The Worst Of All Possible Worlds – Nobody Faster

51wgb7eeelI gotta hand it to Alex White, the quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. Today we will be talking about the third and final installment of the trilogy, The Worst of All Possible Worlds. On top of White continuing their trend of extremely verbose but super cool names, they have managed to write an explosive and climactic conclusion the likes of which I have not read for a while. Usually, finale books in trilogies are hard to talk about due to spoilers, but I have so many nice things to say about this book that this review essentially wrote itself.

If you are just hearing about this series for the first time, please go read my reviews of either book one (A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe) or book two (A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy) and get started – you will not regret it. For everyone else, strap the heck in. Our story picks up very soon after the end of Galaxy, and the crew of the Capricious is feeling pretty worn down and wrung out despite their massive success in book two. They’re hurting from their losses, and though they have made noticeable progress against their nebulous foe – the antagonist is still going strong. Unfortunately, the big bad guy of the series has decided the time for stealth is over and launches a full-scale invasion with overwhelming firepower against the known universe. The crew quickly realize that there is no way to currently beat back the rising tide of enemies. So, as usual, the Capricious sets out to find a lost legend – Origin, humanities cradle of life – in the hopes it might have something that can win the battle.

I was actually recently talking about this series when I wrote my guide to Science Fantasy. As I mentioned in that piece, The Salvagers is a beautiful action-packed fusion of a world that combines magic and technology for astoundingly cool results. I also mention in that piece that there is nothing I have read that comes close to my favorite work of science fantasy, Heroes Die,… until now. Worlds has this perfect fusion of both fantasy and sci-fi that work together in concert to build a symphony of awesome. The biggest theme throughout the series is using historical knowledge and research (fantasy) to innovate powerful leaps forward in technology (science-fiction) – and it works to blend the two genres wonderfully. But, the use of this theme is a wonderful element that all three books have – so let’s focus on the two huge things that Worlds’ nails in particular.

The first is blockbuster action. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. I was initially a little worried based on the back blurb that makes the book sound like it’s going to be a McGuffin fetch quest to Deus ex the conflict away. It is nothing close to that, with Worlds containing action sequence after action sequence, set piece after set piece. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse.

The second thing Worlds does right is the emotional pay-off. Now back when I read book one three years ago, one of my major criticisms of White is that their writing felt somewhat overemotional. I love huge emotional scenes, but it felt like White was putting the cart before the horse and trying to get the reader to feel massively connected to these characters that the reader just hadn’t spent enough time with. Yet, that same weakness in book one is now a massive strength in the finale. The emotional payoff in Worlds’ is like winning a lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series.

I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. My only complaint is I felt there were a few too many unanswered questions at the end of Worlds, especially if White doesn’t plan to return to the world any time soon. I can say with confidence and ease that this will be one of the strongest science fiction and fantasy books of 2020. Go read this series right now.

Rating: The Worst of All Possible Worlds – 10/10
-Andrew

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10
-Alex  

Network Effect – A Whole New Ballgame

41spd48rbalLet’s get it out of the way early: Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and likely surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. If you are coming into this paragraph and don’t know what I am talking about, I assume you have been living under a rock. Wells’ Murderbot novellas have repeatedly raked in every award they can qualify for and have been a standout smash genre hit. We reviewed them here (novella 1-2, 3, 4), all extremely positively, and they might be the best novellas I have ever read. However, this year Wells decided to expand the series with a full-blown sequel novel. This was both exciting and a little concerning, as a lot of what made the novellas powerful was their tight character-driven focus and succinct themes. The stories felt perfect for their short page length and just because the novellas were great doesn’t mean the novel would be outstanding. This makes the fact that Network Effect nails the transition so darn exciting.

As this is technically the fifth part in the series, and it would be very easy to spoil entire novellas, I am going to completely skip on the plot of Network Effect. If you are new to the series, check out my review of All Systems Red to get an idea of what you are walking into — but know that I haven’t met a human who didn’t enjoy these books. The purpose of this review isn’t to dissect whether you should buy this book — we unequivocally think that you should. No, the purpose of this review is to pay tribute to the literary triumph that is Wells’ Network Effect.

Network Effect is very different in style from the novellas it follows. The novellas had a tight focus, clear streamlined themes, and eschewed world-building for a narrow cast to highlight the character arc of Murderbot. Network Effect instead pulls the story back and broadens the scope. There is significant world-building, a larger and more ambitious plot, an expanded range of protagonists (though Murderbot is still the star), and in-depth explorations of themes that were only hinted at in the original novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. It is a hell-of-a book.

Network Effect is an unqualified success and is going to be one of the most popular books this year. I foresee it winning a number of awards and accolades, all of which will be rightly deserved. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels makes me wonder what other novellas could shine from a similar treatment. The entire Murderbot series is phenomenal and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out.

Rating: Network Effect – 10/10
-Andrew

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

51m4ozexl1l

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

Suits

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