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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: The Arm of the Sphinx – 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Andrew

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

Part 1 here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six of Crows – Finding Out What Everyone Is Cawing About

six_of_crowsSix of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, has been sitting on my to-do list for a very long time. The book is a wildly successful YA heist novel that is a spin off of another wildly successful YA series, the Grisha Verse. I have had a ton of people I know tell me they loved the series and recommend it to me because I love the Lies of Locke Lamora, but there have always been a few personal red flags that led me to suspect I might not enjoy it as much as friends thought I would. However, the book has been on my list long enough that I decided to say screw it and just read it and see what I thought.

I went into Six of Crows not having read its parent series, and I was happy to find out that I definitely didn’t need to have read the Grisha Verse to understand what was going on and get invested. The story is fairly standard for a heist novel: a crew of six charismatic people with their own issues sets out to make a big score. The initial plan fails miserably, and then the team must use each individual’s unique skills to compensate and succeed. The heist in question is essentially about rescuing a prisoner from a military installation that is heavily fortified.

Our main protagonist, and heist gang leader, is Kaz Brekker – a mastermind who is on a secret quest of vengeance that is furthered by the heist. It’s not the most original backstory, but I grew to enjoy Kaz and his blunt mannerisms. The crew consists of (and I’m paraphrasing here a little) the mastermind, an inside man, a thief, a marksman, a courtesan, and a demolitions expert). When I initially started the book I found three of the characters (Kaz, the inside man, and the courtesan) a bit grating on the nerves, but instantly loved the other three. In addition, I came around on every one of them by the end of the book. Each character has their own reasons for being on the heist and their own objectives, and I feel that Leigh does a wonderful job intertwining the personal stories of the characters with the heist story of the group. The character dialogue is fun and easy, and the personalities of the group are varied enough that there is something for every reader.

The plot actually felt a little lackluster for a heist novel, but the book made up for it in its worldbuilding. I assume that the Grisha Verse has a lot of this as well, but the world that the characters inhabit is extremely well fleshed out and deep. My favorite part of the book was the analysis of the culture of the country that the prison was in as part of the heist planning. It all felt like I was learning about real places, which is rare for any book – let alone a YA novel.

My one major criticism of Six of Crows is that it feels like the novel was “dumbed down” to fit the YA label. It feels like it has the structure for a much larger and extensive heist novel in place, but then it was redone to make it more appealing to a younger audience. This is most apparent in the character backstories, with each character having a story and skill set that had me placing them in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. So when I realized that the cast were all supposed to be teenagers, I had a serious break from immersion. I have a really hard time believing that some of the cast had enough years of experience to have some of the skills they proclaimed to have (which is a weird nitpick I know, but it really pulled me out of the book).

At the end of the day, I don’t think Six of Crows is quite as good as many other reviewers feel – but I also think it would be hard for anyone to not enjoy it a least a little. Leigh Bardugo clearly has a serious talent for worldbuilding and characters, and I hope she does some more adult fantasy in her future. If you are looking for a fun heist novel that’s an easy read with a memorable cast and forgettable plot, this might be for you.

Rating: Six of Crows – 7.5/10

-Andrew

(P.S. Whoever designed that cover art deserves some sort of award. It is probably in my top 10 best designed covers ever.)

The Infernal Battallion – A Devilish Delight

Happy publication day Django Wexler, and congrats on finishing The Shadow Campaigns with your fifth and final installment, The Infernal Battalion. To celebrate I thought I would write a review (possibly thanks to the lovely advanced copy I got from netgalley in exchange for an honest review). The Shadow Campaigns has been a very difficult series for me to holistically rate. It has had both intense highs (with every action scene gripping my heart) and unfortunate lows (I don’t care how realistic it is, the logistics of moving an army through winter is not exciting). It is a series that seems to take two steps forward, one step back, for me and has alternated books I love with books I am neutral on. I wasn’t crazy about the fourth book in the series, The Guns of Empire, but The Infernal Battalion has reignited my love for this series like a demonic manifestation in an oil reservoir. If you are unfamiliar with The Shadow Campaigns, you should go pick up a copy of the first book, The Thousand Names, and come back to this once you have read the first four books. The following will have some mild spoilers, so turn back now.

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For those of you still around, let’s talk. I have worried since the end of book one that the finale of this series might be a let down. I feel like almost all protagonists who have a magic power that “cancels other magic” have the same ending – everyone buys time to give them a window to punch the magic villain who is overpowered as all hell. Winter certainly felt like she was going to fall into that category going into The Infernal Battalion, especially given how strong The Beast is. I am happy to say that while there is a little bit of the trope in Battalion, Wexler knew how to make things feel fresh and new. The strength of this series has always been more on its character development and action than its plot, but the ending of the story certainly wasn’t bad.

Speaking of great character development, Battalion completes the character arcs of every character in wonderfully fulfilling ways. The large and colorful cast all get interesting, unexpected, and satisfying endings. I was so worried how Jane’s story was going to end, because I assumed it had to go a certain way, and Wexler subverted my expectations completely and I loved it. Janus’s story is finally revealed in Battalion, and it lived up to my enormous expectations. All the love interests of the various cast panned out in satisfactory ways, and I got to the final pages and just wanted to pull everyone in for a massive team hug.

Additionally, the action in Battalion (something that has always been steller in the series) continues to meet the lofty bar established in The Thousand Names, with some really exciting solo fights as well. Wexler has a real talent for magical combat and one of my major complaints for the series is that there wasn’t more of it because the small snippets had me cheering aloud as I read them. Wexler’s dedication to historical accuracy of large battles is much more fun in a book like Battalion where there are large scale conflicts every few pages, compared to The Guns of Empire – a book that felt like it was mostly about the logistics of not dying to winter. I am super curious to see what Wexler will do next, because with his action scene skills I feel like just writing a story of a giant magical battle tournament would be incredible.

All in all, The Infernal Battalion ends The Shadow Campaigns on a really high note. It is a series with amazing characters and great action that will keep you up at night. While there were occasional pacing problems that really hurt the flow of the series, overall I think it is a fantastic read. Wexler clearly has an incredible talent for writing and historical accuracy, and I cannot wait to see where he goes next.

Rating: The Infernal Battalion – 8.0/10
Rating: The Shadow Campaigns – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – Like Johannes’ Zombies, Flawed but Functional

Hi again, and welcome back to the Spooky Cor- no, wait. Hmm. Let’s try that again, shall we?

51ai-ncxy-lHi again, and welcome to something-analogous-to-but-not-quite-as-spooky-as-the-real-Spooky-Corner! I’m here today to review Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, the first book in the aptly-named Johannes Cabal series. As something of a connoisseur of horror books, zombie books, books involving Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and books that make me laugh I find it surprising that it’s taken me this long to hear about this series. Currently on its fifth main installment (with an additional 5 supplementary books), Johannes Cabal clearly has something going for it. Let’s find out what that something is.

We’ll begin with a quick rundown: Johannes Cabal, the main character and essentially a differently-named version of the titular character from Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator (funny how similar the titles are…eh?), has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for necromantic powers and he wants it back. He goes to hell with the intention of making a wager with Satan, and does so. The rules are that he must provide Satan with 100 souls in the next year or he will be killed and damned to forever remain in hell. To make this less of a sisyphean task, the devil provides Cabal with a demonic carnival that he will act as the proprietor of for the duration of the year. This all happens in the opening of the book, and the remainder is spent touching on various scenes from the year Cabal spends on the road (well, rails, it’s a train).

There are really only two main characters in the book (three if you include Satan, which is a bit of a stretch but I could see an argument for it), Johannes Cabal and his brother, Horst. As such, the majority of the book follows them and their friendly (from Horst’s end, Johannes flatly hates him) sibling rivalry. Much of the book’s humor comes from one of the brothers reacting to something the other has done, and the vast majority of it was charming. Like the protagonists of most horror books, though, Johannes is…well he’s not a shithead, and I wouldn’t call him strictly “evil” per se. Let’s put it this way, he’s someone who has no qualms collecting 100 other souls to get his own back, which puts him firmly in the “not a good person” category. Does he do some good things? Yes, but if you’re the type of reader who needs a noble, selfless paragon of good as your main character, this is definitely not going to be the book for you. However, the specific ways in which Cabal is sort of terrible lend a lot to the humor of the book and work very well with the story being told.

Considering the subject matter (a necromancer on a task from satan to steal souls), you could be forgiven for assuming a lack of humor. You would be very wrong. There’s something for almost everyone here, Cabal’s personal sense of humor and dialogue is incredibly dry and sardonic, the zombies he creates are bumbling and almost entirely inept sources of slapstick humor and what would be sight gags if this were a movie, and some of the descriptions of scenes had me guffawing. I was particularly fond of Cabal’s painfully awkward run as a carnival barker, as a man dressed like, and with the demeanor of, a mortician yelling about how astounding a freak show is really hits me in the funny bone. Not every joke landed, but even the jokes that didn’t quite hit for me didn’t have me rolling my eyes, so I think that overall the humor in this book was pretty on point.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about the horror. Considering the inspirations for this book (Something Wicked This Way Comes and the various Lovecraft shorts), I’m disappointed to say that there was only one scene that really had my hair standing on end, and even that was brief. I would have liked to see more of a focus on the horror aspect of the book, but I think if I’d gone into it expecting that, it wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing for me, so your mileage may vary.

I also had some issues with the end of the book. It felt rushed to me and a lot of plot threads that I thought deserved some time got wrapped up very quickly. It left me feeling unsatisfied and and somewhat disappointed, as those plotlines had been dealt with very well up until that point. Having them resolve in the matter of a few pages cheapened what could have been some very impactful moments of character development. This wasn’t enough to ruin the book for me, but I think 50 more pages or so would have brought this book’s score up considerably for me. It really is too bad when the aspects I don’t like in a book are so close to the end, as I can’t help but feel it colors my perception of the book’s quality up until that point, particularly when it’s a book I had been thoroughly enjoying.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was a fun book that I flew through. I think the way it told its story was clever and entertaining, as long as you don’t mind how close it stands to the stories that it takes its inspiration from. While I wish that a novel set in the same universe as the Cthulhu Mythos was at least a little scarier than this was, and I had some problems with the resolution of certain plot threads, I would recommend that everyone give this book a shot. At 291 pages it’s not a huge commitment, and you’ll know by about 25% whether it’s something you want to keep reading or not, so try it out and see for yourself.

Rating: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – 7/10

-Will

Persepolis Rising – New Year, Same Great Expanse

Happy new year everyone. With the coming of 2018 everyone is looking forward to new experiences, new resolutions, and new books/series. Meanwhile, I am jumping back into a tried and true series, The Expanse, to start the year off on a high note. I take great comfort in knowing that no matter how hard my year gets, I will almost always get an Expanse novel to comfort me at some point., This time we are taking a look at Persepolis Rising, the seventh of nine in this sweeping science fiction series. This review will have some mild spoilers for the previous six books, so if you haven’t read them I would turn back now… and go read them. Why haven’t you read them yet? They are amazing.


So Persepolis Rising, or as I like to call it – new Mars rising – picks up thirty years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, which was a bit much to process right off the bat. Everything and everyone has gotten old, from Holden and his crew to the Rocinante itself. It was a bit of a shock honestly, and was definitely something that took a large amount of getting used to. I was not ready to hear about Bobbie and Amos having joint trouble after years of kicking ass, I wanted them to remain eternally useful. The aging of the Rocinante was weirdly something that upset me a ton. I had grown complacent in book, after book, of the magical stolen ship being able to pull up and be the the biggest gun around – and I loved it. So seeing everything I love get old and obsolete sucked. Especially when Duarte and his new sovereign empire of Laconia come a knocking.

As our heroes and their tech reach the end of their lifetime, Duarte and his new people return with tech far beyond anything anyone has seen. Apparently seeing himself as some sort of Hitler/Jesus hybrid, Duarte sends his armies through the portals to both opress and force the rest of humanity into his authoritarian dictatorship… and also to “save” them. The theme of Persepolis Rising is the old, who are obsolete and broken, vs the new, who are young and fresh. The book has great commentary on the value of experience, the difficulty of fighting an enemy who are several eras ahead of you in technology, and the follies and innocence of youth.

If I am being honest, this book felt a little weird on the heels of Babylon’s Ashes thematically. Thirty years is a HUGE time gap, more than the total amount of time taken up by all six other books. Most of the book follows Holden and his Crew on Medina station, trying to sabotage the Laconian occupation through basically terrorism – to mixed results. Since one of the morals of the last two expanse books was that terrorism is bad, I felt myself very conflicted. I suspect that this inverse of ideas was intentional, but this is the first Expanse book that did not feel like a fluid and natural follow up to the previous. In addition to this, Persepolis Rising felt more like the set up for the final Expanse trio of books, than a self contained story like its predecessors. Duarte seems to be the final villain of The Expanse (though I will not be surprised if he is killed and something worse shows up for the finale), and this book is basically his introduction.

The disconnect between Babylon’s Ashes and the lack of a fully contained story place Persepolis Rising on the lower end of my Expanse book rating. It doesn’t quite have the same power or punch as its siblings. That being said, it is also an Expanse book and will definitely be in my top books of 2018. Go check it out as soon as possible and welcome our new Laconian overlords.

Rating: Persepolis Rising – 9.0/10

-Andrew