The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Interdependency – Interdependent Habitats, Planetary Dependent

Alright, I am finally ready to tackle a “review” on The Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi. As much as I’ve wanted to review these books on their own, I feel the best approach to talking about these novels is at a series level. When I tried writing about them individually, I wanted to focus on a bunch of small things that felt off about the metaphor/allegory. I wanted to talk about how the books weren’t as funny as I expected, and how Scalzi wrote them wrong. The thing is, everytime I did it, I knew I was also lying to myself and anyone who would read the review. As a whole, the series is still a fun read, with easily digestible themes that make sense. I didn’t love the books, but I didn’t hate them. I really enjoyed The Collapsing Empire but liked the successive books less. I don’t really want the rest of the piece to be an attack. After all, I really like Scalzi as an author. He has this ability to make big, grand, sweeping ideas about the human condition and culture into accessible narratives about regular people in extraordinary situations. He never feels as if he’s talking down to the reader, and always feels like he’s having fun along with you. He always felt like he’s on the couch cracking jokes with you, instead of there trying to be the witty, funny man in the center of the room. That magic is still there in The Interdependency, but I feel as if sometimes I didn’t get to see the forest for the trees.

Interdependency

What is The Interdependency?

This trilogy (comprising The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox) is John Scalzi’s take on climate change in the form of a political space opera. It follows a future humanity that lives in semi self-sustaining habitats among the stars. These habitats are spread out across dozens if not hundreds of different star systems, all connected by the Flow. The Flow is a bit confusing, but a simple representation would be to think of it as rivers in space. Some rivers lead from one system to another, facilitating trade between the different space stations. In the middle of all these streams sits the Hub, the seat of the empire through which all trade is channeled. At the end of the streams lies the planet End, a backwater where mostly criminals are sent and no real effort to build civilization has been attempted. End has many Flow streams in and only one Flow stream out, and it leads directly to the Hub.

To make full use of the Flow, The Interdependency was formed: a complex series of agreements that allows certain houses and families to monopolize one specific commodity and trade it throughout the systems. It creates a system in which everyone is dependent on each other to survive, given the vast physical distances between the systems that can only be reasonably traveled via the Flow. Faster than light travel does not exist, and ships are only stocked with what they need to get from point A to point B. However, this system is threatened when the Flow is disrupted, and streams start disappearing. Entire systems are about to be left stranded, and the empire known as The Interdependency is about to collapse.

The Worldbuilding

John Scalzi has built one of the more interesting, complex, and yet easily recognizable analogues to our climate crisis. There are a few places where there is not exactly a direct correlation, but it doesn’t really cause issues. He does a really good job of presenting it, though in some cases it’s a bit… easy? I’m looking at you Marce, giving the school kids a lesson as they’re on a field trip. But also that’s the point, it’s supposed to be easy; Scalzi wields a sledgehammer like a chisel and I love it. The first book feels expressly written to set up the Interdependency as an idea and show you the grander working theory without diving into too many details most people might get turned off by. He accomplishes this by building off of science fiction touchstones, adding his own flavor to it and making them more relatable to modern tastes. Specifically the house system within the Interdependency feels very much like Dune, but also very much like multinational Corporations in the real world, while also being its own distinct entity. There are rivalries and attempts to merge families for greater trade power, all in the name of supporting and propagating the system, keeping humanity going, while exclusively seeking profit. Scalzi does not do subtle, and in all honesty, this heavy-handed approach absolutely fucks. The best part is the first book ends with a question, what if the Interdependency is a lie? I mean he just sets this whole thing up and then straight up tells you, “yeah, it’s bullshit.” Part of me wants to be like “duh,” but he makes it meaningful. And even now, thinking about it I still get some chills because of how incredibly clear he is about what the Interdependency really represents. I don’t think he’ll win any awards for the mechanics of how his information is delivered, but man, he is not screwing around with his actual world. Some of this is unfortunately lost in the later books, but when Scalzi shows up, he shows up.

The Plot

The plot is fairly straightforward and follows three key figures: the newly anointed Emperox Cardenia, a shy, young, dorky Flow physicist named Marce, and the ruthless merchant named Kiva Lagos. Marce is trying to find his way from End to the Hub so he can alert Cardenia of the coming troubles. However, he is being stalked and hunted by the Nohamapetans, a house rival to that of Kiva Lagos. Lagos seems to be his only chance at getting to the hub intact with his data about the future of the Flow. The Collapsing Empire offers a rollicking good start as the story is centered around this data about the Flow, and the feeling that if it’s lost, bad things are going to happen.

However, beyond the first book, the plot starts to meander in a way I found frustrating. Cardenia spends most of the book internally questioning the legitimacy of the Interdependency while Marce is set off on a fact finding mission. Kiva spends her time maneuvering through trade politics, but without really revealing much about her or the Interdependency. The fact that Empire mostly felt like a build up to The Consuming Fire, and then Fire just feels like people sitting around waiting for Marce to get back from his adventure, did not quell my annoyance. It truly felt like a disappointment especially since there were a few trails that were left open by Scalzi.

While it was starting to feel thin in Fire, The Last Emperox really stretched out what was left of the plot to a herculean degree. There was a distinct lack of forward momentum going into the third book, and while the opening chapter was funny, it was a harbinger of things to come. It opened with a retelling of the second book, from two other characters not involved in the plot. And while it exhibited Scalzi’s panache for witty and charming dialogue, it just told me what I already knew. The rest of the book was not much different either as it just felt like three or four characters all going through the same events, but each telling their side of a political kidnapping. And it just didn’t do anything for me. There were no stakes. It just felt like I was watching a rehash of the second book but with Benny Hill music blasting in the background, and then someone comes in and tells you the ending in a monologue. It’s unfortunate. After some beautiful twirls, fancy flips and occasionally daring acrobatics, Scalzi failed to stick the landing.

The Characters

Okay, so I had trouble with the plot, but what about the characters? Well, in typical Scalzi fashion, his characters are charming as hell. Marce is probably my least favorite as he just doesn’t really have much to do beyond be dorky, and know things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as he’s more sidelined by Cardenia and Kiva, but I wish there was a little more to him than “science boy” and “romantic interest to Cardenia.” It’s cute, and it’s a fun way to sideline a guy for the more powerful women, but considering he’s a major contributor to the plot, he was stuck in the middle and it made him awkward.

Kiva and Cardenia are an absolute blast, though, and they work well as cooperative foils. Cardenia is reluctant and unsure of herself, even as the most powerful person in the human realm. Kiva, however, is a titan of self assurance, even to her own detriment. She uses the word “fuck” like the word “the,” and while it can be annoying at times, there are a lot of shining moments from it that make her memorable. My biggest complaint is there isn’t any real tangible growth to either of them. They never feel like they could be wrong, nor are they ever wrong about anything. They’re not exactly one step ahead of their antagonists, they just end up doing better than them by trying harder and holding their cards ever closer to their chests – it doesn’t feel earned. It built a real dissonance in my brain as these likeable people just turned inwards from the reader as they tried to accomplish their goals. They’re not deep, but they’re fun in the ways they should be, and Cardenia is incredibly relatable. I just wish they had a little more to do.

The Allegory

Honestly, this was the biggest hook for me after, “Scalzi has another space opera.” It’s probably also why I felt mostly disappointed with the series as a whole, even though it was fun to read. Scalzi very pointedly makes it clear that these books are about climate change, and our inability to act since the system itself is outright causing the issue, and needs to be destroyed in order to prevent disaster. If he stuck the landing on anything, it’s setting this up so transparently in a digestible, interesting, and entertaining way, and it makes my little heart sing. However, where I take issue is that the follow through feels messy. My biggest problem with it stems from his inability to take the allegory beyond “it’s weird how everything is set up this way, huh?” In hindsight, it all makes sense, trying to parse through the metaphor, and seeing that there is no silver bullet to a problem of this scale. It’s not just getting the data and showing the world there’s a problem, if the system is expressly set up to be able to ignore it until it implodes and people die. But when I was reading it, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t get kicked in the teeth by the middle or ending of the trilogy, the way I did by the beginning. It didn’t point to the helplessness of individuals, especially those outside the machinations of power, nor did it really make fun of the Benny Hill style politics of people trying to take advantage of the situation. Instead, it felt like kicking the can down the road and installing a deus ex machina to shepherd humanity into a new age. It was just a different, longer silver bullet, and that made me sad and angry.

Recommendation

I’m not trying to tear down Scalzi. He was very easily one of the top reasons I really got into reading for fun. He has a special knack for making the BIG IDEAS of science fiction accessible, entertaining, and relatable in ways I only dream of. And he does it in a way that is not condescending. However, I think sometimes he gets lost in making people think, he forgets what they should be thinking about, or how they should be thinking about it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I wish more writers had that knack for questioning our world, within their own worlds. But I also wish he questioned his own world a little more deeply and maybe found a better solution beyond deus ex machina. Because we’re running out of time in the real world too, and there really is no silver bullet.

Rating: The Interdependency 6.5/10
Alex

Ready Player Two – Let Me Out

I just wanted a scavenger hunt. I wanted another romp through Ernest Cline’s OASIS, made so popular by his mega-hit novel Ready Player One. I wanted a book that didn’t make me question what I ever saw in its predecessor. Instead, I got a disjointed series of lazy spectacles,  paper-thin characters, a dangerous love letter to capitalism, and a series of one-off pop culture references.

In Ready Player Two, “protagonist” Wade Watts returns. Hot on the heels of his victory against IOI and the murderous “sixers,” he and his friends now own Gregarious Simulation Systems and the entire OASIS – a massive virtual world that humankind uses for near-apocalypse escapism. But James Halliday, late creator of the OASIS, left behind a bit of technology for Wade and his buddies to distribute or destroy at will: the OASIS Neural Interface. ONI, as it’s called in the novel, taps into a user’s brain and allows them to feel everything in the OASIS as if it were real. It’s a massive step in technology that Wade and his companions Aech and Shoto immediately vote to distribute to everyone in the world. Art3mis (Samantha, Wade’s girlfriend), is the only dissenting vote. 

Yada, yada, yada, every person who accesses the OASIS can now experience the virtual simulation as if it is real. So instead of using his vast wealth and influence to help people with this technology, Wade becomes a self-righteous asshole, loses his girlfriend (also the only level-headed member of the crew), and plummets into a depressive spiral. Without truly stopping to think about their responsibilities, Wade and co simply hurl globules of fuel into the gaping maw of capitalism, strengthening their company’s crushing grip on humanity. Then, in a whiplash inducing attempt at a transition, an AI copy of James Halliday shows up and holds five hundred million people hostage. To free the hostages, Wade and his friends must solve another of Halliday’s scavenger hunts–you know, those hunts that take years to solve?–in 12 hours.

I’ll give you zero guesses as to whether they succeed. 

It pains me to drag a book across hot coals. I like to read, and I never pick up a book hoping to hate it. So believe me when I say I’m heartbroken at just how terribly Ready Player Two blunders. There’s *seriously* a moment where one character survives a plane crash by hiding under a ‘small stone footbridge.’ There’s also a moment where Nolan Sorrento, the previous book’s big bad evil guy, says “Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” This officially heralded the arrival of the first character I resonated with, an antagonist who is a) a lazy callback cast member from the first book and b) around for  maybe four pages. 

I gave Ready Player One a fine score on Goodreads, back in the days before I joined The Quill To Live. I enjoyed the fast-paced addiction-adventure scavenger hunt. I genuinely despise the recent spike in 80s nostalgia porn (yeah, lookin at you Stranger Things), but Ready Player One was fun mindless fodder that earned a pass if you didn’t dig too deep. Ready Player Two does not have that luxury. 

The core plot of Ready Player Two is a discombobulated, jumbled wreck. The novel shoehorns pop culture references into its pages without ever presenting a unique idea of its own. Imagine pulling 1,000 individual pieces from 1,000 individual puzzles and combining them into some wonky abstraction. That’s what the story of Ready Player Two is. And, you know, I wouldn’t even be that upset about a bunch of useless pop culture nostalgia drops if the characters actually had to struggle at any point. 

The lack of personal growth was Ready Player One’s biggest fault, and it rears its ugly head once again in this sequel. None of the challenges are challenging…at all. For any of the characters. All of the participants in the scavenger hunt have some godlike encyclopedic knowledge of everything Halliday and his co-founders ever loved. Cline tells an awful lot–avatar HP dropping to zero, a character struggling to remember some obscure trivia–but these moments pass by in short spurts of prose that do virtually nothing to capture the amazement of the OASIS. Ready Player Two’s scavenger hunt reads like Jackie Chan decided to showcase his karate skills against a class full of 5-year-olds at a strip mall dojo. At times it’s funny how ridiculously amazing Wade and his friends are at these things, but I’m laughing at them. 

All of this is to say nothing of the ending, which is a weird, tonally mismatched sunshine and daisies moment that doesn’t jive with the rest of the book at all. I’ll spare you the spoilers in case you’re considering a dive into this cursed tome, but…hoo boy. I struggle to find a single element of the story that would appeal to anyone. This is a book that didn’t need to exist. Much like its heavy handed cheerleading for capitalism, the sole purpose of this novel is a payday for the author.

I’m racking my brain right now for any single reason someone should pick this book up, but I can’t find one. And no, I’m not going to do a game over joke because video games are better than this and they don’t deserve to be degraded in such a way. In a normal review, this is the juncture that calls for a quick “well, at least I had fun reading it” admission. But I can’t truthfully say that about Ready Player Two. This was one adventure that only made me happy because it ended. This sequel eschews everything that made the original great, then doubles down on lazy ideas that are done much better elsewhere in the sci-fi pantheon. I both can’t and won’t recommend Ready Player Two

Rating: Ready Player Two – 2.0/10
-Cole

House of Leaves – A Maze of Our Own Making

I am not equipped to write this review. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone would be. I mean maybe if I had an English degree and an understanding of western literature beyond high school, I might be more confident, but we work with what we have. My desire to read House of Leaves started a few years ago, back when book club was still a thing we got together for, and House of Leaves popped up when I searched for a horror book to suggest. The premise intrigued me: a house full of secrets that is larger on the inside than the outside. A tale about the deep siren’s call of obsession that entwines the reader’s need for answers with the protagonists’. Fortunately, for the club, and my budding reading habits, this book was vetoed. It lingered in the back of my mind for years until right before COVID hit the U.S. I saw a single copy of it in the bookstore and the longing to read it surged in my chest. Of course I purchased it, and then when I opened it, I saw the madness within and shelved it. I had too many spring books to review, sothis had to wait a few more months. October rolled around and ‘twas the season, so I cracked this tome open and ventured into the unknown.

For those who don’t know, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a modern horror/surrealist piece of literature that defies any real description. It’s a story several times removed from the story featured in the synopsis. Essentially, the book is a documentary about a family that buys a haunted house and explores its dark depths. It’s also the story of a blind man’s attempt to explain the documentary as it is, offering symbolic meaning and providing psychoanalysis through a series of footnotes that cover western mythology as well as critical reception of the film. This is then commentated on by yet another man, who happens upon the manuscript after said blind man dies, and he discovers it while rummaging through the dead man’s apartment while drunk. It’s part textbook, part story, part diary, and all nightmare. It’s truly a monster of a book, and we haven’t even touched the formatting of the different sections that heighten the tension.

I can hear you now, “what the fuck are you on, trying to talk about this weird book?” Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I feel uncomfortable even recommending this book to anyone who isn’t already interested. In some ways I am driven by my obsession to talk about it so that I may find the end of the maze internally. There is something special about this book, and it gnawed at me until the very last page. I want others to experience it for themselves. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I had to sleep, work to make a living, and eat food so I could continue to read this book. It wormed its way into my brain, feeding on the ends of my neurons that weren’t dedicated to it. The obsession took hold of me like a rabid dog burying a bone. I felt connected to the book in a way I hadn’t really felt connected to a piece of fiction before. I needed to know every little detail. I wanted to satiate my curiosity while applauding my own intelligence for catching on. I wanted to be swept away, and my to be breath taken from my lungs when major revelations occurred. I yearned to know every detail of these people’s lives, know how they ticked, and understand why they were the way they were. And the book just fed my desires, making me think of my own experience in relation to Johnny Truant, the man who finds the manuscript. I craved to know how Johnny related to the Navidsons, the family who bought this home and set upon themselves the task of discovering its mysteries.

The formatting felt like a drug. I turned the book upside down, diagonal, sideways. I read pages while standing in front of a mirror. I read backwards through pages I had already read forwards. There was no challenge presented by the changing format I did not meet. I had to know everything. My boat had left the docks and I let the wind take me wherever it was blowing. The initial fear I felt when I gazed upon the complex maze of letters and words was replaced with the joy of exploration. I felt an intense desire to pick up every morsel left by the conglomerate of authors, worried that missing one little piece would degrade the effort put in. The changing landscape of the text only fueled this passion, giving the book a geography that is so rarely seen. The little cracks and crevices provided so many rewards, so many pats on the back, it was as addicting as it was fulfilling.

Until it wasn’t. There was a moment in the book where my hunger became an emptiness. I knew I needed to fill it, but the story was over. It just ended. The characters, the Navidsons, Johnny, the women Johnny talked to, all their lives just go on. There are no conventional conclusions to their story. There were one hundred fifty pages of appendices, full of letters, photographs, and scrap art. I just had to digest it all, and yet the rewards were missing. I read four hundred pages of the six hundred and fifty pages in a single sitting, and I felt dead. I spent roughly forty five minutes translating a code in one of the end letters. Once the book was over I just sat there. I asked myself, was it me? Did the book just lose its magic? Was I not getting it? Then I remembered one of the first pages of the book, in an iconic typewriter font, somewhat off center, the phrase This is not for you appears. And it all started to come together for me in a brilliant understanding and while that emptiness brought on by the book never really left me, I felt satisfied.

Again, I ask myself, and probably you too, dear reader, why do I bring up this book? Why am I giving you an outline of my experience? Describing my feeling about a book that defies explanation, or tidy description. A book that requires a larger than healthy level of effort, and a frankly ludicrous amount of buy in mentally. Something that isn’t quite fantasy, and not really science fiction either, and barely horror? Those words echo in my mind This is not for you, as I try to come up with a reason. This is not for you, This is not for you, This is not for you. And, maybe therein lies the answer.

Rating: House of LeavesThis is for me./10
-Alex

The Shining – Crazy, Good, Crazy Good

How does one review a book that everyone knows about already (oops)? The Shining is so pervasive that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of it. Cultural osmosis makes that a near certainty. Tack on the fact that most readers have settled firmly on one side of the Stephen King fence. Love him or hate him, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and The Shining proves it. I picked it up, naturally, to review it here. But I also read it for my ongoing Page2Screen series with Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat–look out for our discussion of The Shining next week at KickSeat.com; the episode will cover both the film and book. 

Mentioning the film verges on necessary in any review of The Shining, because so many people are familiar with “Heeeeeere’s JOHNNY” and the like. Stephen King’s original work is plenty present in Kubrick’s film, but as we readers know, books just hit different. This has perhaps never been more true than it is for The Shining, a hard-hitting crescendo of a book that bubbles and boils to an explosive climax. Whether or not you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film adaptation, The Shining is a fantastic read.

Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny head to Colorado’s Overlook Hotel for the winter. Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker at the Overlook, a job he receives from a friend after he gets fired from his teaching job for, y’know, pummeling a student he kicked off the debate team. Jack’s five year old son has a knack for knowing what people are thinking, where lost things can be found, and what will happen in the future. This power–the shining–is fueled by the Overlook, where sinister things dwell in the shadows. As the Colorado winter snows them in, the Overlook begins to take its toll on the family, and Jack begins to lose his grip on sobriety and sanity. 

The Shining is brilliant. It’s a masterpiece of character and a striking psychological thriller. By isolating his three main characters in a creepy locale, King opens doors into gradually degrading psyches addled by the isolation and the terrors running rampant through the Overlook. There came a point in The Shining where I blurted out “Oh, Jack’s crazy” to myself. As I read, I wondered if Jack was crazy the whole time, then I wondered whether I was crazy for not seeing how crazy he was from the get-go. Each successive chapter in The Shining dives deeper into the darkest portions of a character’s mind. Jack, Danny, and Wendy all feel intensely real in a way I’ve rarely experienced through my years-long reading career. 

Movie buffs may not be surprised by this at all. But the movie eschews the psychological-thriller aspects of The Shining in favor of horror. You could argue that’s better for the screen anyway, and that’s fair. The movie has its merits, but the impact of the characters in King’s original novel is far greater than it is in the film. I came to know so much about the characters, even as King threw them into a downward mental spiral. 

The Shining also features an entirely unique character: The Overlook. The hotel is essentially a character itself, constantly changing the way the Torrances think and act. It has a dark presence that reverberates through every page. As I read, at times I could feel the Overlook’s influence lurking behind every word, nudging Jack, Wendy, and Danny to do its bidding. The Overlook is pure tension. Juicy, horrific tension. It’s the embodiment of every bad thought or impulse a human could dream up. It brings these concepts to life and terrorizes the characters within it. Danny is an excellent foil to The Overlook. The hotel wants Danny’s massive power for itself, but it’s that power that gives Danny the mental capacity to resist it (plus his ability to read minds and predict the future). Danny is hunted for his powers and also protected by them, so the hotel finds the path of least resitance to acquiring him. The Overlook feeds on the weaker mind of newly sober Jack Torrance and drives him into a murderous rage in its attempts to stop Danny’s resistance (read: kill him) and absorb his power. It woos Jack, convinces him he is the one it wants, then uses him as a means to an end. The narrative arc of the Shining’s characters is dark, demented, and beautiful. It’s as much a joy to read as it is positively terrifying. 

I wish I had more to offer to the conversation surrounding The Shining. Instead, I feel trapped by my own mediocrity. I know this book is excellent, and I know the characters–Overlook included–are some of the best I’ve ever read. But I can’t pinpoint every little thing that made me feel this way about the novel. Rather than a sum of its parts, The Shining is one cohesive whole that tells an amazing story. I can’t give it much higher praise than that. 

Rating: The Shining – 9.5/10
-Cole

Dune – Boring, Interesting, Amazing, In That Order

I can see the Onion headline now: “Surprise! Book Reviewer Enjoys Widely Respected Pillar Of Science Fiction Genre.” A picture of me accompanies the article. In it, I’m sitting in my reading room, holding a hefty copy of Dune aloft and smiling like a ding-dong who doesn’t know what he signed up for. The rest of the article is just the journalist laughing at the dude who thought Dune would be a fun, breezy read. In truth, Dune is a chonk boi of a book that’s certainly fun at times, but it’s definitely not breezy. It is, however, awesome, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word.

The politics, science, and survivalism of Frank Herbert’s tentpole sci-fi make it a dense read. My copy both looks like and reads like a brick, a thought I had countless times during my readthrough. But you can use bricks to build houses, and that’s a fitting metaphor for Dune. Finishing the ~800 page tome left me with a sense of accomplishment, as though I had constructed a house from scratch using only copies of Dune as bricks. 

It’s not a new feeling for me. Finishing a book that’s considered a crucial thread in the fabric of the SFF genres often feels like overcoming a hurdle. I felt the same way with The Lord of the Rings. There’s a mystical quality to these pillars of the SFF world that draws me to them. A feeling that I need to read them to cement my position as a “true” reader of speculative fiction. I normally chide this gatekeeping attitude, but there’s always that part of me that breathes a sigh of relief when I’m able to say something like “Yeah, of course I’ve read Dune.” 

By all counts, Dune is an outright excellent book. However, there’s a definite thickness to the plot that makes it more of a full-on trek than a short hike. I guess what I’m saying is you shouldn’t venture to Dune lightly. That’s especially good advice for the novel’s main characters, who find themselves smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot to control the book’s eponymous desert planet. 

The Atreides family (who you may remember from our Thanksgiving post) is tasked to assume rule of the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune. The planet is barren and brutal, but it produces melange, a valuable (and addictive) spice that fetches a great price across the universe. Paul Atreides, son of the Duke tasked with ruling the planet, narrowly escapes with his life when the powerful Baron Harkonnen betrays the Atreides family. He journeys with his mother into the most desolate regions of Arrakis, where he begins to become part of the planet’s unique culture. As he makes this journey (which is both literal and spiritual, I might add), the Harkonnen family seeks to destroy all remnants of the Atreides family to tighten their own stranglehold on the spice-producing planet. 

That short description, as you might imagine, is incredibly high level. Dune focuses on tiny moments in time. The small change in the way a suspected enemy says a word. The intricacies of conserving water on a planet evolved to be dry. There’s so much content in Dune, but it’s not all flashy action or huge setpieces (though both get their due). The best comparison I can make is to A Game of Thrones. Politics and intrigue reign supreme in Dune, making it an extremely involved and sometimes boring reading experience. Your willingness to trudge through the first 300 pages will likely determine your tolerance level for such politics. Once I surpassed a whole book’s worth of verbal sparring and made it to the back half of Dune, I couldn’t put it down. What starts as a slow foundational story turns into a riveting adventure. You just have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the effort. 

I’ll assume you’re confident enough in your own abilities to make that decision for yourself and move onto an actual review of the book. Damn, it’s good. The characters are layered and fascinating. This is thanks in part to Frank Herbert’s amazing imagination. He has created an entire society replete with warriors, distinct planetary cultures, and a group of “witches” that can control people with just their words. Herbert slots his characters neatly into Dune’s various subcultures. The reader is privy to character complexities, which in turn are spurred by the cultural structures Herbert has built. Paul himself is a highlight, but so is his mother Jessica, the warrior-bard Gurney Halleck, and even Baron Harkonnen, the book’s primary antagonist. I soaked up each character’s flaws, strengths, and triumphs as if they were my own. 

Dune itself should be considered the star of the show here. I never thought Herbert could make a desert planet so vibrant and enticing. Through the eyes of Dune’s native Fremen, the planet is a thing of magnificent beauty. The flip side? It’s equally brutal. The sandworms that roam the lands can devour a chopper in a single swoop, and the slightest disturbance can betray a desert walker’s location to the beasts. These conditions give way to cultural practices that are flat-out fun to read about; Dune is a tapestry that constantly unveils new artistic wonders for readers who play close attention. 

It’s these qualities that sparked two hours-long reading sessions to finish Dune. Once I surpassed the lagging intro, I sped through the book as though a sandworm was hot on my trail. Dune serves as a wonder of worldbuilding, a masterclass in character, and a storytelling accomplishment worthy of its many accolades. And on top of being a truly great book, Dune will make you feel like a tried-and-true sci-fi fan. What more could you want?

Rating: Dune – 9.5/10
-Cole

The Stars Are Legion – Brutal and Whimsical

29090844._sy475_I’ve been meaning to check out Kameron Hurley’s recent work for a long time. I read The Mirror Empire back in 2015 and was immediately impressed by her ability to be brutal about violence and use her settings and worlds to convey sharp critiques while keeping her books fun. As I began to read more books, however, I never made my way back to her work, even though her ideas sounded intensely intriguing. Well this year, I decided to finally make time for Hurley’s work and starting with The Stars Are Legion (Legion), I made a great choice. Legion is a bombastic, weird, violent, and enheartening science fiction joyride.

Legion is a story about a society of all women, who live on living breathing shell worlds. These shell worlds are attached to each other by giant tentacles, and each world cannot survive on its own. The top of society lives near the exterior skin of these worlds, often leading raiding parties to take over and incorporate other worlds of the legion into their own. The levels below all have different cultures, understandings of the world around them and perceive their duties in different ways, scarcely believing anything exists more than two or three levels above them.

The reader follows Zan, a woman who wakes up to no memories and is immediately informed she is the savior of her people. Zan is told she will lead them to the Mokshi, a living planet that is able to escape the tendrils of the Legion and journey into space without fear of dying on it’s own. But, something is awry. As she comes to grips with her new reality and takes stock of her surroundings, she begins to get the distinct impression from the reactions and attitudes of the people around her that this has happened before. The person who feels closest to Zan, Jayd, seems to know more about Zan’s condition than she is letting on. It certainly doesn’t help that Jayd is the daughter of Empress Katazyrna, and is willing to do what is necessary to save her people. Is Zan the savior of the Katazyrna world, destined to lead them to the promised land of Mokshi, or is she just a pawn in the Empress Katazyrna’s game for more control of the Legion?

So let’s get this out of the way, I generally dislike amnesia as a form of introduction as it often feels like the easy way to hide information. Hurley manages to make the concept work, though, by both adding sinister undertones and not holding your hand when it comes to her worldbuilding. Unfortunately, I think it will lead to some readers bouncing right off, but I found it extremely compelling. Hurley gives just enough information about the world to let it build in your mind, to let the textures sink into your brain folds, and start to see it through your own eyes. The fact that everything, and I mean literally everything is made of flesh, sinew, blood and other various bodily focused materials slowly came to be realized, and it’s gross-out feel starts to subside. The lack of information dumps also allowed me to contextualize the world and think about how everything worked without it needing to be explained. I was free to think about what Hurley might be getting at by gradually fleshing out the world of the Legion. It’s an exciting form of worldbuilding that I’d love to see more of, allowing the more curious readers to really engage with the book.

While the worldbuilding, story and characters were all enjoyable and interesting in their own right, the most fascinating aspect to Hurley’s writing in this particular story is her themes. She has found a way to straddle the line of using a jackhammer on your skull to point out that there is more to the story than it’s surface presentation, while being subtle about what exactly she is trying to say. Much like the worldbuilding, she forces you as the reader to pick apart the little details, following them like a trail of breadcrumbs to the billboard at the end. She in some ways forces you to question her choices in the story, and question the systems at play. The little details aren’t interesting on their own, there is something else beyond it that makes it even more fascinating if you’re willing to ask “why?” Obviously you can read the book without tugging at those strings and still have a good time, but I strongly urge you take the opportunity to dive in.

However, while I found myself able to root out the morsels like a pig in a truffle laden forest, I do think the book requires a lot of buy-in from the reader. It’s a fast paced book that has a decent amount of action but there weren’t a whole lot of moments for reflection. There were times during dialogue heavy portions where I thought there would be a little more goading by Hurley to dig deeper into what she wants the reader to understand, but she sometimes just moves on. As I said previously, I don’t need hand holding, but at the same time, I never felt a moment where Hurley just slams the sledgehammer home to make her point. It creates an interesting dialogue with the reader, but doesn’t create a singular point of revelation in the story itself.

I had a great time reading Legion. I read the whole thing in less than two days. Hurley’s world is fascinating, allowing you question all of its details while making you think similarly about our own world. Her characters are interesting, even if they’re not super deep. Her themes run rampant, her metaphors take on new light as more and more of them are revealed. And while some people enjoy having things explained to them, I preferred Hurley’s method of letting the work speak for itself. If you’re looking for something strange, brutal, different from the science fiction you are used to, The Stars Are Legion is worth your time.

Rating: The Stars Are Legion 8.0/10
-Alex

The Best Novellas of 2020

You may have noticed we didn’t include any novellas on our Best of 2020 list. As we combed through the year’s many magnificent reads, we struggled to balance the short, punchy narratives of 2020’s various novellas with the sweeping stories of the novels that made our top rankings. To give credit where it is so rightfully due, we opted for a different approach this year, one that gives us a “Best Novellas of 2020” list to complement our top novels list. Novellas tell intriguing and often very specific stories, and with such a treasure trove of short(ish) fiction out this year, we want to recognize some of the amazing stories that emerged. Here’s our list of 2020’s best novellas.

5) The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan – What’s really interesting about The Kraken’s Tooth, and The Seven Swords series as a whole, is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novella is unfinished, but it feels stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It’s 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 tried and true 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.

4) The Empress of Salt and Fortune/When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo – Nghi Vo has just killed it this year with two novellas about a wandering archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the plot. The two novellas have very different subjects, but are both fantastic. Empress tells the story of an outcast in a high court outwitting their rivals, while Tiger is a sorta rap off between two bards retelling the same story of a tiger falling in love with a human. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in no matter what story she’s telling. The two shorts are dripping with emotion that easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

3) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – K.J. Parker’s exorcist main character is hated for who he is and reviled for the pain he causes people when he forcefully removes their demons. But he doesn’t care, and his open nonchalance about his less-than-stellar reception makes the nameless character intensely fun to read. When discovers that one of the great artists and philosophers of his time is possessed by a demon who’s calculating the artist’s every move and inspiration, he has a bit of a dilemma on his hands. Exorcise the thing and risk losing one of the most cherished minds of the era, or let the demon do its dirty work, knowing it all serves some grander, more nefarious purpose? Prosper’s Demon only clocks in at 100 pages, but those pages pack a punch. This is a succinct and hard-hitting story that very much deserves the sequel Tor announced in mid-October.

2) The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky – This novella is the story of a woman investigating a missing person case, told entirely in the second person. This means we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet (the lead) – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing. The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.

1) Riot Baby by Tochi OnyebuchiRiot Baby is an explosive novel that is fueled by Onyebuchi’s ability to target his reader’s emotions. Taking place over decades, the novella follows Kev and Ella, a brother and sister who happen to be black in America over decades of their lives. It’s a harrowing novel about the pain and anger that the African American community has suffered throughout its history on this continent, but more specifically about the nineties and onwards. Onyebuchi is careful not to alienate the reader though by weaving a moving story about a family wrestling with the weight of this history. It has a clever and impactful back and forth between siblings who rely on each other, yet still have an enormous amount of tension due to Ella’s gifts that Kev is worried she will never use to free him from prison. It’s dystopian, but Onyebuchi’s writing makes sure the reader never succumbs to despair. It’s perfect for this moment and the future. 

The Quill To Live 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Extravaganza

It’s gift-giving and last-minute-shopping time. And if you’re looking to get something for the bookworm in your life, a perfunctory “Gifts for book lovers” Google search will undoubtedly feed you a deluge of bookish trinkets and products. But here’s the thing. The best gift for a bookworm isn’t some fancy bookmark or library scented candle. The best gift you can give to your SFF-obsessed friend is a hefty tome they can enjoy. And lucky for you, we’ve assembled a quick ‘n’ easy gift guide for your book-loving friends and relatives. 

But first, here’s our Best of 2020 list. If you have a bookworm on your list, here’s a sampling of the latest and greatest in the SFF genres. If that doesn’t scratch the itch, just keep on reading for some “books-as-gifts” recommendations.

The 2020 Quill To Live Gift Guide

For people who love The Hobbit: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

  • What’s that you say? You like dragons and adventures? Well, then you really don’t have to look any further because that’s literally all this book is. Dragons and adventures. 

For people looking for a sci-fi space opera: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

  • This is for the friend who needs a good ole fashioned space fight, with a dash of heroism and intrigue. It moves fast, and doesn’t let the reader breathe, so they’ll be glued to the page just like they’ve always wanted.  

For someone who’s on Santa’s nice list: The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

  • Oh look, this book is on another list and the site owner is busy so I can sneak this one by! Seriously, though, give this one to your nicest, kindest friend. They’ll emerge even nicer and kinder. 

For someone who’s on Santa’s naughty list: Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker

  • Because this novella’s unnamed protagonist is so openly shitty that it’s impossible not to love him. 

If you’re looking for wonderful and interesting characters: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

  • This one is for the folks who just love people, no matter who they are or how they live their life, they just love meeting people. Unfortunately, the people in this book don’t talk back and will most likely make them cry, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

For someone who won’t stop telling you their story ideas: The Dungeon Master’s Guide

  • Hand ‘em this book and tell them you’ll create a character. Boom, everybody wins. (The Player’s Handbook is a good idea, too).

For someone looking for a political commentary: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

  • What’s that, you have a friend who likes politics with their politics, and with a side of more politics with a dessert full of intrigue? Give them Too Like The Lightning. they probably won’t be quiet about it, but hey, it’s a good story about the evolving nature of political systems.

For murder mystery buffs: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

  • A mysterious death. Native American magic. Ghost dogs. Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe has it all. 

For your “I want to read the book first” friend: Dune by Frank Herbert

  • It’s a flagship sci-fi novel, but the movie is delayed to 2021. Perfect time for your cinema-buff friend to catch up on Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. 

For people looking for an epic of gigantic proportion: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

  • You don’t often hear this series mentioned next to Game of Thrones, Kingkiller Chronicle, Gentleman Bastards, and the like…but you should. Bradley P. Beaulieu crafts a sweeping adventure that any epic fantasy fiend will devour.

For people looking to explore a magical school other than Hogwarts: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

  • Don’t beat a dead horse. Revive it and make it ten times cooler than it was before. Enter Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. Oh, you thought the well of magic school content had been tapped dry? Think again.

For someone who wants to feel all the feels: The Divine Cities series by Robert Jackson Bennett

  • These books will make you laugh, cry, gasp, sigh, and everything in between. Simply put, some of the best fantasy we’ve ever read. Also, there’s Sigrud. You’ll thank us later. We linked the first book, City of Stairs, but don’t sleep on City of Blades or City of Miracles. They’re all amazing.

For someone who cares about beautiful prose: Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of flowery language with a purpose, so you might as well hook your poet friends onto his work. You may never hear the end of it though, so be prepared.

For someone who wants to read a badass female protagonist: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

  • Just don’t tell them it’s about badass magic lawyers, unless that’s their bag, and you’ll be set. 

For someone new to fantasy: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

For someone still anxiously waiting for The Winds of Winter: The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson

  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen is a beefy, 10-book epic fantasy of gargantuan proportions. And the series ended, as in the author finished it, in 2011. Be careful who you buy it for, though, Malazan is one of the biggest pillars of fantasy you can find. It’s an undertaking, and your friend may need this primer.

For someone who loves superheroes: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

  • They might not like you for giving them a book that makes them unironically like the supervillain and want to see them win, but they’ll at least love the book.  

For someone who loves fairytales: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

  • The world’s sexiest man uhhhhh Henry Cavill uhhhhh Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, fights monsters and explores twisted versions of popular fairy tales in this collection of stories from Andrzej Sapkowski.

For someone who wants to go on an adventure: Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell

  • If your friend’s idea of a good time is getting involved in a fight they have no particular right to be in, that allows them to piss off people in power for the heck of it, and having an absolute blast doing it, this is the book for them. 

For someone who needs a laugh: Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

  • This series has a long set up, but an unfairly good punchline. This is for those friends who need to lighten up about taking genre fiction too seriously and just have a good time. 

For someone who likes a short and snappy read: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

  • We dubbed this a “scrumptious political snack” in our 9.0 review. Get it for your friend who wants an amazing story but can’t handle a 500-pager. 

Have more recommendations? Want other ideas for your bookworm friends? Drop us a line in the comments. We at The Quill To Live wish you a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season!

The Once And Future Witches – Burning With Passion

51jakcfxkslWell, this is a bit awkward. It seems we have had two “witches/women using magic in historical women’s movements” books this year, and one is far superior to the other. While there is enough room in the genre for any number of magic based women’s movements, The Once And Future Witches by Alix Harrow is our favorite for a variety of reasons I will go into. Additionally, I have a confession to make. Witches is Alix’s second book and she is coming in hot off of last years’ debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January… which I very much did not like. It just wasn’t my cup of tea and it has been super awkward to have any number of readers mention that I should check it out only to have to respond, “Ah, well, I did, and not for me thank you.” Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but it seems relevant in this situation to point out that I wasn’t a fan of January and I very much am a fan of this book.

Witches tells the story of three sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Each of them represents a different female archetype in fiction (the maiden, the mother, and the crone) and each of them finds themselves drawn to the city of New Salem by extraordinary circumstances. The city is undergoing a moment of upheaval. Women are marching to gain rights, witches seem to be making a comeback, and things are starting to get a bit chaotic. The three sisters were raised in a broken home and had an enormous falling out when they were younger, but time heals all wounds and magic has tied them together so they might as well try to get along. The story follows the trio as they attempt to find the lost ways of Avalon, a repository of magic left by the great witches of the past, and as they try to use their magic in both subtle and unsubtle ways to further the rights of women. Each of the sisters gives a window into the different struggles of women of the time, and now, and helps categories the struggles of the feminine half for readers of any persuasion.

This book has a slow start. When I initially began Witches I began to worry that I was in for a repeat experience. I didn’t connect much with the characters, the protagonists felt little more than the tropes they aimed to represent, and the prose was overwhelming. Harrow, for better or worse, is an extremely dramatic writer. Actions like opening windows are described as a flowery herculean task with a paragraph of text. But, as I stuck with the book a number of great things began to happen. Harrow’s prose, which bothered me when describing the little things in life, started being focused on the trials and tribulations of women. While her dramatic writing feels over the top when discussing mundane tasks, when describing things like powerful and emotional humanizing movements it is frankly amazing. Harrow manages to breathe so much passion and wonder into the actions of these characters and the book rapidly begins to rapidly feel less like a character story and more like a fairy tale about changing the world. It leads to some very powerful scenes and a lasting impact that stuck with me long after I closed the final pages.

While the protagonists of the story start out as feeling a little shallow, they absolutely do not remain that way. Around a quarter into the book, they start gaining depth rapidly and the trio that I ended with was unrecognizable from the sisters with which I began. I fell in love with these women and their stories. Their struggles became heartwrenching to experience and I found myself desperately rooting for them.

The formatting of the book is also a lot of fun, with each chapter starting with a rhyme/incantation for a spell that describes the nature of the chapter. There are also interlude chapters that are retellings of classic fairytales that are relevant to the story. In general, the production value of the book is fantastic and the physical book is a wonderful object to hold in your hands.

My criticisms of Witches are few. As I mentioned, I think the start of the book is a little slow and the pacing could be a bit uneven at times. There were parts of the book I couldn’t put down and other chapters I had to force myself to get through. While I think there are a number of very powerful emotional climaxes scattered throughout the entirety of the book, I actually found the finale a bit weaker than many of the earlier crescendos. But, ultimately these complaints did little to quench my enthusiasm for the book.

The Once And Future Witches is a beautiful and powerful story that uses Alix Harrow’s strengths as a writer to put a lot of punch into a touching tale about witches and women’s suffrage. The characters are wonderful, the fairytales are fresh and fun, and the magic leaps off the page. While it didn’t quite make our top 20 of 2020, it was pretty damn close and is certainly worth your time.

Rating: The Once And Future Witches – 8.0/10
-Andrew