Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – Borderlands Meets Ready Player One

SuitsDavid 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

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A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – Vast and Furious

35520564Here we have another of Orbit Publishing’s summer debuts, which they graciously sent me in exchange for an unbiased review. A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, by Alex White, is the first book in his Salvagers series. I will tell you right off the bat that I think this is going to be one of the most divisive books I have read and a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are going to feel its not their thing. Which side you fall on is what I will hope to show you with this review. However, if I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure.

Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic crew, with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. Our protagonists are Boots and Nilah, two complicated women from very different backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. Boots is a war veteran from a conflict that had no winner and a scam artist with no scruples. She survived a war that wiped out both sides and now scrapes by selling fake salvage/treasure maps to suckers who come to her. She also has a rare birth defect, she was born with no magic. On the other hand, Nilah is a magic prodigy with a need for speed. Pampered and privileged as the daughter of the elite, Nilah is a race ship driver, spending her time using her mechanical magic to drive a futuristic race car. She is egotistical and spoiled, but none can deny her brilliance with her magic as she’s consistently at the top of the pack when it comes to speed and finesse on the track. The two of them end up on the run when Boots accidentally sells a map that unearths a conspiracy and Nilah witnesses (and is accused of) a murder that was meant to cover it back up. The two of them end up on the ship of Boots’ old commanding officer, someone she detests for his actions in the aforementioned war, and they all quickly realize that the only way they are going to get out of this is to follow Boots’ map to its final mark.

Big Ship is a fun, loud, and adventurous book. As you can likely tell from the plot description the story has treasure hunting, racing, lots of combat, and unlikely heroes. It is a tale of space rogues that will appeal on the surface to most with its kick ass magic system that I have only mentioned so far. Big Ship is closer to a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid as the populace of White’s world are all born with specialized magic (called “marks”) that allow them to enhance their tech, or use tech to enhance their magic. For example, Nilah has a mechanist’s mark that allows her to “feel” her vehicles as if they were part of her body and adjust them as if she was an AI. The captain of the ship they all ride on has a mark that allows him to produce shields, and using the ships interface he can project magical auras around it. It’s a really cool and fun magic system that constantly surprised and delighted me. The book is original, fun, and exciting, so you might be wondering why I mentioned it will likely be divisive. Well there are two major reasons, neither of them a flaw, but things that might not align with everyone’s tastes.

The first reason is that Boots and Nilah are incredibly unlikable (or at least at first). The book has a tremendous amount of character development, but the first chapters surrounding our leads had me wanting to blast them out an airlock. Boots is selfish and self-pitying and hard to feel sympathetic for as she rips off everyone around her. Nilah is arrogant and naive and watching her take her first steps in the “real world” was painful. I grew to love both of them as they became much better people over the course of the book, but if you do not have the patience for the character growth it may be a major turn off. The second reason is that the book is incredibly dramatic. I’m talking borderline soap opera dramatic. Everyone is constantly fighting, everyone is constantly talking about their feelings, and everyone is always pouring their heart and soul out to anyone who will listen. I did not enjoy this, but I want to stress that despite my dislike I still think that it was well-written and well-executed. The prose style was just not my preference and it had me rolling my eyes in many scenes. That being said, I was easily able to move past the moments I didn’t enjoy due to the gripping plot and the books biggest strength: the spectacle and combat.

Combat is really hard to write, and White is really good at it. I think this book would make an excellent movie because White’s action scenes were so visceral and present in my mind that I felt I was living them. His attention to detail with sound effects in particular really got my adrenaline pumping, with things like the noises of retractable claws and the whining stress on ship parts bringing scenes to life. This combined with some huge Fast and Furious style action set pieces led to some very memorable scenes that are still vivid in my mind after finishing the book.

While A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe might lose some people with its dramatic emotions and less than perfect protagonists, those that push on are going to find a new favorite book. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. Big Ship is the strongest debut I have read in 2018 so far and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Observations About LotR – The Return Of The King

071tfThe Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember. This is the third and final entry on The Return of the King, our thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers can be found here:

1) RotK is 50% epilogue – Literally. I never realized as a child how early in the book they destroy the ring (spoilers). Frodo casts the ring into the volcano at around 55% in my version of the book, and the rest of the story is showing the happily ever after. It suddenly makes a lot more sense as to why the movie seemed to have so many endings – because there are so many little vignettes that Peter Jackson was trying to cover.

2) I see what Tolkien meant about his series in the prologue – At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states that his series was meant actually as one book but they had to break it up for publication due to size. When reading the first two novels I didn’t think much of this note, but upon reaching Return of the King it becomes a lot more obvious. While the first two books in the trilogy feel like full novels, Return of the King doesn’t really stand on its own. The book breaks down into three sections: the first part is one long protracted battle with the larger party, the middle and smallest section involves Sam finding Frodo and them quickly tossing the ring into the mountain, and the back half of the book is cleanup for the entire series. It very much feels like a continuation of The Two Towers and The Fellowship as opposed to its own entity to me.

3) The book drags a little bit more than its predecessors – This was not a unanimous feeling in our reading group, but a good number of people felt that the middle of Return of the King dragged a lot. There is a section of about 40 pages (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure felt like it to me) where Sam and Frodo are trying to locate the right mountain – and they do this by walking up to about 5 different ones and going “is this it? Nope”. I initially really enjoyed Tolkien spending some time elaborating on Orc culture and fleshing them out as a race more, but I don’t need to be told more than one time that Orc clothing is incredibly uncomfortable and I did not find myself enlightened when Tolkien talked about it the seventh or eighth time.

4) I get it now – My first three thoughts might seem very harsh, because I think LotR has a bunch of writing issues when compared to today’s modern style. However, while I had a bunch of small issues with Return of the King, I also can finally see what everyone sees in it. As you read this series, in particular the finale, you can see a map of thousands of books that it inspired. The landscape of the fantasy genre starts to make more sense, and you can see the source of tons of tropes and philosophies that permeate it. You can see why so many people have tried to emulate these aspects of this trilogy. Lord of the Rings is fun and whimsical, but also serious and philosophical. It is a timeless masterpiece, as I am sure everyone already knew, that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. If you haven’t given it a read recently, I recommend you check it out again.

The Legion Of Flame – A Battalion Of Hotness

Let me save you some time. The Legion of Flame, by Anthony Ryan, is great. You should absolutely go pick it up and read it (preferably after reading the initial installment The Waking Fire). Great, now we can get into the actual review.

61u8borhpml-_sx329_bo1204203200_Competition has been harsh this summer. As we pass through June and July, I have seen so many strong releases that it is getting increasingly hard to stand out from the pack. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Anthony Ryan’s next installment of The Draconis Memoria, The Legion of Flame. Continuing the story of Lizanne Lethridge, Clayton Torcreek, and Captain Corrick Hilemore as they attempt to stave off a reptilian apocalypse, Legion picks up almost exactly where The Waking Fire, book one in the series, left off. The White has awoken and is gathering an army of dragons and Spoiled, and doom is coming. Cue our heroes rushing around to a variety of places to try to save the world. The cast has been expanded again, but telling you about the new POV and characters are direct spoilers, so you will have to settle with trusting me that they are excellent additions to an already great group of people.

One of my few complaints with the first book in the series was that while the story and world were inventive and fun, it felt like a lot of the finer details were glossed over in favor of the action. Why do the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Protectorate hate each other so much? Who even is the Blood Cadre? Why didn’t Hilemore get more screen time? Luckily for us, The Legion of Flame explores more of the world and politics, giving us a much better understanding of why these conflicts exist and who the major players involved in them are. Liz is given a mission to go to the Corvantine Empire to attempt to negotiate a treaty between the Empire and the Ironship Protectorate in the face of the impending attack from the White and his legion of flame (see what I did there?). While we don’t spend a lot of time in Corvus proper, the time we do spend there is rich in detail and gives a much better understanding of the empire and its ruling class. While this is going on, Clay and Hilemore begin a voyage to the South Pole, in an attempt to fulfill the vision Clay saw when he got some white dragon blood in his mouth (gross).

Here we come upon another complaint of mine from book one that is remedied. Hilemore felt like an awesome, but unnecessary, addition in The Waking Fire, with Clay and Liz given a significantly larger portion of screen time. While he still has less chapters than the two of them, he is greatly expanded upon in a way that I felt was beneficial and added a measure of naval fun to a story that had mostly revolved around “Magic Indiana Jones” and “Magic Girl James Bond”.

Speaking of “Magic Girl James Bond”, Liz’s mission takes her to Scorazin, a prison city in the Corvantine Empire that “no one ever escapes from”. I loved this. While it did expand upon the unfortunate and unnecessary (in my opinion) romance between Arberus and Liz, the time she spends within its walls was fast-paced, full of intrigue, and action packed. There were twists aplenty and I was constantly waiting for her next chapter so I could continue the excitement. Liz continues to claw her way up the ranks of my favorite characters with her brilliant competence, interesting mix of cold secret agent mentality and strong moral compass, and asskicking prowess. Character growth is something that I have given Ryan a hard time for in the past, but watching Liz change as she is put through trial after trial is one of my favorite parts of this series.

Touching back on the romance, it seemed like it was a little forced, and only existed to add some unnecessary tension to Lizanne’s story line. Additionally, Liz’s motivations and drives become a little cloudy and hard to understand around the two thirds point in the book and I had a bit of trouble following the logic of her actions for a few chapters. However, this lack of clarity only lasts a short while and soon the book returns to the streamlined and exciting plot that pervades this entire series.

While it continues the overall story, and sets up book three with an absolutely tantalizing cliffhanger (the suspense is actually killing me), The Legion of Flame contains a remarkably tight story arc of its own, expanding many of the existing plotlines and spinning a whole tapestry of new ones that captivated and astounded me. I spent a ridiculous amount of my time reading this book having absolutely no idea where it was going. The characters are grasping at straws as they try to come up with ways to combat the White, and the narrative structure mimics this beautifully. I was worried that the reveals and twists at the end of the book would not live up to the build up and I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. I am barely able to contain my excitement for the next installment in the series, and continue to be impressed by Ryan’s growth as an author with each of his novels.

If you’re looking for an end of the world driven by dragons, great characters, and a fast-paced but intricate story look no farther than The Legion of Flame. The Quill to Live heartily recommends this book and series.

Rating: The Legion of Flame – 9.0/10