A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will

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The Bone Ships – Bone, Brine, Bonds, And Brimstone

43521682._sy475_Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. Fresh off the finish of his assassin-centric Wounded Kingdom series, Barker has launched a new fantasy series about a crew of condemned who are given one final suicide mission to save their country. However, these sailors are anything but, and if they are going to stand a chance they will need to get in ship-shape quickly.

The Bone Ships takes place in a large archipelago, called The Hundred Isles, and the two nations that reside inside of it. Being an island nation, the primary form of warfare is nautical– waged in giant ships made of the bones of sea dragons. Although these ships are incredibly powerful, especially compared to those made of lesser material, the sea dragons have been hunted to extinction so their construction is finite. Without the ability to construct new ships, open warfare between the various islands grinds to a halt as the various groups fear losing their precious ships. However, a hundred years after the final sea dragon was presumed dead, an enormous shape is spotted on the ancestral migratory path of the sea dragons. It seems the dragons aren’t as dead as everyone suspected. Now, with a literal floating treasure trove of war resources on the horizon, The Hundred Isles enters a race to be the first to find, kill, and harvest this beautiful sea creature. Every boat on the sea is after this magical prize. Well, all except one – the Black Ship captained by Lucky Maes who sees an opportunity to end a generational conflict. As the captain of a Black Ship, a bone vessel that has decayed to the point of obsoletion and crewed by criminals, Maes will set out to protect, not hunt, this final dragon. If she can keep it alive and out of the hands of any one nation, she might be able to keep war from reigniting.

Despite my plot summary above, our protagonist in the book is not actually the aforementioned Lucky Maes. Instead, we get to witness the story from her first mate, Joron Twinner. Joron provides an interesting lens from which to experience the story. He starts as a sad sack of worthless poo, and we get to watch as Lucky Maes slowly whips him into a capable and inspiring leader over the course of the book. It is a time old trope that I am not even slightly tired of, and Barker nails the execution pretty fantastically. Once the story hits a “training montage” of Maes teaching the crew of the Black Ship, called The Tide Child, how to work together, you won’t be able to put it down. Unfortunately, the first part of the book drags like a corpse behind a carriage. Despite the worldbuilding being excellent overall, the intro to the book involves a ton of exposition just being dropped on you like a pile of bricks. Captain Maes also feels uncharacteristically shitty as a person (compared to her persona in the book as a whole) in this first bit. She is intensely unlikable, and although I knew she was going to make a turn towards lovable at some point, I almost put the book down.

Although I have some issues with the delivery methods, I am absolutely in love with the world of The Hundred Isles. Sometimes small pieces of the worldbuilding didn’t make sense to me, like I didn’t really get what the purpose of the Black Ships was. However, for the most part, both the larger worldbuilding concepts and the smaller details that support them are delightful. For example, there is some genetic profiling that proliferates the islands as people try to breed the best sailors. Status is conferred to women based on how many children they have birthed, and status is conferred to men based on their physical might and stature, to pass on the best genes. Men must compete to be placed into the slave, warrior, or breeder casts. Although it is fairly bleak and upsetting for both genders, Barker does an impressive job making it feel ‘right’ in the island setting, and that this is a culture that has evolved out of necessity instead of a luxury. BUT, my favorite little detail about this whole situation is what I will forever call the ‘penis pants’ that the highest cast of men wear to show off their fertility and prowess. They are essentially glorified leggings with hundreds of bedazzled arrows pointing to their dick to objectify the crap out of the guys, and I think the pants are amazing. You cannot convince me that they aren’t hilarious.

Yet, while the book can be funny and fun, it also has a grimdark streak that might not be to everyone’s taste. The magic and lore of the world are original but terrifying. Many of the bone ships have ‘ghost lights’ that hover above the decks protecting the vessels. These lights are made by smashing newborn babies, prisoners, and captives against the hull until they die and are absorbed by the bones. Fun. There are also these incredible bird people who can control the wind (which is invaluable on a sailboat) at enormous cost to their personal health. They often end up accidentally killing themselves while trying to force the wind to help their ships. These are just a few of the magics and creatures that Barker shows you in the book, many of which mesmerize and horrify. All of these things have a high level of intensity thanks to Barker’s excellent prose. He has a way of writing with a sense of momentousness that makes every action feel intense and gritty. When he describes sailors loading the ships’ bows, or seeing the sea dragon for the first time, you get these small moments of genuine awe through his writing. He has evocative prose that is an absolute joy to read.

While Joron is our sole lead, the book has an eclectic and dysfunctional cast of misfits that will warm your heart. The Tide Child is a big ship and accordingly has a very large group of people to crew him. Barker introduces you to what feels like fifty individual crew members, makes you start to love them, and then sends them into an unwinnable fight with zero plot armor. You learn pretty quickly that characters you like are not going to make it to the end of the book, and it adds a level of tension to the plot, which I really appreciated. Several of the cast have satisfying character arcs, and if watching people improve is your jam, then this book will hit all the right buttons.

The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that spoke to me on several levels. This book was one of the only escort quests I have ever enjoyed and it was a privilege to watch Lucky Maes forge an incredible crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Rating: The Bone Ships – 9.0/10
-Andrew

A Song for a New Day – Playing Fast And Luce

As with a lot of people, music has played a defining role in my life. I never really played an instrument (fifth-grade trumpet does not count), but it was always there in the background guiding how I viewed the world. However, my tastes and attitudes in the past few years have changed greatly from my punk and power metal days of high school to a more individualized and private set list of artists scattered throughout Bandcamp. I find myself mesmerized by the subdued vibrancy of vaporwave more often than not, and I get easily separated from current popular tastes, making it harder to share my favorites with those around me. So when I heard there was a novel about illegal underground concerts in a future where public gatherings are outlawed, my interest was piqued and the folks at Berkley were kind enough to indulge me. Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker, is a reflective yet energetic story about the power of music to create community in a time of extreme alienation. 

Pinsker’s novel follows Luce Cannon, a musician on the cusp of stardom, whose future of playing for her fans ends with everyone else’s. Luce is on tour when bomb threats start to permeate the nation, causing a wave of uncertainty and fear that anywhere could be hit. As she plays her last known concert, one of the threats is actually carried out, killing hundreds of people. Afterwards, an epidemic of disease leads to laws banning public gatherings, followed by companies eager to offer services that allow people to stay in their homes. Rosemary Laws, a second protagonist, grows up in this new world, known as ‘the After’. Her parents move to a farm to increase their sense of safety, further increasing their isolation from a progressively more insular world. She barely remembers what it’s like to have lived in ‘the Before’, spending most of her time in a virtual space that allows her to do her job from afar. When she is presented with a chance to do something different, Rosemary seizes the opportunity and takes a job at StageHoloLive to search for new musical acts in person. This seemingly unrelated chain of events facilitates her eventual run-in with our other lead, Luce Cannon. 

The main story is a joy to read as Pinsker interweaves her two narratives together, creating a mentor/student relationship where both character’s take turns in each role. Luce’s story starts with the slow and fairly realistic creation of the After, eventually digging into her attempts to cope within the new paradigm. The anonymous terror threats paired with the outbreak of a deadly disease lead to a self-imposed isolation that everyone seemed “okay with” in order to secure a safer life. Through Luce’s eyes, the reader is shown an incredibly personal account of the events, getting piecemeal snippets of the events as they occur. The author’s choice to focus on the everyday effects really drew me in, tying me to Luce and the people she surrounds herself with. On the other hand, Rosemary’s story highlighted the contented alienation most people would probably have resigned themselves to. Her parents isolating her to keep her safe, leaving her with a dead-end job, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Seeing Rosemary learn how to navigate in a society she barely understood and learn how to be around other people was engaging and empowering. 

While the story was enjoyable, Pinsker’s characters made it all the more impactful. Rosemary and Luce felt incredibly human. Their decisions have real consequences that sometimes didn’t get cleaned up, making their journeys feel all the more personal. Rosemary’s need to explore the world paired with her culturally imposed naivete put her in some dangerous situations. Luce had a defiance to her that was whispered with every breath. However, it seemed to become a feeling of comfort, allowing her to explore her music without exploring herself or the world around her. These two dynamics played off each other extremely well, each character’s actions affected one another like dominoes. Pinsker’s ability to portray self reflection touched me deeply, as the thought processes Rosemary and Luce both went through felt very relatable. Their ability to screw up, and then pick themselves up and try again with a different approach was inspiring. Pinsker avoided making these moments feel cheap by grounding them in very deliberate and reconciliatory actions that felt natural to the character’s sensibilities. 

The book’s themes of rebuilding community and self discovery dripped off every page, supported heavily by Pinsker’s approach to narrative. The entire book felt deliberate, blending style and substance almost seamlessly. The dual narrative allowed her characters’ insecurities to play off each other, giving the story a more natural flow. Pinsker highlights this duality by writing them in different perspectives, Luce being written in the first person, with Rosemary in the informed third person. It allowed me to sink into Luce’s world-weary and largely individualized defiance and feel the comfort of “doing what I can.” Rosemary becomes the perfect contrast, as her careless curiosity and need to prove herself drive a lot of the action. The third person style allowed me time to reflect, as if another person were there, guiding the introspection. There were a few cheesy moments, but they didn’t stick out in any seriously intrusive ways. 

There is so much to talk about with this book, it’s honestly hard to contain within a few paragraphs. Pinsker has an amazing ability to write concerts in a way that puts the reader in the thick of it. There is a rawness to the story that pulled me along and left me needing more every time I had to set the book down. It made me yearn for the pit in the middle of a show, screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, shoulder to shoulder with other euphoric strangers. On top of all of that, it made me think about how I engage with the people around me in my everyday life; how it’s easier to just put on my headphones and walk through the world to my own prescribed beat, instead of opening my ears to those around me. It’s tough and scary to think about building or participating in a community, let alone actually doing it. It isn’t any easier in Song for a New Day, but it makes the work feel worth doing. 

Rating: Song for a New Day – 8.5/10

-Alex

Gideon The Ninth – Murder On The Space Wizard Express

gideon-the-ninth-coverI wanted to call this book my sleeper pick for the best debut of the year, but seeing as the book isn’t even out yet and already has a subterranean press version being made it seems like I am not the only one in the know. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, was one of our dark horses for 2019 and a book we have been paying close attention to – mostly because it features necromancers. I feel like necromancers are mages that everyone thinks are cool, but don’t have enough books to scratch my lich. I was super pumped to see a new story about raising undead minions hitting shelves, and the fact that it’s a kickass action-adventure is the icing on the cake.

Gideon the Ninth has an ambitious and complicated premise, so bear with me. If I had to describe it in a single sentence it would be: Triwizard tournament meets murder mystery dinner in space. The setting is a galaxy-spanning empire run by a necromancer so strong he might as well be a god. This “necro lord prime” has nine houses underneath him, each with their own culture, specialty necromancer magic, and noble family. Our protagonist is the titular Gideon, orphan, swordswoman, and slave of the Ninth House. Gideon is an interesting character with a strong sword arm and a foul mouth. She has a bombastic and humorous personality that will have you laughing out loud and rolling your eyes (in a good-humored way). The book as a whole is extremely funny, but I found the humor more present in the first half as book gradually takes on a more serious and emotional tone. She is also a queer protagonist if that is something you are looking for in a book.

The first part of the book details Gideon’s frustrating life as a servant of Harrow, the noble daughter of the Ninth House. After trying to escape from Harrow’s clutches and repeated abuse for years, Gideon is offered a deal: team up with Harrow in a special tournament of champions, help her win, and go free. See, the lord necromancer is looking to build a new council of lieutenants and the selection process is shrouded in mystery. All the characters know is that it involves eight of the noble houses (numbers Two through Nine) sending a swordsperson and necromancer duo to represent them in a competition of sorts at the First House. So, Gideon of course accepts, and the majority of the book takes place in a giant mysterious tower with an eight-way battle royal between sixteen contestants.

God, I still have a lot to talk about and we are already almost five hundred words in. For starters, the characters in this book are stellar. A really good way to tell if a book has interesting characters is if you can remember, and differentiate, twenty-seven god-damn archaic names thrown at you all at the same time. Muir does not make it easy to remember who is who, with the reader meeting 10+ people all at the same time and casually rotating between referring to them by their first and last names depending on who is talking. But, she made it work. Every character is interesting, complex, memorable, and evocative of their unique identity on each page, which both helps you keep everything straight and get invested in the story. Shout out to Septimus, the enigmatic and studious royal of team “Eighth House” for being my crush – he’s super cool. However, all the characters were enjoyable and there wasn’t a single one I would change. In addition, Muir gave each of the houses a different take on necromancy, which was very exciting. It was like getting eight entirely different necromancer books at the same time.

Mum’s the word on the actual competition in the book, as figuring out what the competition actually entails is half the fun. The characters are left in this giant magical ‘Tower of Babel’ type structure, with no guidance, and told simply to go to town. This does a great job to stoke the reader’s sense of curiosity and urgency while reading the book, while also creating this tense atmosphere of distrust between all of the characters as no one understands the rules of the “game.”

The worldbuilding in Gideon The Ninth is a complicated and nebulous topic, as I think it is a strength and a weakness of the book. As a strength: Muir has some really cool and interesting ideas. Necromancy, in my humble opinion, is hard magic to make fun and exciting – as it traditionally just involves raising undead minions. Muir manages to make classical takes on necromancer magic fresh and exciting, as well as invent several cool new takes on the magic. In addition, she does all of this in space, which just adds another layer of complication to the subject. The houses are all interesting and felt like they have complex histories that are breeding grounds for conflicts. The tensions between houses in the book feel organic, and you get a nice feeling of this huge space empire where each house takes on a different role.

However, while I think all of the above positives about Muir’s worldbuilding are true, I also think that the world-building can feel extremely piecemeal at times. While houses feel unique and well fleshed out, this is only true about the houses that Muir takes time to talk about (which is about half). The other houses are left completely unexplained, and it can leave the reader frustrated. While you will get these nice little details on how this space empire runs, a lot of what is going on is left completely unexplained and the reader needs to be comfortable with being left in the dark. I got the sense that Muir built out this very intricate and well-realized universe, but then didn’t explain enough of how her world works in the book so that you get this sense that you are missing a ton of information. It can also create this sense of “false depth,” where the worldbuilding seems deep on the surface but lacks the small details to really breathe life into the world. I think a lot of these worldbuilding problems stem from plot relevancy. It often feels like Muir wants to keep how her world works secret, and the only details you can pry out of her hands are the worldbuilding that is immediately relevant to the story. In the end, it gives the sense that Gideon the Ninth is less the first book in a series, and more the first half of a really good incomplete book.

All things considered, Gideon The Ninth is an ambitious, engrossing, creative, hilarious romp that stands out in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has some issues, but they do little to detract from the pure unbridled joy I felt as I tore through this debut. Gideon The Ninth is likely the strongest debut of the year and is one of the funniest books I have read recently. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly. Don’t sleep on this dark horse, go check out one of the best books of the year.

Rating: Gideon The Ninth – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Rivers Of London – Fine, I Will Read The Rest

61r8uqibqcl._sx324_bo1204203200_So it’s basically Dresden, but British.

That might seem reductive and lazy to say, but honestly, if you like the very popular and well known The Dresden Files, and you like British stuff, you will love this. That is not to say that Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, is in any way a rip-off or a copy. Rivers of London is an original, extremely British, urban fantasy about a cop solving supernatural crimes in London. It just shares so many strengths, and weaknesses, with The Dresden Files that it felt worth pointing out. But enough with the comparisons, let’s talk about Rivers of London on its own merits.

I was hesitant to jump into the Rivers of London series as its currently ten-ish (hard to say with all the side stories) books long and seems to show no signs of slowing down. As a reviewer, that represents a huge time sink, especially because reviewing sequels in a series gets progressively harder. However, I picked up a signed copy of the first book the last time I was in London (thanks Forbidden Planet) and it finally came up in my reading queue. This might seem like the annoying life story before an online recipe, but I promise I will come back to this paragraph and you will see its importance.

In the meantime, the plot of Rivers of London is fairly simple: our cop protagonist, constable Peter Grant, has just finished his training and is awaiting assignment into a London police specialty division. While investigating a strange murder in the center of the city he has an encounter with a ghost and finds out he has an affinity for magic. Thus, he is assigned to a somewhat secret paranormal magic crime division that only has one other member – his new magical teacher. The rest of the book essentially bounces between two focuses: slowly solving the murder mystery and exploring the world of magic in London. I honestly found the murder mystery to be a bit of a letdown. The plot didn’t really feel like a true murder mystery, where I had a chance to figure it out on my own, but instead was more of a series of unrelated magical events that lead to the characters explaining to the reader what was going on. It didn’t feel very satisfying or compelling and is definitely one of the weaker aspects of the book.

On the other hand, the worldbuilding is incredible. As I read through the book I found myself dreading every time the narrative shifted back to the murder and away from establishing the lore and magic of London. The book is incredibly English in its mannerisms and attitudes (most people’s reactions to learning ghosts are real is something along an emotionally suppressed “alright then”). We get to interact with legends and lore from London’s history, meet cool ghosts, visit iconic locations, and watch Peter start to become a magician. Peter spends a decent chunk of the book training and learning new skills in a Hogwarts meets night-school setting, and I love it. It’s a slow burn and you really feel the emotional payoff as Peter starts to dip his feet into the ocean of mages.

Speaking of Peter, he is an interesting protagonist. We spend the whole book inside his head, but there is a strong support cast. His personality is an interesting mix of mild incompetence, wanderlust, curiosity, and innovation. He is also a black lead if you are looking for a book with a non-white protagonist. There are about ten reoccurring side characters all with fun and varied personalities, but the support cast MVP award definitely goes to Peter’s superior and mage master: Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. He is an older mage with a cultivated air of mystery and works as a perfect foil to Peter. Nightingale is old school, and you get the sense he has been doing this police work a LONG time, and Peter does a good job providing value to the duo by being more familiar with modern police techniques and technology. They make a fun mash-up of science and magic that makes Peter feel useful while he slowly learns magic.

However, the book does have some issues. As I mentioned before, the monster-of-the-week mystery in book one is a bit boring and unintuitive. Hopefully, this is a problem that is simply confined to the first book and the next crimes will be more captivating. Additionally, there didn’t feel like there was much set up for an overarching narrative across the books so I hope there is more of that in book two. Rivers of London is also definitely… written for men. I don’t know if I would call it sexist, as there are women with agency and complex roles, but it certainly objectifies them to an exhausting amount. Seriously, if I have to read about another character casually “pressing their breasts” against another part of Peters’s body I will scream.

Here is where I circle back to that earlier paragraph. When I finished Rivers of London I had a decision to make: was the book interesting and fun enough to set aside the time to read its pile of sequels when I have limited time? Well if you have read the title you will know my answer is yes. There were some problems with the book, but the foundations and foreshadowing that Ben lays down in book one are extremely promising and the world alone was enough to get me to reserve book two at the library. So congrats Ben Aaronovitch, you successfully got me to commit to a tantalizing and huge series in a packed release season. I hope you are happy with yourself.

Rating: Rivers of London – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – Natural 20

“I’m going to read the entire Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” turned out to be my greatest terrible idea yet. Or maybe it was a terrible great idea? I’m not entirely sure, mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed the 320-page deep dive into the world of DnD, but it also felt like trudging through a quagmire of intricate rules and descriptions just so I can tell people when they’re wrong about how effective their Potion of Fortitude is. By the time I turned the final page, I felt resoundingly good about my time with the manual.

The first point in the Player’s Handbook’s favor is its inherent fantasy bent. We’re no strangers to fantasy here, but to read through a fantasy game’s manual, no matter how whimsical or magical the game’s content, is decidedly different than picking up Lord of the Rings. The Player’s Handbook reads as a remarkably self-aware manual, playing that awareness to its advantage by offering short prosaic snippets that help readers vividly imagine the worlds of DnD before then giving more context to the nitty-gritty rules aspects of the game. These short fantasy descriptions that lead each chapter are welcoming entryways into the deep explorations of game mechanics that follow. 

The Player’s Handbook achieves its designated purpose. Namely, explaining the rules of “the world’s greatest role-playing game” to a newcomer. I opened the tome with just four DnD sessions under my belt (all played with the *supposedly experienced* Quill to Live staff!), most of which saw my character, Jimbabwe Razzledazzle, simply making jokes and occasionally bonking enemies on their heads with xylophone mallets to little effect. There was a tipping point somewhere in those first four sessions, though, when I thought “I need to know this game inside and out,” sparking my impulse to read straight through the first of the game’s core rulebooks. 

The rule descriptions are flawlessly complemented by expertly crafted illustrations that bring the world of DnD to life. It’s a game predicated on imagination, and seeing that concept depicted in the illustrations is an added bonus on top of the comprehensive and accessible rule-based content. 

DnD’s pantheon of rules plays the starring role as one might expect, but it feels distinctly readable in a way I never anticipated. The book is laid out in chapters and parts, each outlining a core facet of DnD: Races, Classes, Combat, Equipment, Spells, and more. I found the chapters and the content within them less captivating as the book carried on, but that’s because the layout and order just makes sense. I ravenously read through the class and race descriptions, eager to understand which types of beings might inhabit a game world and how they differ. Then I ventured more slowly into the other game elements. Sure, reading about the effects of leather armor can be interesting enough, but the true joy of reading through these segments is in understanding how they impact the game. For that reason, the less outwardly exciting chapters are completely manageable…

…until SPELLS. “Spells” is the final core chapter before a few appendices, and it’s literally just 50+ pages of spell descriptions. I read them all. Every. Single. One. Even when three different spells had near-identical effects with only small stat changes to differentiate them from their arcane brethren, I read every word. It felt philosophically necessary, if slightly masochistic, to make the leap and finish the book all the way through, even though it meant slogging through the spell descriptions. And this isn’t to say that they’re bad. Quite the opposite–the spell descriptions have that same accessible-but-fun spark as the rest of the rules. They’re just so…numerous. 

But I didn’t quit, and I don’t think any player should. The spells available in DnD quite literally weave magic into the world. And while most of them aren’t available to players right away, there’s value in knowing just what kinds of magic permeate your game world, and I felt better-versed in DnD after closing the page on the “Spells” chapter. 

There are myriad game elements, rule descriptions, and other tips and tricks in the Player’s Handbook that I’ve neglected to mention here. The book is so replete with game lore and mechanics that it’s impossible not to recommend it to anyone interested in jumping down the DnD rabbit hole. Pair those rules with amazing illustrations and tidbits of fun fantasy wordsmithery, and it’s a critical hit. 

Rating: Player’s Handbook – Read it if you’re at all interested in playing DnD/10
-Cole

The Cruel Stars – Vicious, Yet Dubious Fun

519c9vra2hlThere is something alluring about military science fiction. It takes the massive volume of space and narrows it to a single point: conflict. Often, this specific genre ignores a lot of the more nuanced questions that sci-fi often proposes in favor of a single query: what would humanity do in order to survive? Normally, I miss this complexity and nuance, but every now and then I want an action-focused romp against an easily discernible bad guy that definitely needs a kick in the teeth. Luckily, the folks at Del Rey offered me the chance to fulfill this desire by letting me read John Birmingham’s recently released novel, The Cruel Stars. It’s a book that offers a clear black-and-white conflict with heavy action, but delivers little else.

The Cruel Stars takes place in the Volume, a series of undefined star systems colonized and inhabited by humanity. Two hundred years prior to the events in the book, a civil war was fought to decide the course of human development. To be honest, Birmingham gives the reader very little context about this war beyond “the Sturm lost.” The Sturm, a faction of people that felt they needed to purify the species of any genetic or cybernetic enhancements, were essentially thrown into the void after their defeat. Little is said about the conflict itself, and nothing is specified about the way they lost to one of the book’s protagonists. As the book opens, the Sturm are returning to fulfill their promise. The descendants of the Anti-Sturm (how I refer to them, not Birmingham’s words), the victors of the war, are ill-prepared to deal with their return. The spaceborn naval forces of the Anti-Sturm are crushed in an instant, allowing the Sturm to begin their campaign with confidence. Unfortunately for them, they do not wipe out all resistance, most notably failing to neutralize the man who defeated them two hundred years earlier.

The plot itself is straightforward, putting the reader in the passenger seat as the Volume-wide invasion is witnessed through five different perspectives – all of which take place within the same star system. Birmingham spends little time introducing the five POV characters, offering a chapter to each before the conflict begins. By eschewing worldbuilding and focusing on the characters and plot, Birmingham sets a brisk pace that propels the action forward. The narrative moves with a frenetic style that kept me entertained for the most part, but it leaves little to no real breathing room to really understand the conflict. I don’t mean to say “space Nazis should be given their due,” as much as I want to point out that the people fighting them are barely given a cause beyond “they’re gonna kill us”. It isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but it did not engage me with the fight for survival beyond “the Sturm can’t win”. It’s very black and white, which is what was promised, but the few slow moments left my brain to probe the empty spaces where worldbuilding should have filled in the gaps.

Which leads to the book’s info dump of an introduction that other reviewers warned about. Within the first chapter, I joined the ranks of readers who discovered that the book hits the reader with a lot of information up front before jumping into the “real” story. Normally, this doesn’t bother me, but The Cruel Stars made it more of a slog than usual. Birmingham introduces the story’s primary protagonist in a slurry of unfamiliar and decontextualized military ranking titles while also attempting to explain the character’s background and motivations. This narrative choice was confusing and failed to provide the “hook” that would otherwise have drawn me in. The other introduction chapters read similarly, with scant details on the world and societies that developed after the war, beyond the character’s small relation to them. I wasn’t initially bothered by this choice because it felt like Birmingham was leaving room for characterization to happen later as the protagonists watch their world burning. However, the reader is rarely given an idea of what kind of world the Sturm are destroying, let alone any reason the characters would fight for it. It feels like a missed opportunity to really dig into the setting and the factors that allowed for the rise of the Sturm in the first place.

There is also a very noticeable lack of scale to the story and the conflict. The reader is given very little indication of the size of The Volume. Vague descriptions offer an idea of factions that make up the Volume, but have no indication of their size, location, or political goals. We know that one controlling interest is a megacorporation where the C.E.O. is chosen by feudal birthright, while another powerful political entity employs a type of debt slavery, but that’s about it. Earth exists, but in what capacity, I could not tell you. That isn’t to say Birmingham is scant on details. In fact, he loves having minituae filter through the characters and the way they engage with their surroundings. The issue arises when these details focus so much on the character’s relation to the world that the world itself becomes muddy. It would be cool if that was used to highlight the Volume as a place that needs change, and that this war is just the thing to get it started. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the characters expressed a general disdain for the socio-political structure of their world, there is little interest in following through on that unhappiness to facilitate real change.

The world would have also felt a little more real if the characters themselves went beyond their initial personality. All of the protagonists follow a fairly standard action character archetype, which makes them easy to latch onto. They were likeable enough, but they don’t really grow beyond that introduction. The reader is told that the characters are flawed, but other than being generally obstinate, I’m not sure what their flaws were. They didn’t really exhibit them in any way that felt human or effective. The “flaws” did not add any real character tension between the rag-tag team, nor did it lead to any conflict within the story. On top of that, characters who exhibited traits considered “impure” by the Sturm did not seem to have any added stake in the fight either. Everyone had the same feelings about the Sturm, which was just, “man, I hate those guys.” Even a small window into the life of the Sturm did not open any real avenues for exploration.

While The Cruel Stars has its issues, I actually had some fun with it. There are so many small details scattered through the book that feel like breadcrumbs to a larger context. There is potential for a more cohesive world with a broader and more nuanced understanding of the conflict at hand. The action is fast and intense, making the fights feel loud and messy. There are a few weird and contrived decisions, but overall the story had a nice flow that reminds the reader that a war is happening. The technology used in the opening gambit by the Sturm is terrifying, visceral and unexpected. There is a beautiful nuance to the way the Volume refers to the bad guys as the Sturm, while the bad guys call themselves “The Human Republic.” The little pieces added some flair and kept stringing me along to the end just to see how it would play out.

There is something fascinating about a story that has the ability to entertain while also leaving so much room for dissection. I think where this book mostly falls apart for me is that while I loved all the small details, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It’s disconnected from its own world as much as it is from ours. It barely satiates the need to watch Nazis get their just desserts, while offering little in the way of counterargument to their ideals beyond “no way, José.” The Cruel Stars was fun and had some genuinely cool ideas, but that’s about all I think it has to offer.

Rating: The Cruel Stars 5.5/10
-Alex