Amberlough – Cabar-OK

310226cac27c16c221408af59517ff1cSo I debated whether or not to even review this book because I think my net summary is “it wasn’t for me”. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, is the first book in The Amberlough Dossier, and has a cool concept: fantasy spy thriller that revolves around a cabaret. I am really big on the fantasy spy novels so I decided to check it out… and found that I didn’t like a lot of things I probably should have expected from the synopsis. I will go into all of this in detail, but let’s first talk about the plot.

Amberlough follows three character POVs: Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia. They live in a time of upheaval and change in the city of Amberlough and all have connections to the Bee cabaret. Cyril is a government spy (and patron of the Bee), taken off active duty for a traumatic injury, but is being sent back out in the field. Aristide is a showman at the Bee at night, and a smuggler by… also night, he doesn’t have a lot of work/life balance. Cordelia is a dancer at the Bee and is looking to move up in a turbulent world. All of them are dealing with the fact that a right wing religious movement is sweeping through Amberlough and trying to destroy their heathen lifestyles.

A major pillar of the book’s story is that Cyril and Aristide are in love, but their jobs keep either of them from admitting it to one another. A lot of people I talked to found this really romantic, but I frankly found it frustrating that their entire stories could be resolved by the two of them admitting they had feelings for one another. Cordelia is the odd man (woman) out here. Her story felt a little aimless at the start, but midway through she finds herself embroiled with the underground politics that Cyril and Aristide participate in. In terms of character writing, both Aristide and Cordelia were a lot of fun – but Cyril was not amazing. He constantly feels like he is just reacting (poorly) to the world around him and he didn’t do a lot to get me routing for him other than dating Aristide (which made me want him to survive only to keep Aristide happy).

For a book that promised a fantasy spy thriller, there was surprisingly little of either. The only real fantasy element of the book is that it takes place in a different world, but it is clearly based on pre-Nazi Germany and I don’t really get why the author didn’t just write a more standard fiction. There were a few moments of spy craft, in particular a 30 page stint of Cyril in the field. However, most of the book is really about talking about talking about the threat of Nazis and then trying to not die to Nazis. There was also an aggressive amount of sex in the books. I don’t really know what I expected when I picked up a book surrounding cabaret, so this one is on me, but it felt like so much page space was devoted to sex scenes that there was not enough room to do other things like develop the plot.

Despite all these comments, I did stick with Amberlough to the end out of a curiosity to see what happened to the characters. Cordelia in particular seems like she is being set up to become someone incredible and I am pretty curious to see where her story goes (and she might be enough to get me to pick up book two). She had some really nice character development over the course of the book and she seems like a clever girl with a lot of potential to wreak havoc during a Nazi occupation. However, Cyril feels kind of like a millstone around my neck and will likely keep me from continuing with the series. I am sure that there are a number of people out there who will love this, but sometimes it is important to know when to look at something and say “this isn’t for me”.

Rating: Amberlough – 5.0/10
-Andrew

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Circe – Improving On Perfection

202009_1329888I am super tired of hearing about Odysseus. Look, he was an incredible hero of popular lore, and his story is great, but holy hells has his tale been retold a lot of times. My personal favorite version of his story is actually the trilogy by David Gemmell, starting with Lord of the Silver Bow, and I sincerely doubt anyone can top it so could we all just stop trying to retell the story of Odysseus… is what I would have said about a month ago if you asked, but then I read Circe, by Madeline Miller. Honestly, I am kinda late to the game to this one due to my reservations, and you probably know all about this, but I feel obligated to talk about it anyway because man is this a good book. Review spoilers, this thing is a hard 10/10 and everyone should read it, but I will still go through the motions like the consummate professional that I am.

Circe is one of those books that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. Apparently Madeline is famous for a different incredible historical fiction she wrote about Achilles, and I just missed the memo. However, I am here now to give my two cents: which are that everyone is right, Madeline is the real deal. Circe follows the story of, unsurprisingly, Circe – the witch that helps Odysseus in his travels. I was vaguely aware of her full story going into the novel, but Madeline somehow managed to both keep true to the tales and make me feel like I was reading Greek myths for the first time. Circe’s story starts with her time on Olympus, and catalogues her life among the gods until her eventual exile. That part covers the first half of the book, with the second following her relationship to Odysseus.

Really, the main selling point of this book is that it might have the best prose I have ever read. Her use of words is on par with any of the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing, but still feel very true.

The other thing that helps this book stand out is that it’s one of the few Greek myth novels I have read that treats the gods as more than a vague catalyst. The Greek gods are often humanized well, but they usually exist to force the actions of heroes in stories and are honestly rarely explored themselves. Circe gives a fascinating look into the daily life and politics of Mount Olympus that had me engrossed. I felt the same joy reading this book as I did as a young boy hearing about the Greek pantheon for the first time.

Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career. I know I am late to this party, but if any of you are holding out on this popular book because you think it is overhyped: take it from a hold out – Circe is the real deal.

Rating: Circe – 10/10
-Andrew

Rogue Protocol – She Can’t Keep Getting Away With This

512phkhzbnlI am back with another short review for a novella, and it’s once again for Matha Well’s incredible Hugo winning Murberbot Series. The award for best novella was definitely deserved for the first book in the series, All Systems Red, which I reviewed here. However, today we are here to talk about the third short story in the series, Rogue Protocol.

The story still follows the titular Murderbot as she bumbles her way across the universe. Outed as a rogue security unit, and attacked by a shadowy organization, Murderbot decides to hunt down some information and secrets about this nefarious group and expose them – hoping that doing so will finally allow her to consume media in peace. To accomplish this, Murderbot travels to a collapsing terraforming station owned by the shadow organization that is being slowly destroyed to cover up some dastardly crimes. When murderbot arrives on the station with a human scrapping/science crew, they find that the station is a little less abandoned than they hoped.

As usual, Martha Wells balances horror, mystery, humor, intrigue, and compelling characters to pack an enormous amount of punch into this short story. Each of the novellas shows the growth of Murderbot as a person (I realize the irony in this statement) and focuses on new people imparting her with life lessons. In Rogue Protocol we get Miki, a sickeningly adorable manual labor bot who is treated like a friend by their human owners. It is a different take on the AI/human relationship that Murderbot had not seen yet – and her reactions to it make quite the read.

Rogue Protocol took a little while to get started compared to the other to stories in the series. It felt like there was a disproportionate amount of travel at the start, but it did do a great job for setting the stage for the back half of the novella. On top of this, Rogue Protocol felt a bit short, even for a novella. However, all of this is washed away by the tides of emotions that will wash over you in the back half of this story. Martha Wells once again shows that she can humanize AIs better than most authors can humanize humans. I was honestly not prepared for how hard some of the messages in the back half of the novella were, and it helped me forgive every other of the novella’s short comings.

Be excited for this next installment, and sad that there are only four novellas planned so far – so we only get one more after it. Rogue Protocol was delightful and I would say you have to be missing a heart to enjoy it – but I think robots would like it too. Martha Wells has ignited my interest in novellas with this series and I cannot wait to see what happens to Murderbot next.

Rating: Rogue Protocol – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – Vast and Furious

35520564Here we have another of Orbit Publishing’s summer debuts, which they graciously sent me in exchange for an unbiased review. A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, by Alex White, is the first book in his Salvagers series. I will tell you right off the bat that I think this is going to be one of the most divisive books I have read and a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are going to feel its not their thing. Which side you fall on is what I will hope to show you with this review. However, if I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure.

Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic crew, with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. Our protagonists are Boots and Nilah, two complicated women from very different backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. Boots is a war veteran from a conflict that had no winner and a scam artist with no scruples. She survived a war that wiped out both sides and now scrapes by selling fake salvage/treasure maps to suckers who come to her. She also has a rare birth defect, she was born with no magic. On the other hand, Nilah is a magic prodigy with a need for speed. Pampered and privileged as the daughter of the elite, Nilah is a race ship driver, spending her time using her mechanical magic to drive a futuristic race car. She is egotistical and spoiled, but none can deny her brilliance with her magic as she’s consistently at the top of the pack when it comes to speed and finesse on the track. The two of them end up on the run when Boots accidentally sells a map that unearths a conspiracy and Nilah witnesses (and is accused of) a murder that was meant to cover it back up. The two of them end up on the ship of Boots’ old commanding officer, someone she detests for his actions in the aforementioned war, and they all quickly realize that the only way they are going to get out of this is to follow Boots’ map to its final mark.

Big Ship is a fun, loud, and adventurous book. As you can likely tell from the plot description the story has treasure hunting, racing, lots of combat, and unlikely heroes. It is a tale of space rogues that will appeal on the surface to most with its kick ass magic system that I have only mentioned so far. Big Ship is closer to a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid as the populace of White’s world are all born with specialized magic (called “marks”) that allow them to enhance their tech, or use tech to enhance their magic. For example, Nilah has a mechanist’s mark that allows her to “feel” her vehicles as if they were part of her body and adjust them as if she was an AI. The captain of the ship they all ride on has a mark that allows him to produce shields, and using the ships interface he can project magical auras around it. It’s a really cool and fun magic system that constantly surprised and delighted me. The book is original, fun, and exciting, so you might be wondering why I mentioned it will likely be divisive. Well there are two major reasons, neither of them a flaw, but things that might not align with everyone’s tastes.

The first reason is that Boots and Nilah are incredibly unlikable (or at least at first). The book has a tremendous amount of character development, but the first chapters surrounding our leads had me wanting to blast them out an airlock. Boots is selfish and self-pitying and hard to feel sympathetic for as she rips off everyone around her. Nilah is arrogant and naive and watching her take her first steps in the “real world” was painful. I grew to love both of them as they became much better people over the course of the book, but if you do not have the patience for the character growth it may be a major turn off. The second reason is that the book is incredibly dramatic. I’m talking borderline soap opera dramatic. Everyone is constantly fighting, everyone is constantly talking about their feelings, and everyone is always pouring their heart and soul out to anyone who will listen. I did not enjoy this, but I want to stress that despite my dislike I still think that it was well-written and well-executed. The prose style was just not my preference and it had me rolling my eyes in many scenes. That being said, I was easily able to move past the moments I didn’t enjoy due to the gripping plot and the books biggest strength: the spectacle and combat.

Combat is really hard to write, and White is really good at it. I think this book would make an excellent movie because White’s action scenes were so visceral and present in my mind that I felt I was living them. His attention to detail with sound effects in particular really got my adrenaline pumping, with things like the noises of retractable claws and the whining stress on ship parts bringing scenes to life. This combined with some huge Fast and Furious style action set pieces led to some very memorable scenes that are still vivid in my mind after finishing the book.

While A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe might lose some people with its dramatic emotions and less than perfect protagonists, those that push on are going to find a new favorite book. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. Big Ship is the strongest debut I have read in 2018 so far and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Foundryside – Glyph It A Chance

Foundryside RD4 clean flatHere we go. It has been a bit of a slow year so far, especially compared to the volume of incredible fantasy and science fiction books that came out in 2017. While I have really enjoyed a few installments in ongoing series, there really hasn’t been a series start that has stood out in 2018 so far – until now. I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. I was a little bummed when the Divine Cities series wrapped up last year and Robert said he was moving on to a new project, but my misgivings have been blown away and I am fully on team Founders (the name of the larger series).

So what is Foundryside about? Well, to make a long story short, a thief steals an object that puts her at the center of a conspiracy to destroy the world, and only her and a group of random people that get dragged into the conflict can stop it. The longer version takes a little more explaining. One of my absolute favorite parts of Robert’s writing is his incredible imagination. His ideas always feel both fresh and cool, and Foundryside is no exception. In the book people have learned how to essentially rewrite local laws of the universe using glyphs to make cool effects and tools. Now that sounds vague and complicated, but here is an example: one scrivner wrote symbols on two pieces of metal so that anything that happens to one, happens to the other twin piece. This is then used to light one piece of metal on fire to set off gunpowder near the second piece from afar. I liked the premise of this “magic” from the first page, and Bennett used it to do some truly creative and awe inspiring things in the novel. Circling back to the plot, the people of Foundryside are the remnants of a civilization that essentially destroyed itself by using these powerful glyphs eons ago (losing record of the glyphs in the process). Their ancestors have tried to rediscover the ancient magic and have had middling success. However, just this tiny success has allowed a small fraction of the population to essentially become massive mercantile houses that rule unchallenged. So, when our protagonist, Sancia, discovers an object that might unlock some of the original glyphs the entire city sets out to murder her and take it for themselves. What I really liked about the magic system is that Bennett clearly defines the limitations of scrivning early on, so you get to try and think about how to find loopholes the rest of the book. It is a satisfying magic system to read about and it balances mystery, science, and awesomeness very well. Plus, there are some truly gruesome deaths via glyph in the story – like “seek therapy after reading this” level of fucked (and they were as brilliant as they were horrifying).

The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Speaking about it more in the abstract, I found myself deeply invested in this story and hanging on every word (especially near the end). The one of two minor criticisms I have for the book as a whole is I felt the pacing was a little uneven. The beginning is great but a bit slow, and the ending is so damn immersive and fast that I had a moment where I looked at my clock at 4 am on a work night with 100 pages left and thought “why are you doing this to me Robert” before finishing the rest of the book. The cast of the story come from a number of walks of life and they create a fantastic crew that bounce the plot between heist, combat, intrigue, politics, and science – nailing all of them. Foundryside felt like reading five different books, all of them excellent and seamlessly wound together. On top of all of this, Foundryside does a phenomenal job of both telling a high-stakes and self-contained story, and setting up the greater series as a whole. Unfortunately, the other minor criticism I have is that Foundryside’s antagonist can feel bit over the top. He is such a puppy kicking, ice cream hating nazi lover from page one that he can seem comically evil at times. This did, however, make him a cathartic person to take down, so it didn’t bother me immensely.

I’ve saved the best part for last: the characters. As I have alluded to above, Foundryside follows a group of unlikely allies that end up working together through happenstance. You have an orphan thief from the ghettos, a prince warrior with an unyielding sense of justice, an older snarky inventor, a calm and dependable engineer, and an amnesiac who seems to be more than he appears. The dynamic and synergy of this group filled me with all sorts of positive emotions. I loved watching them learn about, decide if they could trust, and come to depend on each other. They all play off of each other so damn well and it made the heartaches, victories, and humor hit hard – constantly getting reactions from me in a wonderful way. While I love Sancia (the thief) dearly, the unnamed (for spoiler reasons) inventor was my absolute favorite. His was a new perspective for me, and I was surprised how much I identified him and his reactions to events. I have already reread a number of scenes in the book as I just enjoy watching the characters talk and react so much. There are also a number of things that people are looking for in modern fantasy such as: some great female leads and a well written homosexual romance subplot (although it does take second string to stopping the world from ending).

Foundryside is a really good book, and will effortlessly make my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth your time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.

Rating: Foundryside – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Empire Of Ashes – Come Get It While It’s Hot

a19o2yo0d2blI find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.

The PlotEmpire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.

The World – Each book in Draconis has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot is a step up from his past work with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.

The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.

The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.

Rating:
The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10
Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Revenant Gun – A Puzzle In Reverse

81s4snnvywlThis year closes out one of the most original and batshit crazy series I have ever read, The Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee. The final book in the trilogy (I assume), Revenant Gun, wraps up our current story impressively well. If you haven’t read the first two books you should, and you can find their reviews here and here. The running theme in the series so far is having absolutely no idea what is happening in the book, but still having a good time anyway. I would say I understood approximately 10% of what was happening in The Ninefox Gambit, and maybe 20% in The Raven Stratagem. This is switched up in Revenant Gun, as Lee open the floodgates of knowledge and everything that has happened in the series becomes clear and understood.

I have already seen a few reviewers complain about this dynamic shift in Revenant Gun. They feel that a large part of Machineries’ charm is being completely lost, and don’t like that the third book pulls back to curtain and shows you how everything works. I feel the opposite. Machineries’ to me is a narrative masterpiece where Lee somehow found a way to do all the world building in the back third of the series, and make it work. His decision to show us how his tech works didn’t detract from its wonder, but instead shows that there was a method to the madness all along and helps provide context to appreciate the earlier books more. It also creates a weird reading experience, where I only understood the beginning of a series after I had read its end, and I always value weird reading experiences.

As for the quality of Revenant Gun, it still has all the good things that made its predecessors great. Strange characters with a lot of personality and depth to fall in love with, an exciting military plot that somehow feels brilliant despite you not understanding why it is, and a cool world with odd technology that makes you want to unlock its secrets. The plot follows a final stand off between all the parties that have been established in the previous books, as the three factions all look to defeat the others.

There was only one real negative in the book and that is there is simply not enough screen time of the best character: Mikodez. The perspectives that the book follows are spoilers, so I won’t announce them, but suffice to say none of them are Mikodez and I am outraged. Lee, you can’t just give us one of the best POV ever in book two and then take him away from us in the final book. I need my fix. Really though I don’t have anything negative to say about Revenant Gun, it was a very solid book.

If you liked the other two books, you will like this one. If you are a holdout on this series, you now know it ends strongly and should definitely pick it up. Revenant Gun, and The Machineries of Empire, and some of the best science fiction books in the last decade and will likely make it into my all time favorite books. You are doing yourself a great disservice by not reading this weirdness, go check it out.

Rating:
Revenant Gun – 9.0/10
The Machineries of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew