Fireheart Tiger – Frigid And Brittle

Having spent the last two years digging into the world of novellas, I feel I am starting to get the hang of consistently identifying stories I am going to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are always going to be wild cards that slip through the cracks and ruin your day, much like Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, did to me. I really wanted to like this novella. As the back cover blurb will tell you, it is billed as – The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle – in a Vietnamese-inspired setting. I have just finished reading an Asian-inspired novella about fire and tigers that I loved (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo), and I thought this was a sure thing. It also has a very alluring and well-illustrated cover that pulled me in, but it was a trap. Fireheart Tiger’s length ultimately is its undoing, as there isn’t enough heat here to light a match, let alone warm a heart.

The entire story of Tiger can be summed up in a few sentences. Princess Thanh has been living a life as a hostage in the Ephteria kingdom for most of her life. When she is young, she is witness to a brutal magical fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. She also falls in love with the Ephterian queen in waiting, which is problematic for an enemy of the state, to say the least. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court and has found herself with a number of issues. First, her mother thinks her useless and tries to box her away from the world. Second, the magical fire that burned down the palace in her youth was caused by a powerful spirit that seems to have followed her home. And third, the magnetic queen in waiting, Eldris of Ephteria, is coming on a diplomatic trip to Thanh’s home that leaves our protagonist in a complicated situation. What will happen?

Fireheart Tiger would have definitely worked better as a larger novel. There is potential here, but it is absolutely not realized. The novella opens with its strongest sections. We find Thanh returning to her mother’s court where she is met with disgust and disapproval. The power dynamics at play feel promising, and though Thanh’s mother is a bit of a shallow character, I bought into their disagreements at first. However, this setup leads to a lot of self-pity and moping that never really goes away. This pity party is interrupted by occasional memories such as the Ephterian palace burning and a burgeoning romance with the Ephterian princess Eldris. The romance is very hard to wrap your head around, as Eldris’ personality is made up of how she looks physically. The romance feels a little sweet in the flashback (relevant for later), but Ephteria is a ruthless nation that is devouring those on its border and Thanh’s country/island/nation is next on the chopping block. I wish I could feel bad about this, but we get zero context or worldbuilding around Thanh’s place of origin, so I had a very hard time feeling bad for it.

Eldris comes to Thanh’s country and their romance picks up almost immediately, which is very jarring and feels unearned. As opposed to feeling sweet like in the flashback, Eldris is now creepy and manipulative for no other reason than to serve the plot. It is very unclear why Thanh even likes Eldris, given neither character has much of a personality. Thanh is purported to be clever and shy, but we see very little of the former. Her motivations supposedly revolve around protecting her country, but the majority of her inner monologue consists of railing against how her mother treats her.

On top of the characters being generally uncompelling, the dialogues were awkward. There was a lot of tonal mismatch and cliché that somehow exhausted me despite the short page length. The romance was utterly unconvincing, and possibly had slightly problematic intentions that I can’t discuss because of spoilers, and didn’t endear me to any of the characters in the slightest. Really the only things I did like were the premise, the inclusivity of the themes, and the ending which has a pretty decent twist. Otherwise, this is definitely a novella that you can skip.

Rating: Fireheart Tiger – 3.0/10
-Andrew

The Black Coast – Right Message, Wrong Words

The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks, is the hardest type of book to read and review. There are a variety of different aspects of this fantasy story that I like greatly, but many of them are hampered by noticeable problems with the writing. The book was compelling enough that I absolutely wanted to finish it, but not engaging enough that it was smooth sailing. I found myself sitting down repeatedly for short twenty-page sessions when I got burned out due to frustrations with the text. But, I kept coming back because I wanted to find out what happened. It’s got some great messages that I agree with, but it delivers them in a hamfisted method that is about as subtle as a brick to the face. The Black Coast, the first book of The God-King Chronicles, is all over the place.

The premise of The Black Coast, at least, is promising and remains captivating from start to finish. What we have here is a good old-fashioned culture clash, with some new twists. The story takes place in a coastal empire that is often plagued by raiders from pirate-infested islands in the sea. These pirates have always been an unorganized pile of backstabbing marauders, but when an undead drauger starts to unite them by force under its banner, one of the pirate clans decides they’re uninterested in slavery with extra steps. They flee their island homeland and head to the only place they can imagine is safe – the shores of their longtime enemies and raiding targets. The reception they receive is anything but warm, but seeing as the raiders’ alternative is to go back and be enslaved – and the coastals (which is what I am referring to the people from the mainland empire going forward) choices are ‘get along or die by raiders’ – they are determined to find a way to make it work. And that IS what this book is primarily about, two long-standing peoples who hate one another committed to working together. The pirate horde led by an undying battle champion is very obviously shelved on a very high ledge with foreshadowingly pointy edges for the second book, and we are left to watch a sort of slice of life fantasy where Vikings and coastal British must find a way to coexist.

There are clear positive and negative elements of this culture clash. Positive: the cultures of the two people are set up in an interesting and dynamic way that feels like it fosters natural animosity that doesn’t paint either as the good or evil party. And the cultures themselves are pretty fascinating. They have some complex ideas about things like honor and purpose that are fun to discover. The entire story is painted in broad streaks of grey and it manages to often be clever in how it kaleidoscopically shifts between who could be right or wrong at any given moment  – but not always. Negative: sometimes the groups have awkward issues that feel way too heavy-handed. For example, one of the two nations is extremely sexist and the other is extremely homophobic. It doesn’t even feel slightly nuanced and it functions as a very lazy fulcrum by which to elevate the idea that ‘all people have problems, and if we just sat down and talked we could fix everything’. The Black Coast is performing best when it is coming up with savvy ways to connect cultural differences. Sweeping these lazy boulder-sized problems just get swept under the rug with minimal effort is problematic to the immersion.

Similarly, the characters are a mixed bag. The leads are all fun and complex enough to keep me interested. Daimon, head of the coastals, is struggling with the fact that he betrayed his adoptive family. When the raiders arrived, he took control of the situation and kept everyone from getting killed. He provides a refreshing perspective from an adoptive child with a great internal struggle, and I enjoyed his practicality and clear-headed thinking greatly. Saana, head of the raiders, is struggling with the fact that her people just want to… well, raid, and she seems to be the only one who can tell that that is not a good long-term strategy. She feels like the only student who did the homework in an unruly class who is trying to keep everyone out of trouble. I didn’t know “Viking Mom” was going to be a trope that I loved, but I am here for it.

However, there are additional POVs that caused a dissonance while reading and didn’t feel as enmeshed in the themes I’ve mentioned. These narratives are told by the sister to a king and a poor thief. The sister’s story feels wildly disconnected from what is happening with the culture clash, and the thief’s story falls off a cliff and isn’t heard from again two-thirds of the way through the book. On top of this, some of the supporting cast, like Saana’s close friends in the clan and Daimon’s brother, are well developed, but others are looking to set records in lack of character depth. Daimon’s father is a fairly pivotal character to the story and has a number of scenes with dialogue. Yet in all of them, all of them, he only says one thing, “my adoptive son has no honor and needs to die.” It is exhausting and really starts to drag on you after a while. Many of these characters simply exist to push the narrative in the direction Brooks needed it to go and it is easy to see the author’s agenda behind the choices thanks to his heavy hand. It absolutely shatters the immersion of a book for me when you can see the author forcing the story to go in certain directions.

The best thing I can say about The Black Coast is that it is different and original enough that it kept me interested from start to finish. The premise is interesting, and the execution is reasonably well done. Yet, the book is held back due to the heavy hand the author has in pushing the story along and would have benefited from a much lighter touch. I still recommend you check it out if the premise appeals to you, but know that you will have to take the good with the bad.

Rating: The Black Coast – 6.5/10
-Andrew

The Echo Wife — Echo, Echooo, Echoooooooooo

Yeah yeah, the subtitle is easy pickings, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the best. It’s very hard to come up with a pun that combines the act of echoing and the myriad themes Sarah Gailey has packed into this book. There are questions about the debate of nature vs nurture, and an extreme muddying of the waters. You have traumas past and present building characters with insatiable levels of drive in one direction or another. So instead of agonizing over the title, I chose to dig into the book itself. The Echo Wife, by the aforementioned Sarah Gailey, is a dark journey through the psyche of a woman that also manages to blur the lines of nature versus nurture in clever ways.

Evelyn, the main protagonist and only perspective, is a renowned scientist in the field of cloning. She has just been presented with a major award for her advances in the field, and yet her husband is too busy having an affair to care about her accomplishments. But it’s not the average run of the mill affair. Martine, her husband’s new girlfriend, is a clone of Evelyn grown and raised in secret by her husband to be everything Evelyn was not. Obedient. Patient. Gentle. Martine oddly wants to form a sort of friendship with Evelyn, and Evelyn obliges by having a meeting over tea, and having Martine over at her place. One night she receives a terrible phone call from Martine: her ex husband is dead, and Martine has killed him. In order to hide the secret of Martine, and the death of her ex husband and keep her standing within her field, Evelyn hatches a plan that will require her particularly useful set of skills.

While the premise sounded promising, I had a hard time getting into this book. Mostly, I think I had trouble with the main character, Evelyn, and her blunt anger and career driven attitude. It’s less that I find these traits distasteful, it’s just her inner monologue became a repetitive jackhammer in my brain, and threatened to become the sole way in which I saw her character. While it serves as a sturdy foundation for further exploration of the book’s themes later on, I had a hard time getting past the upfront and ever present repetition of who Evelyn was to herself. However, while these aspects of Evelyn don’t really soften through the progression of the book, Gailey highlights their omnipresence within Evelyn’s life in interesting ways as the story goes on. Her counterpart, Martine, is a great foil, and really helps dig into Evelyn’s brusque manners in exciting and compelling ways. Martine dilutes some of Evelyn’s more obtuse qualities, not through action but by taking up space within the story. She’s too polite, goes out of her way to make people feel comfortable, but also shows some of the incessant drive that fuels Evelyn. She has her own dreams and desires even if they are mostly programmed by Evelyn’s husband. I admire Gailey’s ability to make two people who are so different feel so similar at the same time, without resorting to superficial contrivances.

The story itself is weirdly fun. Gailey presents a pretty horrific and disturbing scenario with a quirky sensibility. There are points where it feels like they wrote a fifties television show pilot, complete with a “shrewish” woman learning the ropes from her perfect housewife clone. I wouldn’t say I laughed, but there is sinister comedy at play that keeps the story oddly light, while it explores some shadowy territory. That feeling stops, however, during Evelyn’s flashbacks to her upbringing. These chapters are tough pills to swallow, and while they were never a joy to read, they were compelling in their own right. Her relationship with both her parents and the interactions she has with them are haunting in many different ways. Gailey does an excellent job of keeping the information low in these sections, focusing on the memories a child would have developed, instead of viewing them as Evelyn would as an adult. They are free of rumination and judgement, giving you a window into her past with the shades half drawn.

Though it takes some time for the wallpaper to be stripped from the intricate mosaic below the surface, the mosaic is horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Gailey juggles concepts of free will and human programming, while humming a mashup of I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. It’s a strange novel, but Gailey patiently allows the snowball of a reveal to build up. Obviously, nature vs nurture comes up, but they throw a wrench in the gears by confusing the two. What does it mean when the programming is a form of nurture, but meant to create a specific nature? It’s further complicated by the memories that Evelyn has of her childhood as they dive into how she becomes who she is. Gailey plays it well too, not diving too much into cause and effect, instead allowing the reader to parse the memories like they would their own life. They are written as if you’re asking yourself, “why am I the way that I am,” while diving into the packets of neurons that make up your past to find those answers, without really finding specific events. It’s exciting and dreadful at the same time because all it does is bring you to one terrifying answer, you’re unique, but not special.

Gailey has written a fun and dark exploration of what makes us who we are. I am glad I stuck with it, but I will admit it was a tough go for the first fifth of the book. It never really picks up great speed, however, they are patient, and I recommend you be patient too. There are times the book threatens to be a thriller, but it never really follows through, but I think it’s better for it. If you’re looking for a brisk, weird and uncanny dive into the nature of identity through a funhouse mirror, Echo Wife should be on your to TBR.

Rating: The Echo Wife – 7.5/10
-Alex

 

The Silence of the Lambs — Fantasy Villainy In A Crime Thriller Mask

“Clarice.” Two bone-chilling syllables, monotonously uttered by a verifiably insane Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The power doesn’t lie within the name itself. Rather, it’s how “Clarice” pops up throughout Thomas Harris’ seminal thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. When FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling interviews the mad doctor, the name beckons, practically begging to be pronounced. Start with the hard “C” and lilt gently into the “reese,” ending the name with a hiss. It’s within this singular name, so vividly pronounced by a bonafide monster, that this time-tested thriller encases its appeal to fantasy readers. Silence of the LambsIf you poke your sci-fi- and fantasy-obsessed head out like a surprised prairie dog at any mention of reading, you’ll find immense, disturbing joy in hearing Dr. Hannibal Lecter say those two syllables. The more lit-fic or crime drama-minded readers may appreciate the overly formal “Starling,” spoken with an air of authority and finality by those who outrank the novel’s protagonist. The “Clarice-ity” of The Silence of the Lambs bubbles to the surface when you read it through the fantasy lens, lending Thomas Harris’ work a distinct flair that gives every reader something to enjoy. At times, it feels as if Hannibal’s “Clarice” breaks the fourth wall, welcoming speculative fiction buffs into the crime narrative with an intensely disturbing character who may be the only person capable of stopping a different serial murderer. 

The Silence of the Lambs is so ubiquitous that a plot summary feels like overkill. But just in case you need a primer, the story follows FBI Academy student Clarice Starling as she’s called up to interview cannibal and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The FBI believes that Hannibal has clues to the identity of Buffalo Bill, a murderer who kidnaps and kills women in the midwest and the southern United States. The hunt for Buffalo Bill brings Clarice back to Hannibal for multiple interviews, and she develops a strange rapport with the doctor, even as he says her name with vicious resolve. 

Thomas Harris has crafted a story that stands the test of time, even producing Oscar-winning performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in the film adaptation. The Silence of the Lambs is a polished and pristine work. And although it’s a crime drama, fantasy readers can reach the end of the novel having had a blast from cover to cover. And for that, we have Harris’ character masterpiece, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to thank. 

Clarice Starling’s chemistry with Dr. Lecter sticks out when they first meet. But it’s not the “will they bang?” chemistry forced upon us in every young adult fantasy in existence. It’s a strange understanding that stems from Hannibal’s training as a forensic psychiatrist. Hannibal strikes to the heart of Clarice, and she responds with just the information he seems to seek. All the while, Clarice gains crucial case details from Lecter in exchange for personal stories from her past. By the book’s climax, you almost wonder if they’ve become…friends? Not quite, but Clarice and Hannibal harbor some grudging respect for one another. Hannibal is a reflection of the thing Clarice hunts, and Starling is the very thing Lecter sought to destroy in his murderous rampages. They both exist as predator and prey, creating a truly unique relationship between two incredible characters.

When these two characters speak, it’s like watching two fencers duke it out with brilliant verbal flourishes and parries. Clarice’s clinical mind searches the battlefield (in this case, a glass wall between them) for something to give herself the upper hand, something to make a break in the Buffalo Bill case. Hannibal, meanwhile, knows he is in a position of power and only cedes ground when he knows it will benefit him. He doles out tiny details about Buffalo Bill that culminate in a terrifying revelation early on: he knows exactly who Buffalo Bill is. And he will only divulge the information in pieces, knowing he can leverage the knowledge for a more comfortable (or perhaps less secure) cell. On the other hand, Hannibal genuinely doesn’t care whether Buffalo Bill kills dozens of victims. To him, the mystery of The Silence of the Lambs is simply a game, and he’s playing with loaded dice. 

This Clarice-Hannibal dynamic effectively creates a supervillain whose powers are completely ordinary in nature. Lecter’s impact, however, is extraordinary. The way he says “Clarice” (watch the movie for a pitch-perfect delivery of this single word from Anthony Hopkins), the way he parcels out information for seemingly trivial benefits, the way he can know everything about a person after they speak only a single sentence. These powers, paired with his murderous inclinations, make him a monster. And although he can’t slash or bite or stab in his heavily protected cell, his mental prowess still gives him enough fuel to become a force of nature hellbent on acquiring the freedom he feels he deserves. 

In short, Hannibal Lecter satisfies in a way that many villains do not. He is a monster because that’s who he is. He kills because he wants to. He reaches into the psyche of anyone he meets and throws their emotions into a blender, hoping for a brain-mush smoothie both literally and figuratively. So many stories try to create a villain who is evil just because. And they fail. Hannibal Lecter, reflected by the pure-hearted but troubled Clarice Starling, is evil just because, and he flourishes as a character in ways that many antagonists simply don’t. 

Rarely does a character feel so deliciously terrifying, so vicious and monstrous, simply for the sake of being a terrible, vicious monster. If you’re a reader in search of no-holds-barred villainy in an eloquent and frightfully intelligent package, Hannibal Lecter is your fix. 

Hell, even if you want a fast, thrilling crime story, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Silence of the Lambs

Rating: The Silence of the Lambs – 8.5/10
-Cole

 

Tower of Mud and Straw — Colossal in its Brevity

They say it’s never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover. After a while, when it comes to actual books, that advice gets harder and harder to follow. It’s not easy with all these amazing artists out there, providing color and form to black and white text. Some of my favorite covers are striking juxtapositions between the title and the actual picture. However, the cover for this book felt oppressive and mysterious and it just lured me in. A dark tower invades the page, punctuating the cover’s foggy negative space. Even though the perspective is from above the gargantuan feat of engineering, it still towers over you, begging you to throw stones at it while it cackles at your powerlessness. The owner of this cover, Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov, is a flurry of a novella, and delivers its meticulously planned punches with style and heart. 

The book follows one minister Shea Ashcroft after he has been banished to the border for defying the queen’s orders to gas a crowd of protestors. His task is to aid in the construction of the largest anti-air defense tower in history. Having no other choice, Ashcroft heads to the bordertown of Owenbeg and begins to learn about the construction and the hazards that plague it. Upon discovering that risky Drakiri technology is being used to prop up the giant tower, Ashcroft is pulled into conspiracy after conspiracy. Some want the tower finished to aid in the coming war with their neighbor, others want it destroyed as it will fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. Ashcroft just wants his life back and will do what he must to make sure the construction succeeds. 

One of the most standout aspects of this book is Barsukov’s writing. It’s flowery, but in the way that kudzu is flowery. It’s dense and tangled, and obscured much of my understanding beyond the surface. Barsukov doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost, but I think that’s partially the point. Interesting things are clearly afoot, but at the same time they are clouded by Ashcroft’s perspective. It’s often manic, jumping between past memories, present events, and futures imagined. Barsukov sometimes highlights these different mental spaces within the writing. Other times it blends together, allowing Ashcroft’s guilt and pain to come to the forefront, blurring his current reality. It’s clever, even if sometimes confusing. My advice, take it slow to fully appreciate the whirlwind. 

I also had a blast with Barsukov’s worldbuilding. It’s minimal, and forces you to ask questions and pay attention to everything. Often my curiosity on a subject was answered by the character’s own ignorance. It creates this neat little push forward that compels the reader to keep digging in the hopes they might discover the answer to the mysteries themselves. A lot of these answers remain ambiguous, but in a way that feels thematically fulfilling. Barsukov plays it tight to the chest, only giving the reader what the flawed narrator discovers, allowing Owenbeg to slowly flesh itself out as needed. It doesn’t hurt that Ashcroft is not a great investigator, but he does know a thing or two about the technology from the secretive race of Drakiri that is being used to cut corners. It makes the world feel exciting, and casts Ashcroft as a bull-fish in a chinashop out of water. 

However, I will say I was lukewarm on Ashcroft himself. I think there are aspects to him that are compelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure of his drive. The book starts out with his refusal to follow the queen’s orders, and while I admire his moral standing on not gassing protestors, I never got the sense it was part of who he was. He has a past, but it’s never satisfactorily explained how he gets from his history to the place we meet him in the opening pages. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much, but the gap in Ashcroft’s development is disappointing when the book seems to explore the desire for power and the atrocities one has to carry out in order to achieve and secure it. I didn’t feel his own lust for power that propelled him to the capitol, and in the queen’s graces, he just happened to be there. Everyone around Ashcroft has their own agenda, pushing him to complete or destroy the tower for intangible and tangible reasons. It leaves him bewildered as there is just not enough time to inform himself before committing to one side or another. Yet, Ashcroft feels like a dog chasing cars. There wasn’t enough of a foundation to make me feel this was who he was leading up to defying the queen. It’s not a deal breaker, and if you read the book as some fever dream, that is packed with innuendo and metaphor, it works really well. It’s just something that stuck out to me, and kind of hampered some of the introspective tension in the climax.

All in all, Tower of Mud and Straw is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. In the ever growing market for novellas, Barsukov’s story is a contender for the top brackets. It’s clever, it’s feverish, and he leaves much up for interpretation. There aren’t any real answers to the myriad of questions, and the whip crack transitions between plot points cover Barsukov’s tracks even better. Some people might want explanations, but I was quite satisfied by the end of the book. It’s a real treat, and I implore you to check it out. 

Rating: Tower of Mud and Straw – 8.0/10
-Alex

The Galaxy, And The Ground Within — So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

According to a note from the author in my ARC of The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, this book marks the fourth and final installment of Becky Chamber’s The Wayfarers. I have been a huge fan of the series ever since I picked up the first book (A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet), and I count the third book (Record Of A Spaceborn Few) among my favorite books of all time – so this announcement left me a bit depressed. And yet, one of the beautiful things about Becky Chambers’ writing is her ability to infuse emotion into almost any person, place, or thing. Although I am sad this series is finally coming to a close after four books, I am also extremely excited to see what Chambers has in store for us next. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, because we still haven’t answered the questions at hand: Is The Galaxy, And The Ground Within a proper send-off to the Wayfarers? Yes, it is. Is it the culmination of the series and the best book of the four? No, it is not.

Let’s get this out of the way early, Galaxy is not better than Record, and that is absolutely fine. To me, Record will always be the ultimate expression of what this series is good at – taking small slices of life in a science fiction setting, layering them with profound insights into the human spirit, and weaving the slices together to create a beautiful cake that is so sweet and delicious it makes you cry repeatedly. However, Galaxy still has a lot going on for such a small package, and in true Wayfarer fashion, it is packed full of love and insight.

The Galaxy, And The Ground Within tells the story of characters who all get stuck at a galactic rest stop together. They were only meant to be there for a few hours at most when a catastrophic accident grounded all flights for a few days. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but each of the three main travelers are in an extreme rush for secret reasons that are slowly parceled out over the course of the story. Our travelers – Pei, Roveg, and Speaker – are accompanied by Ouloo and Tupo, a mother and child who run the rest stop. These five individuals more or less comprise our entire cast, and their story is a quick, quiet tale of coping with inaction when they want nothing more than to act. Although there are only five real characters in this story, it is very much a quality over quantity situation. All five of them are unsurprisingly wonderful and diverse. The book gives you a window into their pasts, the internal dilemmas that they are currently coping with, and how these factors shape their decisions as the book progresses. 

There are a number of interesting themes throughout the story, but my personal favorite was Chamber’s dissection of perspective and circumstance. A large part of the book is devoted to the concept that you cannot impose blanket ideas/laws/judgements on people when their lives might be so different that they don’t apply. This theme is best personified in Speaker, who is a small, marsupial-like humanoid that has a lifespan of fewer than ten years. Galaxy brilliantly shows how its universe is extremely hostile and apathetic to a species that does not live their lives on the same literal timeline. It shows how the world can be so uncaring about people who have different needs, and how we need to do more than stand out of their way; it shows how we need to help them. It’s a very powerful message that is easy to connect to our own lives, and Galaxy did a wonderful job getting me to reflect on if I am doing enough for the people in my life who might need an extra hand.

Although it will hit you with a few heavy blows to the heart, Galaxy is a book best described as low key. The book is nicely paced, like a wonderful lazy river after a hot day in the sun. The characters are impossible to dislike. And the story is a perfect mix of breezy, warm, and thoughtful. I cannot think of a better book to end my journey through Wayfarers with, and I can’t wait for all of you to get your hands on it as well.

Rating: The Galaxy, And The Ground Within – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Engines of Oblivion — Perpetual Motion in Action

Last year I had the pleasure of reading Karen Osborne’s debut, Architects of Memory. Over time I feel I may have been a little tougher on it than necessary, especially since it was smack dab in the middle of other wonderful books on my TBR. I also buried the lead on Osborne’s rich world of corporate warfare and espionage, completely glossing over how ingrained within the characters the system was. However, the book still left me excited for more of Osborne’s work and well, luckily for me and other fans, the second book is around the corner. Engines of Oblivion is a more brutal examination of Osborne’s world, with tighter character work and pacing to boot. 

Engines is the story of Natalie Chan as she cobbles together a life after the events of Tribulation in the first book. After a routine scouting test of her remote controlled mech goes awry, and Natalie is removed from her position as head of her lab. The test went perfectly in the minds of the Board members, but Natalie’s unwillingness to see their point of view has put her in dire straits. To salvage her reputation she has to capture Ash Jackson and their former captain, Kate Keller. The board doesn’t believe Ash and Kater are dead, and has a distinct feeling that Natalie helped them escape their grasp. Paired up with the infamous Dr. Reva Sharma, Natalie sets off to find Ash and Kate, to hopefully help Aurora corporation unlock the remaining secrets of the alien Vai and take the fight to them. 

Like I said in the intro, I totally flubbed on pointing out Osborne’s screed against corporatocracy in the first book. It’s a major foundation of the world and the characters’ journeys, and Osborne fleshes it out beautifully. Every aspect of life revolves around ones relationship to a corporation. Osborne delivers it in handfuls as well, allowing it to come out in speech and action instead of a direct to reader monologue. It’s a living breathing corporate owned humanity where everything is a commodity, where the lowest are treated as expendable slaves, and the highest used as replaceable machine parts. If I had read the book at a different time, this would have been the center of the review, but alas, I had been mired in several such stories, and it took a truly awful book to make me realize how important it was to Architects. That being said however, Osboune ratchets it up several notches in her second outing, and I was hooked on it. The different ways contracts, hierarchy, personal choice, and internal storytelling dance in their violent waltz is constantly on display in Engines

The best choice Osborne made for the book was centering Natalie as the point of view for Engines. It honestly felt like a stroke of genius. Don’t get me wrong. Ash Jackson is great in Architects, but Natalie was someone I had trouble sympathizing with on a personal level. She was xenophobic and dedicated her life to fighting the alien menace. Even when Ash tried to explain their thinking, how their understanding of life was so incredibly different from our own, Natalie was stubborn about wanting to exterminate them at all costs. This continues into Engines and while it’s not exactly baklava, it’s less cartoonish and is rounded out. It comes from a place of misguided protection, but her xenophobia is still highlighted. Natalie as a person still frustrating, but it felt so right for her character.

It was fascinating to see Osborne’s world through Natalie’s eyes. She was truly someone who believed in the power and mission of Aurora, and she felt they could make the best use of her skill. However, this feeling is slowly eroded through the story as she learns more about the goals of Aurora and the board members she so diligently serves. Every step Natalie takes to her vision of freedom, she learns of two or three more barriers. Following her, and watching her try to buck the system she has been fighting for was truly a treat. Natalie spends a lot of time following orders, mildly questioning orders and trying to bury her own complicity in the red tape of bureaucracy. Osborne writes with patience, watering the seed of Natalie’s guilt and dissent with care, never allowing a single moment to define “this is where she changes.” She begins to question her relationships, her skills, and her place within Aurora as it uses her to suit its needs. Osborne makes it work with hard-hitting reveals, and slow acceptance on Natalie’s part. It becomes a journey of taking responsibility for one’s own complicity and by god, is it a journey. 

Engines of Oblivion is the perfect sequel. Osborne amplified every aspect of the first book and made it all tighter. The story is always moving, but Osborne deftly controls the speed, ramping it up for tension, and slowing it for introspection and revelation. Her choice to step outside her original protagonists and gaze at her corporate world through Natalie’s eyes was bold and insightful. There are layers to Natalie, and her transformation through the book is hard fought. She never feels quite safe, whether it be from conflict in front of her, or from her own internal turmoil. Every piece of the narrative fits into the wider puzzle, and when you get to see the whole picture, it’s beautiful. If you liked Architects of Memory at all, you need to pick up Engines of Oblivion. And if you haven’t read the first one, it’s absolutely worth it to read Engines

Rating: Engines of Oblivion – 9.0/10

-Alex

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
-Andrew

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.

…Ahoy.

Rating: Ten Arrows Of Iron – 6.0/10
-Andrew

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

-Alex