The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

Dead Man In A Ditch – Jump In

61ei-m9ghjlOrbit was wonderful enough to send me a review copy of Dead Man In A Ditch by Luke Arnold. It is the second book in the Fetch Phillips Archives, and you can find my review of book one in my fantasy cop throwdown here. I was going to hold off on reading Ditch because I was a little lukewarm on the first book, but the absolutely gorgeous cover got to me, and I ended up diving in earlier than expected. In a nice turn of events, Ditch is a better book than its predecessor and mostly leaped beyond my expectations.

If you read my review of the first book in the series, The Last Smile In Sunder City, you would hear me talk about a decent book that had great potential but a bad focus. Sunder tells the story of how Fetch Phillips inadvertently broke the magic in the world, hideously deforming most magical creatures and generally making life worse for everyone. The problem with the first book is it was really telling two stories – one about how Fetch broke the world in the past, and another about how his crimes related to a missing person case in the present. The divided attention of the narrative is problematic as it resulted in neither plotline feeling fully fleshed out. Splitting the reader’s attention made it harder for me to be invested in either story. Ditch lacks this problem.

With the backstory of Fetch established, Ditch is a much more present-focused book that picks up right on the tail of book one. It focuses more on how people are trying to cope after the loss of magic and how they can solve the new problems they are faced with. Fetch ends up with another case, but this time it is revolves more around how the humans (who weren’t affected physically by the loss of magic) are capitalizing on the apocalypse and showing the reader how the world is evolving. There is more of a sense of progression in Ditch, and I found myself more present and engrossed than I did with the first novel.

In particular, the cases that Fetch finds himself in charge of are more interesting and focus more on mystery elements than the tragedy of the apocalypse. Which of these foci readers prefer is likely a matter of personal preference, but I definitely enjoy a whodunit much more than wallowing in the pain of magical creatures 24/7. The one thing I wasn’t a fan of in Ditch is (mild spoilers ahead) that a portion of the book’s plot revolves around an artificer inventing guns. The book treats this as a mystery when it is pretty obvious what has happened immediately after you see the aftermath of a murder. To me, this element of the story felt a bit cliché, and I am fairly tired of reading about “what would happen if a fantasy person invented guns?”

Overall, I definitely do recommend Dead Man In A Ditch – and it was so enjoyable that it makes me want to retroactively recommend The Last Smile In Sunder City more. Ditch shows me that Arnold is going somewhere I want to go with this story, and it makes the slower set up of book one feel more worth it. Ditch was a captivating, well-paced, and exciting story that scratched my itch for mystery and intrigue. I will definitely read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Rating: Dead Man In A Ditch – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole

The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew

The Kraken’s Tooth – What’s Krakenalackin

the_krakens_tooth_by_anthony_ryanThe real takeaway I got from The Kraken’s Tooth is that Anthony Ryan is a strong writer. I obviously already knew that, given my familiarity with his other work, but it’s nice to be reminded that the authors you like are good at their craft. The Kraken’s Tooth is the second installment of a seven-part novella series called The Seven Swords that Anthony Ryan is writing for Subterranean Press. In my opinion, the physical copies are a bit cost prohibitively expensive due to being collectible (which is a bummer for physical book lovers), but the digital versions are very reasonable. Normally I don’t mention the price and publisher when talking about a review, but in this case, I think it’s important to point out the roadblocks that will keep this body of work from being better known because I want you to jump them and go check The Seven Swords out.

The series tells the story of a man questing to find seven magical swords for reasons I don’t want to spoil. My review of the first book, A Pilgrimage of Swords, dives deeper into the series’ premise. All you really need to know is The Kraken’s Tooth picks up where Pilgrimage leaves off and unsurprisingly tells the story of one of the seven swords our protagonist (called the Pilgrim) is seeking. The plot brings our Pilgrim to a new Venetian style city, where the entire urban area is supported by a kraken’s heart deep underneath the streets. The Pilgrim’s arrival kicks off a multi-party race for the heart to see who will reach it first and claim the power of the heart for themselves.

I think what’s really interesting about The Seven Swords is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novellas are unfinished, but that they are stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It feels like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

On paper, The Kraken’s Tooth is a dungeon crawl where the party needs to surmount traps, decipher riddles, and kill monsters to reach the treasure beneath. What I love about it in practical terms is it refuses to be boring. Ryan never phones it in, and all of his ideas stick in the mind. It’s a raucous story that is easy to consume and discuss. It’s the perfect snack to bring a little fun and excitement to this depressing year.

There isn’t much else to say about The Kraken’s Tooth. It’s fun, easy, and you should definitely make the extra effort to check out the series. I really hope Subterranean eventually puts out a compilation book as I would be willing to stand on a street corner and hawk it. Don’t let a little leg work distract you from this excellent read.

Rating: The Kraken’s Tooth – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10
Alex

A Fire Upon The Deep – Golden Goodness

b000fbjago.lzzzzzzzA Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, is a 1992 sci-fi modern classic that is getting a re-release this year from Tor. While it is not a golden age sci-fi, missing the era by about 50 years, it definitely feels like a tribute to the great classics. At the same time, it is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction novels to come out in the last 30 years. So, is this modern classic worth your time? Is the reprint something to look forward to? The answers are a resounding yes, so let’s dive into what makes this book popular.

A Fire Upon the Deep, on top of being written by an author with one of the coolest names ever, is an epic science-fiction story that explores a galaxy-spanning conflict that is being determined through medieval warfare on an unmapped planet. One of the best things Deep has going for it is, despite its size, the story starts off like a relay racer hearing a starter shot. The prologue begins with a human expedition exploring an archive/prison outside reality. Almost immediately, the group accidentally releases an ancient AI/consciousness with godlike powers. This universe is filled with beings that have ascended to higher planes of existence, so initially, this is taken as a mild problem – but then the being immediately starts to rapidly devour reality at an unheard-of rate. Realizing that this expedition has colossally shit the bed, they try to flee the being after grabbing a database containing methods left by the jailers to defeat it – only to get slapped massively off course and crashland on a primitive world with a species of dog-like alien. These aliens immediately kill most of the expedition and then rival sides in a medieval war capture the survivors (who are young children). Then (yes, after all this) things start to get interesting.

The book splits into three storylines. One is from the POV of the children who are trying to navigate a completely unknown world without advanced technology and get back to their ship. The second is from the POV of the dog aliens, who are trying to steal the technology that has fallen out of their skies, then learn to harness it to win wars. The third and final POV is a group of individuals trying to find this unmapped planet in order to recover the crashed archive to figure out how to stop this ascended being from destroying all of reality. The pacing is fast, the stakes are high, and the conflict is extremely gripping.

However, while the plot is great, where Deep really shines is its exploration of three key ideas in its worldbuilding. First are the zones. The zones are areas of space that represent different realities where the laws of physics change. High zones allow for much more flexible and powerful technology while low zones cause most tech to simply drop dead due to reality simply not supporting their functions. The planet where this archive has crashed is located in a very low zone, making it extremely hard to extract once it has been located. The second idea is around bootstrapping innovation. As the war between the sides of the dog aliens escalates, humans try to shortcut the growth of the species by showing them tech and skills they are eras from discovering. Thus, we get a thought experiment that represents Star Fleet’s worst nightmare: what could you achieve with a nascent species if you messed with their evolutionary path as much as possible.

Finally, the most interesting idea that Deep puts forth is how the minds of the dog aliens work. They are pseudo-hive minds and have a very creative form of intelligence. Each individual isn’t very smart, so they congregate in groups of 3-6 to bootstrap their intelligence by combining their minds. Each alien added to the group fundamentally alters the personality of the whole as their identity is incorporated into the collective. If the collective grows too large, the cohesion of the mind begins to fail. The aliens are constantly balancing improving their intelligence, keeping themselves sane, and not washing out their personality with unwitting pairings. It was a really original take on the hive mind idea and is absolutely fascinating to explore. There are tons more detail on how their minds work, but to learn more you will just have to read the book.

The character writing in Deep is above average, with almost every individual in the story representing a complex and deep combination of quirks and personalities. There is a surprising amount of character growth for a single book – but the story’s giant size makes that possible. The prose is also intense and powerful, resulting in a number of memorable quotes that will stick with you. Really my only complaint about Deep is that it’s a shame that all its narratives aren’t equally good. The two planetside stories around the children and aliens are always fascinating and engrossing as you slowly understand how these alien minds work and the gritty in-your-face conflict grows. The third narrative about a strike team trying to recover the archive and fight the big bad universe-eating being had a tendency to occasionally drag. There are some sloggingly long passages where it is just a group of people sitting in a traveling spaceship talking about things. It reeks of telling instead of showing and it can really break up the otherwise fast pace of the book.

I think it is fantastic that A Fire Upon the Deep is getting a re-release, as it is a great book that needs more readers. Deep’s modern ideas and old school feel make it appealing to a very wide range of sci-fi fans and will be sure to entertain anyone willing to give it the time of day. Make sure you don’t sleep on this winner or Tor will have to re-re-release it in another 30 years in an effort to give it the attention it deserves.

Rating: A Fire Upon The Deep – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex

The Doors of Eden – A Window Into What Could Have Been

the-doors-of-eden-hb-coverI am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed The Doors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.

The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.

The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.

The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.

The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.

Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.

Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.

Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.

In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.

Overall, The Doors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.

Rating: The Doors of Eden – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Nine Realms – Four Spines To Bind Them

Today we have a full series review of The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff. The series is a quartet of books and in a break with publishing traditions, they all released in the same year over the course of four months. The series contains the following four books: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. This review will be a mix of talking about the series as a whole and diving into various pieces and highlights from the individual books. Spoilers for the fairly large review that follows: we recommend The Nine Realms. It’s an interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes and tells a well-contained epic fantasy story. However, there are some quirks that make it tricky to outright recommend.

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Here is a lightning-fast rundown of the plot of the entire series. The books tell the story of Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, and her journey to take back her throne. A Queen in Hiding tells the story of how her mother’s country (Weirandale) is overthrown and how she barely escapes with her life into hiding. The Queen of Raiders covers her teen to early adult years where she starts waging a guerilla war against people who damaged her land. A Broken Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers from the trauma she received in the war and how she makes her way back to her homeland to reclaim her throne. Finally, The Cerulean Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers her throne and begins to change her kingdom for the better. I am massively skipping over a ton of important side characters, general plot elements, and subplots, but I just don’t have the space to list them all out here. Know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s start with one of the series major “problems” first before we get into all the positives. Initially, I was confused as to why all four books were published so close to one another – but the answer presented itself to me as I got near the end of book one. The Nine Realms is less a quartet of books and more a single 2000 page book that had to be drawn and quartered. I imagine there was a conversation at Tor HQ between Kozloff and her editor that went something like this:

Kozloff: “Well, here’s my amazing book!”
Editor: “Uhhhh, this is 2000 pages long.”
Kozloff: “And?”
Editor: “We can’t just publish a 2000 page book, it might fall off a shelf and kill someone.”
Kozloff: “Well we can’t really cut it up, so what are we going to do?”
Editor: “I guess we will just cut it into four pieces and hope no one notices.”

The illusion doesn’t work. It will be clear to anyone that these books are not four distinct stories. The narrative flows between the books without stop and I suspect I would have been frustrated were I to get to the end of A Queen in Hiding to find the story cut off mid-sentence. But, you may have noticed that when I said this was a “problem,” I put dramatic quotes around the word. Since all the books in the series are already out, this is more of a feature of the series more than an actual issue. The only actual problem here is if you are willing to commit to a fairly long time investment, at a higher price point than usual, for a good story. Personally, I think The Nine Realms is worth it for the following reasons:

  1. The Nine Realms has the depth of a good epic fantasy without the bloat – I really enjoy digging into a meaty epic fantasy with a ton of content I can sink my teeth into. One of the downsides of these huge sweeping series is they tend to have a lot of dilly-dallying. Thankfully, The Nine Realms has the depth of a large scale epic, without the filler content. While it isn’t a Wheel of Time and some parts are over simplistic, the series is well-paced, easy to read, and you get a lot of bang for your buck.
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  2. The magic system is both familiar and original – The magic system revolves around two core concepts. First, each country has a different patron spirit, based mostly on the elements. Each of these spirits imparts different kinds of gifts on their people based on the spirit’s nature. Second, our story mostly focuses on Cérulia, who was granted the ability to speak to animals by the water spirit. Now I have seen a lot of “can talk to animals” powers in fantasy and I was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind by this concept. However, Kozloff’s take on the power is much more strategic and innovative than I was expecting. It is less “talk to animal friends” and more “horse, dog, and wolf general leading her troops into battle.” Cérulia uses her connection to advance her march to her throne, and that leads to some grizzly scenes like when she has to eat a horse she is close with to survive starvation. It’s a new take on a classic fantasy power.
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  3. The story goes beyond the standard good vs. evil trope – Initially I thought this was going to be a black and white story about a princess reclaiming her throne from the bad guys. What this story is actually about is Cérulia slowly understanding why her mother was overthrown, connecting with the common people of the world, and getting a first-hand education of the plights of her country and what needs to be fixed. There is a lot more context to Cérulia’s battle than this type of story usually goes into, and it delights me.
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  4. The world is nicely fleshed out and fully explored over the course of the book – As I mentioned, each country in The Nine Realms has a patron spirit that imparts gifts and shapes their land. I was happy to see that over all four books we get to visit and explore all nine of the countries that give the story its title. While there were a couple that were forgettable, the majority of them have memorable differences and cultures that really bring the world of the series to life. It was a fun place to explore, even if a depressing amount of it involved watching poor people suffer.
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  5. The story is well-paced and easy to read…mostly – Once you get past some initial slow build-up I will talk more about below, the story moves at a nice and exciting pace. I originally planned on just reading book one, but I ended up getting pulled into the story and reading all four over the course of a weekend. There is a very nice flow between the different conflicts and the different characters that keeps everything moving at all times.

There are still some additional road bumps, though. I am not really a fan of the time skips between chapters that keep track of how long has passed since Cérulia fled her home. The skips are meant to give you a sense of urgency because early on you are told that Cérulia has 10 years to reclaim her throne or all goes to hell. It feels like a completely arbitrary timeline that is never actually relevant to the progress of the story. When Cérulia decides to take back her throne it is because she believes she has grown enough in power and maturity to claim it – an element of her character I really liked. In addition, sometimes the books will tell you months will pass, but characters will still be in the same place/time/conversation they were in “three months prior” which disillusioned me to the skips.

Next, let’s talk a little bit about each book and rank them in terms of their quality:

51s938lhwgl1) A Queen in Hiding – Unfortunately, the first book is easily the worst. While there is a lot of fun worldbuilding and introduction to characters, the narrative can be painfully slow at times as the story begins to build up steam and momentum. The other awkward part of the book is it feels like the “prologue” section of the narrative goes on too long. There is a large portion of the book devoted to Cérulia’s mother, and how she lost the throne. Her mom launches a naval war against some pirates to try and rally her people back to her side and win back her throne. However, while it does set up some interesting themes and character development for Cérulia – it is very hard to be invested in the conflict since you know from the back of the book her mother will fail. This subplot lasts almost three fourths of the book, and I wish it was slightly less prominent.

51r04ry5zfl2) The Queen of Raiders Fortunately, the second book is the strongest of the series and helps get the reader back on track. Really, the story takes off in the last 20% of Hiding and Raiders just carries on the torch. Raiders is where we see the biggest character growth in both Cérulia and a lot of the supporting cast. It is also where a number of previously unconnected plot lines begin to come together. The world-building continues to expand and Cérulia’s use of magic starts to get a lot more inventive. All of this combined with a climactic finale that actually lines up with the end of the book makes this a great read.

91omg2eocl3) A Broken Queen – This installment Is third when ranking best to worst, but it is much better than Hiding. A Broken Queen focuses mostly on the damage the conflict has been inflicting on all sorts of characters in the series – and how they heal from it. In addition, book three is where the antagonists start getting a lot of page time in order to give them depth and complexity, getting the reader much more invested in a complicated situation. A Broken Queen was where a lot of the series themes and ideas came to the surface and the book had a nice thoughtful quality compared to the other three installments. Where Broken struggles is the fact that the entirety of the book feels like a slow build-up to a major climax…that happens 20% into book four. This leaves the book with a lot of slow thoughtful moments, but not many big set pieces to remember it by.

71ltzhdknrl4) The Cerulean Queen – The final book in the quartet is a winner, coming in at second best. Cerulean was a very interesting book because it feels like the majority of it is an epilogue but in a good way. Unsurprising spoilers: early on in the final book Cérulia reclaims her throne – and it’s awesome. But, instead of ending the story at this natural point, Kozloff spends the majority of the rest of the book showing how Cérulia implemented everything she learned in her time as a fugitive to become a great queen. It’s a really great example of satisfying character growth and execution of themes at the same time and it really helps the series stand out in the fantasy landscape.

The Nine Realms is a worthwhile mini-epic that has a nice mix of originality and classic flare. It has some issues, but they are easy to ignore with its fun ideas, flowing characters, and engrossing plot. If you are interested in reading this series, I highly recommend you carve out the time to tackle all four books at once. If you give it time, you will likely find that Cérulia’s story is a fun and worthwhile adventure.

Rating:
A Queen in Hiding – 6.5/10
The Queen of Raiders – 8.5/10
A Broken Queen – 8.0/10
The Cerulean Queen – 8.0/10
-Andrew