The Tethered Mage – Restrained Fun

34219880I received a copy of The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This book was sold to me as wizards in Venice, which I honestly don’t think is quite right. Another reviewer I spoke to described it as “YA Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I think is closer to the truth. The Tethered Mage both over and under performed in certain areas, but overall was an enjoyable read. However, let’s first start with the plot.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of a large empire based in the city of Raverra. The primary driver of this peace is that the empire controls the Falcons, powerful magic users that range in ability from warlocks that can control the elements to artificers who can build amazing magical machines. Due to the volatility and danger of the Falcon magical power- children who show marks of power (eyes that gain an extra colored ring) are press ganged into magical service for the empire. It is not as bad as it sounds, the Falcons live lives of opulence and comfort, but they are not free people and must come to terms with that fact. To control the Falcons, each magic user has a corresponding Falconer that can turn their magic on and off – which is where our story begins.

Our protagonist is Amalia, a fairly sheltered aristocrat girl with a penchant for adventure and a taste for artifice. The book begins with Amalia taking a trip to the ghettos of Raverra in search of a rare book. While on said trip, she comes across an extremely rare fire warlock, Zaira, losing control about to burn down the the city. Through a stroke of luck, Amalia is able to put a metaphorical collar on Zaira, and shut down her magic – but this raises problems of a different sort. Raverra is a highly political city, where several aristocratic families vie for power. As such, none of them are allowed to be tied to a Falcon, especially if they are as powerful as a fire warlock. This rockets Amalia to the center of a number of city intrigues, will she be able to navigate them and come out alive?

If the plot seems a little over the top, that’s because it is. The set up for the premise felt like it stretched my suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to give The Tethered Mage a pass due to how fun it is. It is largely a book of political intrigue, and the politics and twists are a blast. The world and culture of Eruvia revolve around powerful city states, and are very fleshed out. The cities all have their own unique feel, and it was fascinating to see how they all interplay. While the cities had a lot of depth, the characters (in particular the leads) left something to be desired. Amalia and Zaria are fairly one dimensional, though the supporting cast was surprisingly not. They did improve in depth as the story progressed (in particular as certain romances progressed), but the start of the book was rather rough. The magic was entertaining though, in particular the take on magical artifice. The various magical tools that the Falcons created added a lot of originality to the books and did a lot to distinguish The Tethered Mage in the current landscape. In addition, I enjoyed the twist on the enslaved magic user trope with collared mages living in opulence.

The Tethered Mage was not perfect, but it did enough right to earn a recommendation. The cast warmed on me while I wandered the captivating city states and I found myself very interested in what happens next. Amalia first halting steps are political intrigue are fun to watch, and I am excited to see how she comes into her own in Raverra’s complicated political landscape.

Rating: The Tethered Mage – 7.5/10


The Murderbot Diaries – Never Stop Murdering

32758901We are wrapping up the pile of short book reviews, and have saved the best for last: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. I had heard of Martha before this for her larger fantasy series, The Cloud Roads, and her Star Wars novels, but had not ever gotten around to checking her out (which is unfortunately true for several authors on my mountain of to-be-read books). However, after reading her short novels All Systems Red, and the sequel Artificial Condition, I will likely be bumping her books up the pile significantly.

In my opinion, the perfect novella has the following things: memorable and lovable characters, a fast plot with a narrow scope, and a clear theme/idea with excellent execution. I am actually less forgiving with a short book than a long one because I feel that when you have less space to work with, you need to maximize the impact of each page more than when you are writing an 800 page epic. And when using these criteria, there was one clear winner of the novellas I have recently read – The Murderbot Diaries. The series follows the titular Murderbot, a security robot who has hacked her governing module. This module suppresses her free will and would normally place her under human control, but after hacking it she controls her own destiny. Wells has written a science fiction setting in the far future where humanity is a galaxy spanning empire where cheap and greedy corporations are still in charge. As mentioned, Murderbot is a security robot who is loaned out to researchers who need protection in the field. Thanks to a mysterious incident, Murderbot finds her… its?… governing module disabled. However, in direct opposition to rogue AIs in most sci-fi novels, Murderbot decides to simply keep doing her job of her own volition, instead of trying to murder all humans. The first book All Systems Red, follows Murderbot doing her regular job of protecting researchers while also showing how she constantly has to hide the fact that she is rogue. She of course does not keep her free will hidden for very long, and finds herself in complicated situations she must navigate her way out of. The second book, Artificial Condition, is about Murderbot fleeing the events of the first novella and trying to discover the origins of the event that gave her free will.

murderbot2I say her because I get the distinct feeling that she is written to be female, but that might just be because I have a massive crush on her. Going back to my three pillars of a good novella, Murderbot is both extremely memorable and utterly lovable. There is something wonderfully charming about a powerful rogue AI just wanting to do her job and watch a lot of TV (which is her #1 favorite thing to do) just like anyone else. The first novella has Murderbot mostly interacting with humans (all of which will endear themselves to you), but the second has her spending some time with other AIs to amazing comedic and poignant effect. The characters in this series are wonderful, and you will find yourself caring deeply about their fates after a few pages – one of the hallmarks of a great novella. On top of this, The Murderbot Diaries nails my second and third pillars perfectly. The plot is simple, book one – find out who is trying to murder Murderbot clients and don’t reveal she is a rogue, book two – find out why she went rogue and don’t get caught. However, just because the plot is simple does not mean it is bad. The pacing and flow of the books are amazing, and I found myself unable to put them down from start to finish. I was heavily invested in the mysteries of both novellas and it resulted in me burning through them in a few hours. Finally, I like novellas to have a clear theme with great delivery. In this case I have already spoken about the series theme, a rogue AI defying typical sci-fi tropes, and the execution is flawless. The idea of an AI who just wants to do her job and watch media makes Murderbot seem incredibly human, while Wells’ descriptions of Murderbot’s emotional responses to basically everything simultaneously make her feel inhuman. These two emotions warred within me throughout both books and resulted in Murderbot coming off as an utterly unique character that I cannot wait to read more about.

I have no criticisms of this series other than I wish the books were longer and that there were more of them. Martha Wells achieves in 200 pages what most books struggle to grasp in 500. Murderbot is relatable, alien, adorable, badass, and wonderful all at the same time, and I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t like her. If you have not checked out All Systems Red yet you are making a mistake, and be sure to grab Artificial Condition when it comes out in May (thank you for sending me an advanced copy).

Rating: All Systems Red – 8.5/10
Rating: Artificial Condition – 9.0/10


The Armored Saint – Big Power In A Small Package

armoredsaint_revI have been reading a number of short books this month, and it’s making it fairly easy to compare and contrast their strengths. Among the short novels I read, I found a dark horse that I want to draw some attention towards: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole. Some of you might know Myke from his Control Point series, a story about soldiers with superpowers. I really enjoyed Control Point, and Myke’s writing in general, but the subject of the books was not my forte. So I was thrilled to see that he has gone in a new direction and written a story I would describe as part slice of life, part low fantasy, and part Warhammer 40K.

As mentioned, The Armored Saint is a bit of a genre mash up. The book follows the story of Heloise, a young woman trying to get by in a fairly messed up fantasy world. Like many fantasy landscapes, The Armored Saint’s has been ravaged by demons and sorcerers. Out of control magic has wasted away the landscape, and mages are targeted on sight by everyone to prevent additional damage to the surroundings. To deal with the possibility of rogue magic users, the world has an order of inquisitors who ride around and put down those accused of magic use. The plot revolves around Heloise and an interaction she has with one of these roving bands of inquisitors, and the fallout from this interaction. The plot isn’t the powerhouse of the book. In fact, once or twice the plot could be annoying – like when it drew out the power armor reveal that is both in the cover art and title of the book.

However, while the plot might not be my favorite, the book scores unbelievably high marks in character and atmosphere. Let’s start with the characters. Myke Cole’s prose, and vivid writing, does an incredible job establishing the characters in a very short time and draws you straight into their struggles. Character emotions feel real and raw and create a very tense atmosphere where you are concerned for the fate of all of them. On top of this, the crown jewel of the book might be its atmosphere. Heloise is a fairly young, innocent, and naive girl (at least initially). She is thrust into several situations she does not understand, but is smart enough to sense that something about them is off and to be terrified of them. This emotion is mimicked by the book itself as you read it. As you progress through The Armored Saint, you will get the distinct feeling that something is off. Things seem like they are going ok, but you will have this sinking feeling in your stomach that something is about to go very badly. When these terrible moments reveal themselves they capitalize on the build up brilliantly and make for some truly memorable scenes.

The Armored Saint packs a lot of raw emotion and storytelling in a tiny package. While it falls slightly short on story, it is an experience I would recommend to anyone and is one of the best short books I have read this month. Myke Cole is an extremely talented writer and continues to prove he can knock it out of the park with whatever he sets his mind to write.

Rating: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10


Dawn of Wonder – Dusk Of My Interest

51ffxlj4tvlHello everyone. I apologize for the missed day this week, but I am changing to a new job (as a researcher for the New York Public Library, which is super exciting) and I found myself a little short on time. Accordingly, I wanted to talk about something I rarely mention in my reviews: a book I did not finish. It is uncommon for me to drop a book, as I usually vet my reading material enough that books I won’t enjoy don’t often slip through. However, every so often I find myself reading a book and dragging my feet so much that I realize I should put it down and read something else. Dawn of Wonder, by Jonathan Renshaw, was one such book.

I actually have a lot of good things to say about Dawn of Wonder. The story tells a coming of age fantasy centring around the young Aedan. Aedan and his friends live in a small farming town, making trouble and being generally boisterous. Their lives are turned around when slave traders try to take the town and upheave Aedan’s life. This event ultimately leads Aedan to start training at an academy for mercenaries, hellbent on revenge against the nation that let his homestead be attacked by slavers.

The story is a bit slow at the start, but picks up significantly once Aedan starts training at the academy. Aedan’s unique and defining personality quirk is an aptitude for strategy and tactics that sees him matching wits with seasoned generals in his ability to plan battles. Additionally, Aedan is struggling with some inner demons left from an abusive father that has emotionally crippled him. Watching Aedan attend the academy and pass various trials and tribulations, overcome his inner demons, and plan his revenge is a joy to watch. In fact, in abstract everything about this book is exciting, fun, and has the markings of a great read. However, there are a couple issues with it in practice.

For starters, the biggest issue I have with Dawn of Wonder is the exposition about Aedan. There are constant passages of written exposition about Aedan’s skill and greatness that are awkward, rip me out of the story, and make Aedan feel like an unrealistic ‘Gary Sue’. In one of the earliest chapters, two retired war vets comment aloud (with no context) that Aedan is one of the smartest, coolest, greatest, strategic minds in any book ever, and he’s only a teenager! (I am hyperbolising but this is what it felt like). These aggrandizements soured me on Aedan really, really quickly and made it hard to get attached to his character in any way. Additionally, the inner demons segments of the book are really heavy handed and handled in a melodramatic way that I thought was over the top, further distancing me from Aeden.

These writing problems dissociated me from Aedan as a character so much that I found myself having no interest in continuing to read a book that was otherwise a lot of fun, With a little more show, and a lot less tell, this could have been a favorite of mine. There was no reason that Renshaw couldn’t have just used the academy and the various trials to show Aedan’s brilliance in a much more natural setting. If you can move past the initial bragging, this book might be a home run for you, but I unfortunately got about 40% through before I put it down.

Rating: Dawn of Wonder – 4.0/10 (DNF)

Arm Of The Sphinx – There Better Not Just Be Three Of These

armofthesphinx-coverA while back we read Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, for our book club (review here). It was a very divisive book for us, which is rare, with ratings all over the place (though still mostly high). I personally came in at the highest impression of the book (giving it a 9/10), but some of my fellow editors more tepid reactions resulted in me delaying my continuation of the series with book two, The Arm of the Sphinx. Well, I have finally gotten around to reading the second book in this incredible series and I can definitely say that my co-contributors can suck it because these books are absolutely incredible.

For those unfamiliar with the first book, you should probably stop reading this and go check it out. However, as a refresher Senlin Ascends follows the story of an obscenely optimistic and naive school teacher who loses his wife in a more or less infinitely tall labyrinth of a tower. He must then take on the tower in search of her, growing into a very different man as he progresses through it. When we had last left our intrepid group from book one, they had stolen an airship and taken to the skies to evade pursuit. Arm of the Sphinx picks up relatively where the first book leaves off; with Senlin assembling a crew (Edith, Iren, Adam, and Voleta) on the stolen ship, the Stone Cloud, consisting of people who have mostly betrayed and been horrible to him and still planning ways to rescue his wife.

Senlin Ascends was our introduction to the tower and its inhabitants. The cast of Senlin Ascends could sometimes be difficult and unpleasant to read about (a cause of several of the mixed reviews in our book club) because those characters were difficult and unpleasant people. However this is a series about growth and change, and the crew each just began to grow and change by the end of book one. Now in Arm of the Sphinx is where these individuals really start to evolve into new more lovable people. Weirdly the thing that Arm of the Sphinx reminded me of most was Mass Effect 2, which is a game hopefully most of you are familiar with. The game is a favorite of people everywhere despite the fact that it did relatively little to progress the overarching story in a series about story. This is because instead of focusing on the plot of the world and larger events, Mass Effect 2 focused on its characters and had you spend the game building and connecting with a crew of people to tackle huge world ending threats in its third installment. This was exactly what I felt was happening in Sphinx as well. Sphinx spends a lot less time showcasing the tower and progressing Senlin’s rescue of his wife than the first book did, and instead focuses on five wonderful character arcs that are told in tandem. The two focal plot points of the book are journeying to meet the Sphinx and meeting the Sphinx, and not much else happens. Instead you get to understand more about each of the battered and broken Stone Cloud crew and watch them slowly change into better and stronger people.

I love the characters of this book. I am not sure how he did it but Josiah has managed to make a set of truly unique and interesting people that I have never come across in books so far. I have fallen in love with each of the crew one at a time, and I found myself constantly surprised at how they changed and who they became as the book progressed. I really just can’t get enough of them, I have not felt this attached to characters since I read Malazan – which is probably the highest compliment I can give a book. On top of all of this, Josiah uses the character arcs to introduce you to the Sphinx, an enigmatic and fascinating overlord of the Tower of Babel. He is a brilliant engineer and an architect of thousands of marvels and seeing the inside of his workshops felt like coming down to Christmas morning as a child – pure joy. The new characters Josiah introduces in this book are just as wonderful as the crew of the Stone Cloud, and just as unique. Through these new characters you learn several new things about the tower and its goings on, and he foreshadows enough plot to fill at least five more novels. So as I said in the review title, this better not be a trilogy because I am not ready to let all of this go after one more book.

The Books of Babel are one of those unfortunate series that lose a handful of initial readers because it is a story about unlikable strangers growing into lovable friends, and some do not have the patience to stick with these characters through the bad times. There is nothing wrong with that, but those that don’t keep reading don’t get to experience the beautiful and soul warming end result of who these people become, and that makes me sad. We are only a few weeks into January and I have already read one of the best books of the year, The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft.

Rating: The Arm of the Sphinx – 10/10

-Andrew: This post is dedicated to my co-contributors, Sean and Will, who can both suck it.

Binti and Home – Why Isn’t This A Full Book

Whenever a series get explosively popular in fantasy and science fiction, it always inadvertently makes me feel like an old man. I always feel like I hear about new popular books weirdly late for someone who is literally a source of talking about new awesome books. I clearly need to read more of my competitors sites or do my job better. Anyway, speaking of new popular books, I managed to check out the wildly popular Binti, and sequel Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor recently. These books/short stories/(I don’t really know what to call these, maybe vignettes?) were sold to me as “the next Harry Potter”, which seemed like it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but then Nnedi Okorafor got an HBO show for one of her series and I figured I should probably check her out.


While I think referring to Binti as the next Harry Potter might be a bit of a stretch, I do understand the comparisons. Binti follows the story, surprisingly, of Binti – a young mathematical genius from an African tribe who is the first of her people to get accepted into what is basically space Harvard, called Oozma Uni. I found some of Binti’s mannerisms a little grating at times (she tends to yell a lot), but generally liked her. In addition, the university is a place filled with all sorts of interesting space races and forms of study. Spending time exploring the university gave me the same sort of whimsical feeling as being exposed to Hogwarts. The primary function of the story (at least the first two installments) is to talk about Binti’s personal story and her relationships with her friends and family. Binti spends almost no time at the Uni and Home spends a brief stint there before jumping back to Earth to talk about Binti’s relationship with her family. I was pretty frustrated we didn’t get to spend more time in this giant place of learning, but at the same time Binti’s personal story and her interactions with her family were also interesting and fun.

This leads to my major issue with Binti, I feel like the series suffers a lot from not being a full book. There is a level of worldbuilding here on par with some of the biggest and most expensive science fiction I have read, but the series had a size and scope comparable to a short story. I felt like I was being forced to sprint down a hall of wonders and everything I saw for a second captivated my interest, but didn’t get to stop and explore any of it. That being said, everything I saw was awesome. I love the races, cultures, and technology of Binti. Nnedi Okorafor seems to really like bio-technology, with the stories containing tons of living tech – which I found super cool. Learning about African culture in a science fiction setting was also a blast and I wish someone would write a large full book with the full concept.

At the end of the day I found Binti both wonderful and frustrating. I had a great time reading it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could be such a bigger and better experience if it had a full novel. It is definitely worth your time though, and at under 100 pages for each segment takes almost no time to read. If you are looking for a story of an intrepid young African mathematician finding her way in the world, well then this might be the book for you.

Rating: Binti – 7.5/10
Rating: Binti: Home – 8.0/10


Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – Journey Before Destination Part 2

Part 1 here.

I am sorry it has taken me so long to write the second part of this review, but frankly at over 1600 pages To Green Angel Tower is long even for me. The final book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams, To Green Angel Tower is the longest book I have ever read and took me almost a month of on and off reading to finish. While I was reading Green Angel I tried to imagine what it would be like reading this series growing up. It is rare for me to feel so transported into a book, and I can only think that a younger version of myself would have gone to school and tried to force this book down the throats of everyone I knew, proclaiming I had found the greatest book ever written.


Green Angel helped me solidify my thoughts on the full series very well, and I have come out of the entire trilogy feeling that it has two great strengths and one large weakness. Let’s start with the problematic; I don’t actually think that the plot of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is that interesting in a vacuum. While there certainly were a number of small exciting twists, the general plot of the book is a stereotypical quest fantasy book. In addition, I found the ending of Green Angel to be a little anticlimactic (which isn’t too surprising giving how damn long the build up was). I expected Memory. Sorrow ,and Thorn to have a little bit more exciting of and exciting story, but even though it didn’t quite live up to my desires, it is still one of best series I have read.

I have always found the idea of “journey before destination” romantic and cool, but rarely felt like it was the case that the trip was more important than the end goal. This series is the first time I have ever read something and thought “I don’t actually care how this ends, I just want to keep traveling with these people”. The first major strength of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the places you will go, the things you will see, and the feelings you will have. Osten Ard is alive and waiting to be explored. The cultures, landscapes, and people just sucked me in didn’t let go. There is just so much to see, so much to do, and so many people to meet that you will never be bored.

Speaking of people to meet, the second major strength of the series is the characters. I spoke about this a bit in part 1, but this trilogy might be the best example of character growth I have read ever. The characters change organically through small experiences and relationships and you can see them slowly be shaped into new people. In addition, the cast is so varied and interesting that they have been some of the most memorable characters I have read about in recent memory. I felt more invested and enthralled by any one of hundreds of trials the characters in this series go through than multiple books I have read in the last year. I also really appreciated that so many of the characters were at different life stages. While our protagonists are both teenagers going through typical teenage things, the books make sure to give plenty of POV windows into the larger cast who go across a number of ages and are dealing with any number of different problems. My personal favorite was Tiamak, a swampman scholar who is dealing with the fact that his family/people don’t understand what he does or think it’s valuable. I have definitely dealt with that a bit in life, and I loved Tad William’s take on it. The cast here is wonderful and has something for everyone.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a difficult series to recommend, despite its excellence. So much of what I loved about it was personal and hard to convey, that all I really can say is “it has good characters”, which feels woefully inadequate. This combined with its monumental size means it will likely sit on many peoples to-do lists for a very long time (much like it sat on mine) as I tell you to make sure you get to it eventually. If you are looking for a series with a lot of personal discovery and characters you want to watch grow, then you should take a month and read these three books. You won’t regret it.

Rating: To Green Angel Tower – 8.5/10
Rating: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – 8.5/10