The Rage of Dragons – Little Too Much Rage, Not Enough Dragons

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Here we have another of The Quill to Live dark horses for 2019, a very promising debut book called The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter. This book was pitched to me as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones” which immediately perked up my interest – and I jumped in as soon as I could, thanks to a review ARC that the lovely people at Orbit sent over in exchange for an honest review. At the end of the day, I think that their description is fairly apt – this book does have a lot of the pulse-pounding arena fighting of Gladiator and the clever political machinations of Game of Thrones, both of which make the book a lot of fun. The Rage of Dragon’s problem is it doesn’t have much more beyond these two qualities.

The plot of RoD is best experienced knowing as little as possible. The book portions out world building and story developments sparingly, preferring to keep you in the dark. It works pretty well and Winter does a great job keeping the reader curious about what will happen next. The back of the book does a good job with the story blurb, but here is a brief summary of what is good to know going in:

The book follows the fate of the Omehi people as they flee an unknown scourge in their homeland. The prologue of the book sees them arriving as settlers on a new frontier with nowhere left to turn. However, this new land is not uninhabited and Winter tells us of “savages” who call it home do not take kindly to having their lands invaded. Thus begins a war of attrition between the Omehi refugees and the native savages of this tropical land. The book then jumps almost two hundred years later, where we see the Omehi have established a foothold and rudimentary society in the new land. They have managed to survive this long in an endless war through the power of their ‘gifted’. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons and one in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else in the Omehi are considered footmen in this endless war and are trained to spend their blood serving the greater good of their people. A man’s status in their world is related to their ability to fight. Our protagonist, gift-less Tau, knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured and get out early. However, when almost everyone he knows is brutally murdered he dedicates himself to becoming the greatest warrior in the land and seek vengeance no matter the cost.

The book spends 90% of its time in Tau’s head, with only brief forays into other characters in the name of world building. The story has many elements of a “magical school” story, with the majority of the page space being devoted to Tau’s training and lessons. The first quarter of the book flashes out what typical life for the Omehi is like, and the rest is about Tau going from zero to hero. This elongated training montage involves an enormous amount of fighting, often one on one. This book is bursting at the seams with fight scenes, and if you aren’t into action sequences you are going to have a bad time. The good news is that Winter is an excellent action writer – the combat is often gripping and invigorating. If you think combat is the pinnacle of fantasy writing you are going to love this book. The problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is that there isn’t enough substance to the characters and world building to accompany the fighting.

Tau isn’t a bad character, but he’s also not particularly deep. He doesn’t really think things through or have long term goals and it makes it hard to see the bigger picture in the book. He feels like he is being battered by the winds of fate and it can make the progression of the plot and story feel jittery and hard to be invested in. He is hard to identify with on anything other than a surface level.

The real issues I had with this book are in the world building – and they are many. The first problem is that the book is touted as an African fantasy, but feels more like a recolored European romp. The cast is entirely black, which I like, but the culture, magic, and attitudes of the characters feel directly transposed from any of the hundreds of traditional European fantasy books you can find in the genre. The book is really not great to women – at all. Omehi people claim to be a class based society led by women and one where men as seen as the lesser gender. We get to spend a good ten pages with the first queen of the people and see her do some absolutely amazing stuff. However, once Tau gets behind the wheel all of that is dropped harder than the writing quality in season 8 of Game of Thrones. Every woman that Tau interacts with in this book is a tool to give him praise, or someone to be murdered, and usually raped, to rally the reader to Tau’s cause. It makes the “ruled by women” claim feel paper thin and left a bad taste in my mouth. Additionally, the world feels over the top brutal – to the point where it overshoots grimdark and moves into edgy. Everyone is murdered for the slightest offense, life is garbage every waking moment, and the only purpose of 99% of the population is to die in the name of a nameless cause the reader doesn’t understand for a long time. The magic is interesting, but extremely confusing because the magic system is tied directly into the plot which is kept intentionally nebulous. Finally, the politics of the area are exciting and do a really good job of creating moments of tension, but they also feel archaic and unnatural in the setting.

The Rage of Dragons has some issues, but is a mix of good and bad. I feel that the world is underdeveloped and could have benefited from a little less time fighting and a little more time fleshing out the white space and trimming the grim brutality. On the other hand, the book is an action movie wet dream, with tons of amazing sequences and a satisfying growth arc that takes a young hero from nobody to somebody. Whether you think you would like this book is up to you, I would recommend you think about how much you like fight scenes and how important world building is to you when deciding to pick it up. Despite my issues with it, I still think I am going to pick up the sequel as Winter did a great job of capturing my curiosity and kept me reading. I just hope that some of the problems I had with book one are less pronounced in the sequels.

Rating: The Rage of Dragons – 5.0/10
-Andrew

Tiamat’s Wrath – Welcome To The End Game

51xnnd8dqtlI have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now”. The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left.

For those of you who haven’t read through book seven, I would turn back now and reconsider your life choices. There are no spoilers for Tiamat’s Wrath in this review but it is impossible to talk about the plot without spoiling older books to a degree. Wrath picks up right on the tail end of its predecessor, Persepolis Rising, and starts with a major character death on literally the first line. Yeah, that’s a really good metaphor the emotional roller coaster that is this book so strap the fuck in. Wrath focuses on humanity following the rise of Laconia and explores how our collective race reacts to yet another massive change in the structure of galactic power. It is a fairly bleak picture. Our “heroes” have been reduced to covert guerilla fighters who must strike from the shadows with the effectiveness of an ant tanking on a tank, while the Laconia explores ring systems looking for what killed the Protomoleculians.

The book is told from the perspective of Naomi, Bobbie, Alex, the returning Doctor Elvi (from Cibola Burns), and a new character Teresa who happens to be Duarte’s daughter. As always, the characters are just phenomenal and I am more attached to some of them than members of my own family. As I talked about in my Persepolis review, the cast is getting old – Corey paints a vivid picture of a generation that is running out of time metaphorically and literally as they get on in years. Wrath’s themes revolve a lot around people who are questioning if their fight is still worth it after all these years. The book is draped in this pervasive atmosphere of exhaustion, and it bleeds into the reader as you embark on what feels like a final journey with old friends.

While the book is just one emotional kick in the shin after another on the character front, Wrath also finally pulls the curtain back on the two alien races we have been guessing about since book one. You learn a buttload about both the Protomoleculians, and the race that killed them, and it serves beautifully to set us up for the grand finale. It feels weird that Corey has managed to cram so much excellent worldbuilding into the EIGHTH book in a series, but the two of them never seem to stop. The action is fantastic, as always, and the book ends with one of the most exciting and prolonged fights of the entire series. All in all, this is probably one of my favorite Expanse books. My only real criticism is that our current arch-villain, Admiral Duarte, doesn’t feel as magnificent or clever in Wrath as I would have hoped. Duarte makes some questionable choices in Wrath that felt a little out of character and more based on Corey moving the plot where they wanted it to go. However, this was a small complaint on an otherwise stellar book.

Tiamat’s Wrath continues The Expanse’s tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how the Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

Rating: Tiamat’s Wrath – 9.5/10
-All Of Us

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – Borderlands Meets Ready Player One

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David Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits takes off at an epic pace and never slows down. Really, this futuristic sci-fi fever dream treasure hunt reads like one long crescendo, with some tasteful dips and peaks and some dull moments. As near-future over-the-top sci-fi goes, the novel carves its own niche and tells an interesting story, even if it’s a bit shallow. Protagonist Zoey Ashe receives news of her estranged father’s death, then immediately dives into a world of booze, crime, and loads of money. While she knew of her father–and his insanely enormous bank account–she didn’t know him. Turns out he was essentially the Godfather of Tabula Ra$a (yeah, that’s how it’s spelled), a desert city that can best be categorized as Las Vegas amped up tenfold. He was unbelievably rich and left something in a vault that only Zoey can open. She’s whisked away into the juiced-up sin city by holographic text messages and muscle cars, tracked the entire time by the feed of an all-seeing crowdsourced social network.

Her adventure to open the vault flavors the novel with a veritable smorgasbord of sci-fi wonderment that’s slightly reminiscent of Ready Player One, but without the needless onslaught of 80s nostalgia. [Mild Spoiler] The vault actually turns out to be a MacGuffin, and the crux of the novel sees Zoey coming into her own as a cog in the gears of Tabula Ra$a. Zoey’s journey after the book’s first third launches her headfirst, and with little preparation, into a battle with artificially enhanced thugs and a supervillain. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits wastes no time introducing countless action tropes with fresh twists. But Zoey and the surrounding plot are vastly overshadowed by the sheer wonder of Tabula Ra$a. The city’s starring role cannot be undersold. Wong weaves a setting of unparalleled vibrancy. Tabula Ra$a, built on the backs of criminal millionaires and fun-seeking hooligans, bursts with light, color, and life. It’s the type of world that begs to be explorable in a video game, and Wong knows precisely how to play that angle with fitting descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, buildings, and politics.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits struggles, though, when it comes to character. Zoey herself is a premier example. She cracks jokes and engages in witty banter, but that’s her whole schtick. Wong often uses his female protagonist as an excuse for lackluster innuendos, which mostly fall flat. It doesn’t help that Zoey is way out of her league relative to the trendy, cunning elite that keeps her company throughout. Her father’s former employees all ooze perfection in one way or another. They’re all dressed to the nines and oddly amazing at what they do. In fact, each is painted as so infallible that even the interesting backstory they’re given does little to flesh them out into more than one-dimensional secret agent archetypes. There are a few exceptions to this rule; Zoey’s bodyguard, Armando, is the best of them. He provides comedic relief and boasts a relatable and human backstory. Still, exceptions like Armando just aren’t plentiful enough to salvage the tepid characterization.

Like Tabula Ra$a as a setting, the book’s plot plays into the quirky nature of Wong’s oddball near-future. When robotically/surgically enhanced thugs start causing trouble and terrorizing the city during a hunt for Zoey, she and her cast of spy sleuth action heroes have to take the offensive. To be clear, the plot works and fits just fine within the world, but this book could have easily been about Zoey dealing with her Dad’s death in a completely foreign environment while adapting to a new life, and I would’ve liked it just as much. Essentially, the plot serves as a decent device and not a pillar on which the book could stand alone.

On a more genre-related level, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits yearns to be appreciated as its own unique brand of sci-fi that encapsulates elements of modern times, super-feasible near-future gadgets, and insanely advanced technology. In this regard, it clicks, and Wong’s treatment of his world and the characters within makes for a serviceable start to what could be, with some polishes and tweaks, an amazing sci-fi saga. Of course, that’s if he decides to write it as a series. For now, the novel accomplishes a bevy of sci-fi tasks and falls short on others. With an interesting world and loads of action, it’s a worthwhile romp with its fair share of flaws.

Rating: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – 7.0/10
-Cole