my review of the first book in this series, explain the majority of the plot to you, and show you that I generally liked Seven Blades in Black. It’s an explosive high-intensity romp with a cool world, likable cast, and interesting premise. The major complaints I had against book one were that it felt bloated (could use some page trimming) and a little convoluted. The good news for book two is that all the things I liked in book one are still there, the fat has been trimmed, and the plot has been streamlined. The bad news for Ten Arrows is that these previous issues have been replaced with more problematic ones.

Point two: This book gave me whiplash. The first issue I had with this book is it feels like it drops all of the previous progress and story we built up from book one on the floor like a giant lego ship that I took hours to assemble. It feels like Sykes wanted to go in a completely new direction with a fresh story for book two, which can work, but the transition between the two narratives is so non-existent it resembles the mega-yacht I tell my friends I have. The entire case of book one, excluding protagonist Sal the Cacophony, just gets up and leaves – and I am not speaking in metaphors here. They are replaced with an equally likable new support cast, but I don’t want the new cast that requires a reinvestment; I want the old cast I was already into. The plot of book two is also so different directionally that it just makes the plot of book one feel even more convoluted in hindsight, which somehow has retroactively made me like book one less. But although almost everything from book one feels like it has been scrapped, at least we got to keep our main lady Sal, am I right? Right?!

Point three: It is becoming increasingly obvious that Sal kinda blows. In Seven Blades in Black, Sal has a mysterious past (which is fairly easy to guess, but still fun) that adds a lot of intrigue and allure to her character. At the end of the book, the mystery gets formally revealed, and we go into Ten Arrows with our eyes wide open and fully aware of the stakes and history of our protagonist. But it turns out that this mystery and allure was doing a very good job of covering up the fact that Sal isn’t a very deep or interesting character. I do think she is more likable in the second installment of the series, which does show some form of growth. But she doesn’t feel like she has any real direction or characterization beyond what she is doing in the exact moment you are reading her, and she has a tendency to be a dick sometimes when asked very normal questions like “could you please not murder me?” Sykes clearly had grand plans for what her story would be and who she would become, but the books are so long, and the deepening of her character so infrequent, that this plan just doesn’t hold water – much like these boat metaphors. 

So do I recommend Ten Arrows Of Iron? I do, with great trepidation. If you liked Seven Blades in Black, which I did, then this installment is at its worst another 600+ pages of fun, raucous explosions and adventure. However, the new issues that have appeared on my radar (this is the final ship reference I promise) have sunk (I lied) any hopes I had of this being a ‘great’ series of this time period. There is still fun to be had, like when your ship pulls into port for shore-leave (yeah, I wasn’t even slightly truthful), but there is also the possibility you will realize that your time on the boat sucked and you are team landlubber for life.


Rating: Ten Arrows Of Iron – 6.0/10

Amid The Crowd of Stars – Bright, but Less Crowded Than I Hoped

Over the past few years I’ve moved away from the idea that science fiction is the genre of “big ideas.” It can be a good descriptor, but unless a specific topic is discussed within a specific book, I find it unhelpful. “It’s a book about big ideas” has become a meaningless phrase to me, and I’m a better reviewer for it. That being said, if a book is marketed or said to explore a distinct idea, well, it’s extremely hard for me to say no to that book. It’s partially why my TBR is just an unending pit and I just need a book that shows me why it’s okay to die with tasks unfinished (now that’s a BIG IDEA). So when I stumbled about the description for this next book, I just had to read it. Amid The Crowd of Stars, by Stephen Leigh, is a tightly focused novel about the ethics and implications of interstellar travel and colonization that rarely goes beyond its central concepts both to its benefit and detriment.

The novel follows Ichiko Aguilar, a Japanese scientist sent to  investigate an established colony, called Lupus, cut off from Earth for centuries. Once there, she takes it upon herself to research and record the societies that have developed in response to the environment they live in. Through her short trips she meets Saoirse Mullin, a member of the Mullin clan on the Inish isles, and daughter of the clan’s matriarch. Now that the colony has contact with people from Earth, Saoirse dreams of returning to humanity’s home. Unfortunately, the centuries upon the colonized planets have not been kind to the people there, and they may harbor diseases that could ruin life on Earth. Tests need to be completed and research to be done in order to ensure that both the people of Earth and those on Lupus will not harm each other. 

Firstly, Leigh’s exploration of the subject at hand is pretty thorough from a psychological and biological perspective. He wastes no time in setting up the stakes, diving right into the issues from the get go. Some readers might find it a bit jarring, especially with the minimal worldbuilding outside the colony, but it pulled me right in and focused on the smaller aspects of the story. The conversations surrounding the ethics of being exposed to alien biomes and becoming a part of them feel natural, even in their thought experiment format. Leigh mostly succeeds in making the central thesis a part of the story, and allows the characters and events to dictate the debate. Rarely did I ever feel like Leigh was building to a point, allowing the situation to play out instead of feeling like a lecture on why it should be done a specific way. Leigh, without succumbing to a dooming perspective, also did not limit his imagination when it came to implications and consequences. It was an intricate dance of grounded realism and fantastical “what ifs.” Leigh wrote a far more curious book than I was expecting and that warmed my critical heart. 

However, while it was a great exploration of “should we colonize alien biomes and forever change the internal makeup of some humans,” it’s hard to say it’s an excellent story. It’s not bad by any means, and often Leigh manages to make it compelling, but on it’s own it isn’t much to write home about. There is a lot of slow revealing of information over the course of the book, but rarely does it feel overtly impactful. The fact that the story is limited to two points of view when there are easily more than four different perspectives lessens the stakes in some ways. I realize that the goal was more the exploration of “exposure to alien DNA and its ramifications,” but at the same time I felt the focus was a little too narrow. There were definitely moments that could have thrown a wrench into the proceedings, but the story seemed to stop outside of the character’s perspectives at some points. If there had been a little more discussion outside earshot of Ichiko and Saoirse from the people on and off Lupus, the grander story would have been more intriguing to me.

Fortunately, Leigh is good at writing characters. Ichiko and Saoirse are both interesting and have internal lives that make their actions and concerns tangible and natural. Their individual stories made the book feel like a drama for the most part, instead of a thought experiment. The debate has a real effect on both their lives, and they each do their part to solve the problem. Saoirse especially feels daring and bold when it comes to increasing her chances at leaving the world of Lupus. Ichiko feels curious, and views the situation as an opportunity to learn while at times forgetting that the people of Lupus exist on their own. Their relationship to each other is dynamic, and Leigh does a great job of making it feel tense between them when there are secrets and implications. The author rightly makes this relationship the focal point of the debate, but as I said before sometimes it has a penchant for feeling like the only part that matters. 

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Amid the Crowd of Stars, but it also didn’t surpass my expectations. It’s a powerful thought experiment with a narrative window dressing, not a thrilling tale with a cleverly nested discourse. The two main characters feel alive, as do aspects of the world in the center of the book. The book also feels ripe for metaphors if you want to aggressively read into some of the subtler themes, particularly in relation to a sense of place within nature, but they also don’t feel purposeful. There is a lot to like about this book, and if you’re at all the kind of person who reads science fiction to better conceive of a future, it should be on your list. 

Rating: Amid the Crowd of Stars – 7.0/10


Winter’s Orbit – A Hot Romance With Subtlety And Gravity

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell, surprised me in a lot of ways. For starters, it is one of our Dark Horses for 2021, so I knew almost nothing about it other than its plot synopsis. Then there is the fact that I wasn’t particularly sure I would like Winter’s Orbit given its stated plot. It contains a lot of story elements I don’t particularly gravitate towards (romance, trauma, and arranged marriage to name a few), but I am also not adverse to. But when I dug in I found myself reading a book about characters that anyone can relate to, a story that is as clever as it is entertaining, and a novel that is likely going to be one of the strongest debuts of the year.

I would describe Winter’s Orbit as a romance first, science fiction political thriller second. The book follows two male protagonists, Kiem and Jainan – who are obviously going to fall in love. If you think this is a spoiler, I don’t know how to help you. The set up for their awkward relationship is a politically arranged marriage to save the Iskat Empire. The Iskat Empire has long dominated their system through treaties and political alliances – but is trying to pass a sort of galactic inspection in order to maintain their place on a larger scale. Part of this inspection involves Iskat proving that it is treating its vassal planets well and that people are happy. So when an unfortunate tragedy befalls Kiem’s cousin, Taam, and disrupts a high profile marriage between an Iskat prince and a Thean consort, there is a sudden rush to smooth things over and make it look like there aren’t any skeletons in the closet. Enter Kiem, a charismatic sop who has never done anything of any importance for his imperial family and has always been unimportant. He finds himself suddenly married to his cousin’s widow, Jainan, with instruction to just make it look like things are going well until the galactic auditor leaves. But, as Kiem and Jainan attempt to navigate their uniquely awkward situation they begin to suspect that Taam’s death may not have been an accident and try to sift through the political morass for the truth. 

One of the things I really like about Winter’s Orbit is its approach to romance. The focus is on the sweet and heartfelt parts of love – not the passionate lusty parts – though there is a presence of both. The story felt akin to an origin story of two best friends who are into each other sexually rather than some torrid affair that is supposed to get the reader hot and bothered. As someone who doesn’t like too much sex in his stories, this greatly appealed to me. I don’t care much for on-page boinking, but I do love affection and friendship. Orbit does a remarkable job showing what I think are the best parts of the relationship – those first moments you are getting to know someone and starting to feel that there is wonderful chemistry.

Speaking of chemistry, Kiem and Jainan are lovely. Kiem is boisterous, loud, charismatic, messy, and warm. Jainan is patient, tenacious, kind, quiet, calculating, and cerebral. They both are such interesting characters that don’t feel quite matched for one another, but Maxwell slowly maps out their powerful bond over the course of the book. The supporting cast is also fun, but most of our time is spent solely with the two lovebirds. The plot of the book has nice political elements that will keep you entertained – but the true appeal is definitely the romance. What is particularly impressive is how Maxwell parcels out and gifts the reader little pieces of Kiem and Jainan’s backstories while keeping you in the dark as to what exactly is going on. There is some very nice and subtle exploration of past trauma and relationship baggage that was extremely well handled and got me to sit back and just bask in how clever the writing was.

There was only one issue I ended up having with Winter’s Orbit is that it ends up having noticeably unbalanced POVs. For the first quarter of the book, there is this fun back and forth between the two leads as they assess and start to feel each other out. It’s very satisfying to hear both internal monologues back to back like a secret conversation that only the reader is hearing. But as the book progresses one POV (which will remain unnamed) starts to dominate the storytelling because of the needs of the narrative, and while it was still great, I definitely missed that powerful back and forth from the start of the book.

I was wildly impressed with Winter’s Orbit across the board: as a debut, as a romance, and as a strong contender for one of the best books of 2021. The characters are relatable and complex, the romance is different and compelling, and the world and politics are imaginative and fun. Cast aside any hesitation you have about this romantic story and give it a spin. I guarantee you will find yourself over a moon with joy.

Rating: Winter’s Orbit – 9.0/10

An Open Mind is… Well You Can Finish the Rest

Joe Abercrombie is an excellent writer. I welcome dispute, but I think you’re playing a losing hand if you disagree. He’s one of the easiest examples to point to when people mention Grimdark, and the only other king I recognize in that field is Glen Cook. They both write delightfully gritty fantasy stories about power in the hands of the wrong people, and each has a knack for crafting excellent characters. But there’s something engrossing about Abercrombie’s characters that makes them far more tragic than most other fantasy characters. I think there are three great things that make Abercrombie stand out from the pack and I’m going to dive into those below. I am going to do this without spoiling the books, but also provide some examples of what to look for.

First, Abercrombie lets his characters tell their own tale. I don’t mean this in the literal sense (i.e. a first-person POV), because Abercrombie often tells his tales from an informed third person perspective. What I mean is that the internal thoughts the reader is privy to, are often the characters reinforcing their own destinies. It feels more prevalent in The Age of Madness books, but essentially a lot of the characters believe in the future, and they are supposed to be a major part of it. Every decision they make is toward their end goal, and unforeseen reactions are often viewed as hiccups. It’s not that they are at fault for making their bed and lying in it, it’s that the people around them don’t understand what is truly at stake. It adds a level of authenticity that you don’t often encounter. I think a lot of writers manage this to some extent, but Abercrombie puts it front and center, almost shouting at the reader, “you reap what you sow.” Without getting too much into spoilers, Rikki’s long eye and how she uses it is the perfect example of him waving a red flag in the reader’s face.

Secondly, Abercrombie is the master of aphorisms. You know those cultural bits of wisdom that you’ve grown up hearing all your life as a reasonable argument as to why you can or can’t do something? Sayings like “money doesn’t grow on trees” or “let sleeping dogs lie.” You can barely go a chapter without him launching a trebuchet filled with them at you. What I love about Abercrombie’s aphorisms in particular is they are a reflection of sayings we ourselves use, just tailored for the world of The First Law. The most recognizable one being Glotka’s favorite phrase, “an open mind is like an open wound.” I still get chills whenever I see it because it perfectly defines Glotka’s outlook on everything. It instills a certain meaning to his life, and he repeats it to himself as much as he says it to others. These aphorisms appear in dialogue and internal monologues with every character. As with most aphorisms, they were not invented by the characters but passed down to them by the society they live in. It helps them weave their own tales and try to find their own niche within the future, whether it is something that they aim to create or is being constructed for them. I mean for god’s sake look at the titles of his books.

Okay, the third thing is not really a separate item. Rather, it’s how Abercrombie mixes these two skills together. It’s not just that he uses aphorisms to help the characters tell their tales, but how he also lets the characters hide their flaws behind them. How many times have you had to tell yourself some story that helps you move past some terrible event, or some unfortunate news? It’s not a bad thing, and sometimes it might even be a helpful coping mechanism that helps you heal. Sometimes it’s just a reframing of events that can take you out of the center of the story, so while it’s still painful, it’s not the universe enacting its will on you purposefully. All Abercrombie does is make that mechanism work against the characters, making the phrases toxic. As I alluded to earlier, all good outcomes are framed by the characters not as fortune, but outcome of will. Terrible outcomes are viewed not as personal blunders, but are often seen by the protagonists as someone else’s failings or sabotage. The aphorisms, since they are not internally spawned, allow them to cloak their actions in “common sense” or cultural wisdom. These aphorisms are taken as truth, regardless of their actual accuracy. They are authentic because they are repeated, not because they have borne fruit.

The tragedy of this internal storytelling using the language of the cultural zeitgeist, while shown well through the main characters, comes into sharper relief in two particular chapters within The Age of Madness books. Specifically, two chapters that focus on the normal people whose lives are affected or sometimes destroyed by the protagonist’s belief in “destiny.” While these chapters stand out by sharing the same appropriate title of “The Little People,” they showcase Abercrombie’s depth to a startling degree. While in some sense the main protagonists have a level of control, or veneer of control over their own lives, the little people don’t. They are here, and then they are gone. Their lives are brief flashes of pain, snuffed out in paragraphs, made worthy through Abercrombie’s deft writing, and incredible ability to make them relatable to the audience before killing them. They serve as contrast because while the protagonists make big mistakes that have small impact on their own lives, those same mistakes have massive consequences for these little people. They are made to taste the fruit borne of the most toxic aphorisms their society has produced to enforce their sense of place and meaning within the world. Sometimes, these aphorisms become their last words, shouted at in defiance, often in grim recognition of the deadly truth behind them.

Okay, so I lied in a way, there are four-ish reasons why Abercrombie is one of the best writers in fantasy. In the end though, Abercrombie isn’t a genius just because he can replicate speech and how people view their own lives internally. Abercrombie is one of the greats because he calls attention to it, and shows the power that cultural and personal storytelling have over everyone’s lives, and exactly who has to pay in order for specific stories to be true. One could say I’m reading too much into it, but I would argue that if you look at Abercombie’s work chronologically, it’s all too clear to me that he’s asking you to look deeper at everything, including his own work. The First Law trilogy holds a special place in my heart because of its all too human reveals about the nature of power, and who gets to tell the story, and Abercrombie could have just leaned on those themes again gotten away with it. Instead, he is very aware that readers are looking and he is playing the same game with you standing over his shoulder, but he manages to win again. And again. And again. Abercrombie is not only a master writer, he’s a magician, and you’re missing out if you aren’t reading his work.


Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars – Up Up and Away

Nearly three years ago, I read Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender Volume 1 Descender, starting with a reread of Tin Stars. The bad news: it’s not quite as polished as 2018-me remembers. The good news: Descender still stands out as an excellent sci-fi story. Descender Volume 1Tin Stars opens with a panoramic shot of a far-future society governed by the United Galactic Council (UGC). Nine planets comprise the Council, and they’ve achieved some semblance of peace between them. The serenity we see as readers only lasts for a short time, though. Nine gargantuan robots (later dubbed “Harvesters”) appear out of nowhere, and each one unleashes a devastating attack that razes the nine UGC planets before disappearing. Relations between the UGC planets largely dissolve, and the survivors carry on living as best they can. 10 years after the attacks, a child companion bot awakens from a long “sleep” on a mining colony. Tim-21 finds all residents of the mining colony dead and begins to explore the place he once called home. The UGC registers Tim-21 as an active bot once he awakens, discovering that elements of his codex (essentially robot DNA) match the codices of the Harvesters. The UGC sets out to recover Tim-21 alongside Dr. Quon, the purported inventor ot the Tim series, but they aren’t the only faction tracking him. 

Tin Stars opens the Descender saga with a hard-hitting question: how does a far-future society deal with a mass genocide? Further, how does that society respond when the enemy is seemingly indestructible and unidentifiable? This volume asks these questions early on, but it doesn’t answer them outright. Instead, Tim-21’s story begins to shed light on the civilization that existed pre-Harvester attacks. As Tim-21 reboots his memory, we are treated to vignettes of his past interlaced with his discovery of the present. Lemire and Nguyen are a hell of a pair, leading us along this tight-rope narrative even as the scope of the story bursts open to encompass galaxy-spanning conflicts. In the graphic novel format, this approach works extraordinarily well. We need a way to unlock those worldbuilding elements without being force-fed, and Tim-21 is an excellent educational device. Learning through the eyes of a naive character is no new SFF trope, and others have done it (sometimes even better). But it works so well here because there’s only so much a creator can do with limited word count and space for art. In this way, Tim-21 is both the main character and the chief avenue for worldbuilding. He serves both roles well, guided by the deft artistic hand of Dustin Nguyen and the narrative prowess of Jeff Lemire. 

Tin Stars features a diverse cast, most of whom are riveting. Lemire and Nguyen showcase a masterful grasp on what it takes to create a meaningful character. They inject juicy details into the story that essentially fast-forward the time it takes to become invested in a character’s story. Dr. Quon stands out here, as he seems reluctant to get involved in discovering the Harvesters’ history despite inventing the unit with which those Harvesters share robo-DNA (deoxy-ROBO-nucleic acid, as I’m calling it). Captain Telsa (NOT Tesla, as she’ll tell you), fills the hard-headed, all-business military role. But when we discover her father leads what’s left of the UGC, she becomes a softer, more relatable character who is bogged down by parental expectation. Then, of course, there’s Driller, a dumb robot who proclaims himself to be a killer on more than one occasion. He’s just plain fun. The characters at work here are the crowning achievement of Tin Stars, and they’re all masterfully portrayed by two clearly experienced storytellers. 

I felt all of this when I read Tin Stars in 2018, and in my head, I remembered it as a near-perfect story. I didn’t feel that way this time. As I read through Descender’s first volume, I noticed a few errors that jerked me away from the story. For example, the UGC is referenced at least once as “UGC Council,” which is effectively the same as saying “ATM Machine.” Captain Telsa corrects people’s pronunciation of her name more than once, but in some segments it is misspelled without the context of another character saying it wrong. None of these gripes spell doom for Descender in my mind. It’s just that in a world so artistically vibrant and narratively polished as we have here, those little details stand out.

Tin Stars clocks in at 160 pages, and if you’re like me, you can breeze through it in an hour or two. For that reason, it’s not super worthwhile to discuss the overarching plot for fear of spoilers. I will say, though, that the end of Tin Stars left me hankering for the next installment. Luckily, it’s sitting on my shelf now awaiting me. And this time, it won’t be three years before I jump into Volume 2

Rating: Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars – 9.0/10

Devices and Desires – Unalluring

710abl-mp8lAfter very positive experiences with a number of recent books by K.J. Parker, I decided to dive into the far back year of 2006 and read one of his larger, better known series – specifically his Engineer Trilogy. The first book in the set is Devices and Desires, and Parker describes the series as (and I am paraphrasing here) “a love story in which tens of thousands die. A story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. And he does them through the science of engineering.” I was intrigued, as I studied engineering and physics in college, and my previous track record with Parker buoyed up my hopes that this would be a knock out of the park hit for all kinds of readers. What I found instead is a very strange, very divisive, and very dense book that feels fairly divorced from the recent Parker novels I have read. I strongly suspect that a small number of people will consider this one of their top books ever, but the vast majority of readers are going to feel like they just read an Ikea manual.

The plot of Devices and Desires is such: In Parker’s world there is a technologically advanced city known as Mezentia. This Republic could probably conquer the world with their advanced weaponry and tech, but their bloated bureaucracy grinds all progress and planning to a halt. They have a set of strict guidelines for their citizens when it comes to making anything, and to alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes, our protagonist, finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery to improve its efficacy – because he is a genius. He is forced to use his considerable brilliance to flee Mezentia to neighboring countries. There, he begins a one-man campaign of terror to burn down the known world and its rules in order to be reunited with his beloved family.

Let’s take a quick look at what I liked about the book. The plot, in theory, is interesting. The book is mostly about Ziani going to other rival nations of Mezentia and giving them critical pieces of technology in order to bring them up to fighting speed and destabilize his home country. This tech isn’t just weapons; it includes everything from agriculture tech to joints for machinery. I enjoy how the prime drive of our protagonist is reuniting with his family, it was a nice change of pace. I like the humor in the book. The sections in Mezentia, in particular, are fun as we get to see this technologically advanced powerhouse get flattened by tiny petty people just being counterproductive cogs in the giant machine. I think that the themes are extremely on point. The book does a powerful job exploring the ideas like manufacturing, how things work, how important engineering is in warfare, and more. Parker definitely did a tremendous job exploring the ideas he set out to investigate.

Unfortunately, that is roughly where my praise stops and my complaints begin. First, while the themes are on point, they are also extremely boring. The book has the details and pacing of a 300-page manual in a language you don’t speak. This adherence to themes is a consistent aspect in Parker’s writing. When he commits to a theme, he commits to a theme. But the book is simply too large (and there are two more after Devices and Desires) to spend this much time explaining at a glacial pace how the vent for a blacksmith shop works. I thought I cared before I read this book…turns out I don’t. It was really fun for 150 pages, mildly entertaining for the next 150, and then for the next 300 I wanted to put my head in a smelter.

Then we have the characters. I use ‘characters’ liberally here because despite there being about 20 POVs, I only really saw two characters: Ziani and everyone else. I really cannot remember the name of any other character other than Ziani, and I only read this book 2 months ago. The personalities of everyone other than Ziani just run together depending on which country they are from. They all think and feel the same way and it all blends into this morass of sameness. Then we have Ziani, who is basically just a monster. His reaction to being separated from his family is to reduce the standing population of the world by 50% – instead of inventing a way to reunite with his family without ceaseless slaughter. He is generally unpleasant to be around, grating against every single character (and me the reader) he talks to. I think I was supposed to resonate with him as a man vs. the world, but instead, I found myself hoping he would get over himself and recoil at the horrors he was unleashing (I normally would say ‘realized the horrors he is unleashing’, but this little shit is very much aware what he’s doing). Finally, Ziani is narrated like he’s some sort of genius playing 4D chess with the world, and instead of making him feel cool, it is the nail in the coffin, making him just completely intolerable to be around. I hope book two starts with him falling into a woodchipper and is replaced with his more empathetic brother, Yiani, who always had the hots for Ziani’s wife.

Although I had issues with it, Devices and Desires certainly is a unique book – for better and worse. If you think you really like learning the technical details of a world down to the nuts and the bolts and have a hard-on for manufacturing you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I do not recommend you check out Devices and Desires – Parker has written much more enjoyable books that don’t require nearly the time investment.

Rating: Devices and Desires – 4.5/10

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Mostly Void, Partially Stars – Shines Bright In The Dark

41mlamwkznl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am a latecomer to Welcome to Night Vale, much to my shame. If you are unfamiliar with the famous podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a humor-based series about a small American town replete with supernatural happenings. The character who narrates the series is a small local radio jockey who does his best to report on the happenings and people of Night Vale. His delivery is dry as a desert and as ridiculous as possible.

The podcast has been going on for years, and there are hundreds of episodes, but the team has also put out a few books (the first of which is Mostly Void, Partially Stars) that contain written versions of sets of episodes. I decided to investigate both the first collection (MVPS) and listen to a number of episodes after I finished so that I could both review it as a novel and see if I missed anything by sticking to the written word. I discovered that both forms of the story are phenomenal, definitely worth your time, but have different strengths that will appeal differently depending on your taste.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars’ brilliance comes from two places – the masterful humor and the anally consistent worldbuilding that ties it all together. It makes the story something more than a series of jokes. The situations and scenarios of Night Vale are bizarre and the deadpan delivery is impossible not to laugh at. The first episode of the series talks about a new dog park that was recently installed by the town council that no one is allowed to enter, look at, be near for extended periods of time, and does not contain dogs. The delivery of this information made me laugh out loud while reading, which is quite rare for me.

But the real magic of the story is that there IS a story. While each chapter/episode of Night Vale feels like a standalone joke, there is a very clear through-line to all of them that starts to quite rapidly build a cohesive world, set of characters, and plot. It’s easy to use outlandishness to elicit a laugh, but it’s hard to do it while also being extremely consistent and meticulous in your outlandishness. I was very surprised when I started to get a very strong sense of the town and its inhabitants and started adjusting to the new normal of how they behaved and went about their day. That dog park I mentioned in the previous paragraph felt like a complete throwaway at the start of the series, but it continues to resurface and get updates as the series progresses until you are hoping that the next episode will contain a new hint of what the dog park actually is.

As to the differences between reading the books vs. listening to the podcasts, there are a few things to keep in mind. I ended up liking the books more because I liked the control of the pacing and digestion of the content. There is something about being able to control how I took the story in that made it resonate better with me and upped my enjoyment. However, there are elements of the podcast that you definitely do lose when reading instead of listening. Each episode of the podcast has musical components done by a huge range of artists and they really do add a lot to the ambiance. In addition, the delivery of the narrators in the podcast is masterful, and no voices I made up in my head will top the talented people that were selected to voice the characters. Which of these methods of consuming Night Vale most appeals will vary by individual, but I definitely do recommend you try it no matter which you fancy. You can’t go wrong.

The only hang-up I had with Night Vale was I found it hard to binge, despite wanting to very badly. The standalone nature of the episodes means they are ideal to be consumed here and there or once in a while, not in one 5 hour sitting. Discovering answers to the riddles of the town requires a very long term investment that will see you spending tens to hundreds of hours consuming content. That’s not a bad thing, as the content is very good (and funny) – it just means that if you are looking for quick answers, you are going to be disappointed.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is fantastic. It was funny, weird, and had a surprising amount of depth. I know most of you have likely already tried, and enjoyed, this cult phenomenon already – but those of you who haven’t should give it a shot. I now have over a hundred podcast episodes in my library waiting to listen too so I suddenly find myself looking forward to car rides in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Rating: Mostly Void, Partially Stars – 9.0/10

Across the Green Grass Fields – Series Meets Banality

Yet another wayward child discovers a world beyond her wildest dreams in Across the Green Grass Fields. Seanan McGuire’s sixth novella installment in the Wayward Children series hobbled across the finish line, leaving me to draw a personal conclusion: it’s time for me to part with this series. It may not be that time for you, though, and that’s okay. 

But before I dive into the “why” of it all, feel free to peruse my reviews of the previous five installments:

Maybe you’ve been around for a while and have already seen those reviews on the site. Or maybe you read them for the first time just now. Or maybe you clicked them and scrolled to see how I rated each installment. Whichever method you chose, you’ll have found that I generally enjoy Wayward Children, at least enough for those scores to average out to an 8. I stand by those scores, and I think there’s something very special about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children universe. It’s just not special for me anymore. 

We’re here to talk about Across the Green Grass Fields, though, and this is the book that finally sparked some much-needed introspection about the series. 

Regan is different. The other girls in her school are growing up faster than she is, blossoming in ways her body doesn’t yet comprehend. Her “best friend” Laurel sets forth strict limitations on what it means to be a girl, and anyone who does something too weird or boyish gets ostracized and isolated thanks to Laurel’s heavy restrictions. Regan has been able to fly under Laurel’s radar while keeping her intense love of horses relatively separate from the relationship. But as the other girls start to hit puberty, Regan’s differences from the other girls appear more starkly, and she asks her parents if there’s something wrong with her. They reveal that she is intersex, and that she won’t experience puberty in the same way that her classmates will. Regan confides this in Laurel, who immediately turns on Regan and calls her a “boy.” Regan runs from school and stumbles into another world through a forested doorway. In the Hooflands, Regan’s beloved equine friends rule: centaurs, kelpies, perytons, and unicorns inhabit the world. She falls in with a pack of centaurs for five years all the while slowly allowing her former life in our world to fade. 

This narrative arc shares many similarities with other Wayward Children installments. “Misfit child finding a gateway to a new world” is quite literally the premise of the series, though there’s always a healthy portion of “everything isn’t what it seems.” All of this rings true in Across the Green Grass Fields, but for me it felt like a veil had been lifted and I saw the series in a different way. 

Regan’s adventures in the Hooflands didn’t hook me. The world is packed with equine beings, and beyond simple facts and limitations (Centaurs and other hoofed creatures can’t climb trees, for example), they don’t feel any different from humans. You can read this as a commentary, a revelation that differences make us unique and lovable rather than lesser. But in Across the Green Grass Fields, this results in the Hooflands feeling more like a slightly altered reflection of our world rather than a completely new one. That aura cements itself even further as more of the world is revealed. McGuire does a lot of telling: there’s a Fair where centaurs sometimes meet with their husbands. You can buy pies and food and other treats at the Fair. You can trade goods. But precious few details actually serve to flesh out the world. The Hooflands becomes a half-complete fill-in-the-blank. I had the same issue with In an Absent Dream to a lesser extent, but Across the Green Grass Fields just didn’t sit right. 

I felt the same way about Regan. Talk about wasted potential. She’s an intersex protagonist who is obviously struggling to cope with her identity, but as soon as she reaches the Hooflands, much of that storyline disappears and she instead fully immerses herself into the world of the Centaurs and unicorns. All the while, there’s mention that Regan, as a human, must see the Queen, but only when it’s time. Humans only come to the Hooflands when the world needs saving, or so the legends say. But Regan and her flock of centaurs simply hide from the Queen for five years. After that time’s up, Regan seeks an audience with the Queen, who nobody has ever actually seen, and knots are tied up with rather hilarious speed. The novella rushes to a conclusion faster than any of its predecessors, and it left me wanting. 

Some of these gripes will inevitably be personal. If you’re enamored with horses and similar beasts, you may positively love this story. If you enjoy McGuire’s quickfire novella approach to the series, you’ll likely want to keep reading. But for me, Across the Green Grass Fields highlighted problems that I was previously content to overlook in the previous books: slow/minimal worldbuilding, compact narratives, and thin characters. That’s not to say all of those things are true for every Wayward Children book. But one or more of those problems appears in each one. The simple but big realization that happened for me was this: I’m reading these to add to my total book count for the year and not because I actually want to. And when that’s the feeling you get from a series, it’s time to migrate to greener pastures. 

An unconventional review? Absolutely. And I did that on purpose to make it abundantly clear that if you’ve enjoyed Wayward Children up to and including this book, you should by all means continue. There’s some fantastic work from McGuire here, and the book community’s love for this series is often well-earned. I’m no longer the audience for these books, though, and for that reason, it’s time to head back toward the epic fantasies I adore the most. As McGuire’s doorways all say, you have to “Be Sure.” And in this case, I am. 

Farewell, Wayward Children, and I wish you all the best. 

Rating: Across the Green Grass Fields – 6.5/10


Hall of Smoke – Give Me S’more

Hall of SmokeI’ve never been entirely enamored with Norse mythology. Or at least, I’ve never been exposed to it in a way that has subsumed me in the ways that Greek mythology has permeated a lot of western pop culture. When I get snippets, there is a small part of me that begins to crave, but I never fully take the plunge. Sure, I know few of the names of the gods, along with several denizens of their bestiary, but it’s not ingrained in my psyche like the Greek myths. So when I saw a debut author releasing a Norse inspired fantasy, I just had to put on the Dark Horse list. Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long, despite it’s rocky start, is a worthy read with the feel of a legend in the making.

The story follows the Eangi warrior priestess Hessa in her journey to earn back her goddess’ favor. Hessa recently fell out of Eang’s grace by not killing a traveller that stayed within her temple, as she was ordered to do. Hessa was just following hearth law, so the visitor came and went. While Hessa was waiting for a sign from Eang to know how to gain back her favor, Eang sent the very subtle omen of having her home village raided and burned down by a band of Algatt warriors. Her husband was killed and the survivors were enslaved, her goddess nowhere in sight. Hessa tries to fight back with what little fire of Eang she had within her, but she is ultimately captured herself. Hessa herself is then sold to Omaskat, the man her god demanded she kill. In a scuffle she breaks free, is whisked away by a river miles away from her home with only one goal in mind, vengeance.

There was a lot I like about this book, but before I get to that, I do want to address the main issue I ran into while trying to get into the story. The first third of the book was a slog for me. Generally, this is somewhat a me issue, since I generally dislike straight forward first person perspectives, but I just didn’t find Hessa all that compelling on her own. She’s a bit narrow minded and blind to the world around her beyond her duties to the Goddess Eang and preparing for the annual raiding parties by nearby tribes. It makes sense, but I just found it hard to care for the struggles she was facing. It didn’t help that a lot of her internal monologue felt very repetitive. The aspect I did enjoy the most about this time in the book was Long’s description of the environment. However, once the reader experiences the Gods Hessa has to contend with, the story kicks off and Hessa truly begins her journey.

Hessa really starts to shine once she encounters Nisien at a place known as Oulden’s Feet, named for the god of the Soulderni people. Here she has to contend with someone outside her village, and learn more about their ways. Nisien works as a good foil because he’s seen a lot of the world, since he used to be an auxiliary in the Arpa (similar to the Roman Empire) army. I particularly liked that meeting someone who was not a raider of her lands, and being cared for by them doesn’t really seem to change her, as much as it allows her to open up. Not long after meeting Nisien, the pantheon of Gods within Hall begins their parade, and what a parade it is. Long’s Norse themed gods were a delight, and the story she weaves within her tale is filled with nice twists and turns fueled by Hessa’s choices and the whims of the gods. Ogam, the son of Eang and Winter (yeah, THE WINTER) steals the show every time he shows up. He has an unmatched charisma and bravado that really sets him apart from the other humans and gods Hessa encounters. Every encounter she has with something in the world feels meaningful in a mythical way, and it became fun to just explore the land with her while she tries to carry out her mission of revenge.

The land itself feels alive and breathing. Obviously, there are many gods, and each one seems to have their own tribes of people worshipping them and carrying out their will in the mortal realm. There are conflicts spurned by belief, as much as there is acceptance in their existence. There is an ebb and flow to the land and the people that Long portrays quite well, even as it starts to fall apart. The regions felt solid, but breathable as if most of the people didn’t recognize any sort of borders (except for the Arpans) beyond their particular villages and places of worship. There is a map at the end of my copy, but personally, I think Long captures the feeling of knowing the land, without the map. There are places that Hessa feels comfortable in, and there are places that are mythical to her, even though they are not hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I truly felt transported to another world where the vastness of the world had yet to be realized by the people you were engaged with and it was magical.

Long has written a solid debut. Sure it has a rocky start, but if you stick with the story just a little bit, it will definitely be worth it. The descriptions of the land, and the people who inhabit it are fun and mesmerizing. The mythology is a blast in it’s own right, and Hessa’s journey through it truly is fantastic. I didn’t even get into how enjoyable the action scenes were, but I was honestly more impressed with the rest of the book. It is Hessa’s story, and Long does an admirable job of making the revelations feel like they are hers and not just an expansion of the world. If you are at all interested in Norse inspired fantasy, I definitely recommend you check out Hall of Smoke.

Rating: Hall of Smoke – 7.5/10

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