QTL – The Most Anticipated Books Of 2021

This week 2020 is finally rolling to a close and we have been spending some time resting, recuperating, and catching up on a number of books from this year. Yet, the show must go on and we have been furiously planning a site refresh and scheduling all of our content for 2021. In the midst of doing all of this we built a pretty comprehensive calendar of all the fantasy, sci-fi, and other books we want to keep an eye on – and discovered that 2021 is shaping up to be a very strong year for books. This is nice, given how difficult 2020 has been. While we were making this list, we figured it might be fun to highlight some of our most anticipated books for those of you who don’t want to spend a week digging through every single publisher release schedule. We have listed them in release order, not in order of excitement. We have provided cover art where available.

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-11) Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick – release date 1/19/2021 by Orbit: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future. But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

51nihz4w52l2) The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers – release date 2/16/2021 by Harper Voyager: With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop. At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through. When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

51ucj27xfcl3) A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine – release date 3/2/2021 by Tor Books: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity. Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

97812507570504) The Helm of Midnight by Marina J Lostetter – release date 4/13/2021 by Tor Books: In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders. Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question. It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

61bym0xuusl5) Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer – released on 6/1/2021 by Tor Books: The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end. Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location. The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held. The Hives’ facade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away. Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone, Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints scramble to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.

42291958._uy1550_ss1550_6) Play of Shadows by Sebastian de Castell – released on 6/24/2021 by Jo Fletcher Books: Damelas Shademantaigne picked a poor night to flee a judicial duel. He has precious little hope of escaping the wrath of the Vixen, the most feared duellist in the entire city, until he stumbles through the stage doors of the magnificent Operato Belleza and tricks his way into the company of actors. An archaic law provides a temporary respite from his troubles – until one night a ghostly voice in his head causes Damelas to fumble his lines, inadvertently blurting out a dreadful truth: the city’s most legendary hero may actually be a traitor and a brutal murderer. With only the help of his boisterous and lusty friend Bereto, a beautiful assassin whose target may well be Damelas himself, and a company of misfit actors who’d just as soon see him dead, this failed son of two Greatcoats must somehow find within himself the courage to dig up long-buried truths before a ruthless band of bravos known as the Iron Orchids come for his head.

813aula04fl7) The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – released on 7/6/2021 by Del Rey Books: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules. The next installment of last years incredibly popular deadly education.

desert-torn-asunder-final-lg-768x1159-18) A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley Beaulieu – released on 7/13/2021 by DAW: The final book in The Song of the Shattered Sands series closing an epic fantasy saga for the ages, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action. The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city’s invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.

9) The Pariah by Anthony Ryan – released on 8/24/2021 by Orbit: Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army. Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?

10) The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie – released on 9/16/2021 by Gollancz: Chaos. Fury. Destruction. The Great Change is upon us. Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds.

978125021734911) Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune – released on 9/21/2021 by Tor Books: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over. But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life. When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

And here are some additional books that we are super hyped about that don’t have details out yet:

  • Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler
  • Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund
  • Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott
  • Leviathan Falls by James SA Corey
  • Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

The Best Novellas of 2020

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

5) The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan – What’s really interesting about The Kraken’s Tooth, and The Seven Swords series as a whole, is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novella is unfinished, but it feels stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It’s like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a tried and true fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

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

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

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

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

The Kraken’s Tooth – What’s Krakenalackin

the_krakens_tooth_by_anthony_ryanThe real takeaway I got from The Kraken’s Tooth is that Anthony Ryan is a strong writer. I obviously already knew that, given my familiarity with his other work, but it’s nice to be reminded that the authors you like are good at their craft. The Kraken’s Tooth is the second installment of a seven-part novella series called The Seven Swords that Anthony Ryan is writing for Subterranean Press. In my opinion, the physical copies are a bit cost prohibitively expensive due to being collectible (which is a bummer for physical book lovers), but the digital versions are very reasonable. Normally I don’t mention the price and publisher when talking about a review, but in this case, I think it’s important to point out the roadblocks that will keep this body of work from being better known because I want you to jump them and go check The Seven Swords out.

The series tells the story of a man questing to find seven magical swords for reasons I don’t want to spoil. My review of the first book, A Pilgrimage of Swords, dives deeper into the series’ premise. All you really need to know is The Kraken’s Tooth picks up where Pilgrimage leaves off and unsurprisingly tells the story of one of the seven swords our protagonist (called the Pilgrim) is seeking. The plot brings our Pilgrim to a new Venetian style city, where the entire urban area is supported by a kraken’s heart deep underneath the streets. The Pilgrim’s arrival kicks off a multi-party race for the heart to see who will reach it first and claim the power of the heart for themselves.

I think what’s really interesting about The Seven Swords is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novellas are unfinished, but that they are stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It feels like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

On paper, The Kraken’s Tooth is a dungeon crawl where the party needs to surmount traps, decipher riddles, and kill monsters to reach the treasure beneath. What I love about it in practical terms is it refuses to be boring. Ryan never phones it in, and all of his ideas stick in the mind. It’s a raucous story that is easy to consume and discuss. It’s the perfect snack to bring a little fun and excitement to this depressing year.

There isn’t much else to say about The Kraken’s Tooth. It’s fun, easy, and you should definitely make the extra effort to check out the series. I really hope Subterranean eventually puts out a compilation book as I would be willing to stand on a street corner and hawk it. Don’t let a little leg work distract you from this excellent read.

Rating: The Kraken’s Tooth – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Black Song – Waving Through A Window

91hy43v3cmlI continue to be very happy that Anthony Ryan has decided to return to the world of Blood Song. The Black Song is the conclusion to Raven’s Blade, a duology that starts with The Wolf’s Call set five years after the original trilogy. The Black Song is a strong and enjoyable conclusion to this duology that sets up additional books by the end. However, it suffers from a couple of strange issues that are definitely worth talking about. So let’s dig into the pros and cons of this new book by one of our favorite writers. Please note, this review has spoilers for the original Blood Song trilogy, and should not be read by anyone who wants to avoid reveals for the original three books. You have been warned!

To get a better sense of what the overall story of the duology is, please check out my review of The Wolf’s Call. For those who want a short summary, Vaelin has traveled West to rescue the love of his life, Sherin, that he shipped off to a different continent against her will to keep her safe in the original trilogy. When he arrives at this new Asian-inspired land he finds Sherin perfectly fine and well established. However, he also finds a Ghengis Khan style warlord in possession of a blood song threatening to destroy all of the known world. Thus, Vaelin gets embroiled in a conflict where he is the clear outsider trying to bring down a man who possesses the unique tool that made Vaelin a god of war many books ago. In The Black Song, Vaelin’s attempts to regain his lost blood song in order to fight the coming hordes and it doesn’t take a genius to guess from the title of the book that this attempt goes poorly. Vaelin’s efforts leave him with a corrupted song with a thirst for blood, and he must find a way to fix it before he becomes just as bad as the villain he is trying to defeat.

A lot of The Black Song is just continuing the plot threads of The Wolf’s Call with an added layer now that Vaelin has this corrupted song to manage. The world and characters are enjoyable, there is a clear objective that we build towards with a number of awesome set-pieces along the way. In my Wolf’s Call review, I talked about how exciting and enjoyable it is to be back in the shoes of one of my favorite protagonists, and this still rings true in Black Song. But it hits a snag when Vaelin’s “outsider looking in” treatment is amplified from The Wolf’s Call and Vaelin ends up feeling a little too adjacent to the plot. While I adore Vaelin, my favorite passages in The Black Song ended up being the ones told from the sister and the second in command of the villain – as they were much closer to the conflict and emotionally invested in its outcome. Vaelin has this sort of pale detachment to the whole affair as he is much more focused on his new corruption. This would be fine… except that Vaelin doesn’t actually reach a complete conclusion to his personal story in The Black Song. It is quite clear that some of Vaelin’s internal conflicts will be addressed in whatever book Ryan writes next. The result of all of this is some confusion as to whether Vaelin was the best protagonist for The Black Song. On one hand, I absolutely loved getting more time with him – but on the other, this didn’t feel like it was truly his story to tell.

But, don’t think that I didn’t enjoy The Black Song. The escalating conflict between the ragtag group of good guys and the ever-growing antagonist was gripping and exciting. It is very clear that Ryan has grown a lot since his first trilogy, and his ability to write a climactic conclusion to a conflict has only improved. There were a number of set pieces, like the part of the story set in the temple of spears, that were enchanting. Initially, I was going to complain that Sherin and Vaelin’s relationship didn’t change enough over the course of the book, but in the last 25% there is a lot of growth that feels appropriate and I ended up really liking where the characters netted out.

All in all, The Black Song is a solid book and another enjoyable chapter in the saga of Vaelin. I don’t think it was as strong as the duology’s opener, The Wolf’s Call, but it is still definitely worth your time. I am very excited to step through the door that the end of this book leaves open and look forward to whatever story that Ryan decides to tell us next. The Raven’s Blade duology has jump started my investment in the next series and I am ready for more.

Rating: The Black Song – 8.0/10
-Andrew

A Pilgrimage of Swords – A Guided Tour Of Nightmares

a_pilgrimage_of_swords_by_anthony_ryan_1Anthony Ryan is having a busy year – not only did he just release the much anticipated, The Wolf’s Call, but he also has an upcoming novella from Subterranean Press. The novella is called A Pilgrimage of Swords, and I was kindly sent an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. As such, here is my honest one-line take – I have never wanted to lift a book plot into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign more. It felt like highway robbery that this story was only a novella, and not a full book, as I was dying to explore the world and learn more about its characters.

The premise of A Pilgrimage of Swords is simple but elegant: 200 years ago in the book’s world, a god named the Absolved went insane and imploded the country he presided over, turning it into a wasteland called The Execration. Originally his lands were filled with countless magical wonders and beauty, but all of it has been perverted to grotesque parodies of what they once were – and all of the lands are hostile to those who venture onto it. His subjects have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the trees have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the random assorted rocks that litter the landscape have turned into fles– you know what you get the idea. Everything inside the Absolved’s country is terrible, so why would anyone ever go there? Well, because rumor has it that if a pilgrim reaches the center of this cursed land, they can find the mad god himself still residing there. If you are crazy enough to brave his lands and make it to him, there is a chance that the Absolved will grant you a wish.

As I mentioned, the route to the Absolved is a hellscape taken from the nightmares of Lovecraft, so not exactly an exciting prospect. Yet, there are those desperate enough to make the journey, usually when life has cruelly left them no other options. These poor individuals gather at the church of the Absolved, whose priests sacrifice their lives to send as guides into the wastes in order to better know their god’s will. As such, the pilgrimage is made in groups in order to increase chances of survival. Our cast is a group of individuals on one such pilgrimage. The cast has no names, for names are left behind when an individual takes this journey. Instead, each member of the party takes a moniker to represent why they are going on this quest. Our protagonist takes the moniker “The Pilgrim,” which doesn’t win many points for originality, but he has a cool possessed sword so I gave him a pass.

Our story follows The Pilgrim and his co-questers as they cross a variety of horrible areas of Execration. The guide provides a really easy storytelling mechanism and feels very natural as he explains what each area of the Execration used to be, and what it has become. Ryan has a great imagination and the various areas that he takes the reader through are super cool. However, the real fun of the book comes from the cast of mysterious adventurers. A large part of the book is figuring out tiny bits of information about the seven individuals in the party making the pilgrimage. Their personalities, and reasons for going on the insane journey, are slowly revealed over the course of the novella and make for a very compelling read.

The novella is short and sweet and I don’t have a lot of critiques for it. As always, because the novella was a lot of fun, I was left wishing it had been a full novel. The ending was probably the weakest part of the story, though I still liked it. I just found the worldbuilding and mysterious atmosphere to be stronger than the reveal at the end. One exciting thing about the ending is it left the doorway open for a follow-up novel, something I really hope Ryan pursues.

A Pilgrimage of Swords is an engrossing adventure for anyone who likes a story with a great atmosphere and imagination. It is short, sweet, and will leave you wanting a lot more. Regardless, the novella will keep you on the edge of your seat from the first to the last page, and I really hope that Anthony Ryan does more in this world. If you are looking for a new novella to mix up your reading schedule look no further than A Pilgrimage of Swords.

Rating: A Pilgrimage of Swords – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Wolf’s Call – Blood Song 2.0

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_So, many years ago when I was first starting out the site, I stumbled upon an absolutely incredible self-published book called Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan. The book was, and is, one of my favorite reads, and it rapidly gained a following before being picked up for publication. It became a massive success in the genre and everyone was clamoring for more. However, when Ryan released the second (Tower Lord) and third (Queen of Fire) books in the trilogy they were met with mixed reactions. I talk a lot about the controversy surrounding the books in this ancient (in relative terms) post here. Long story short, some felt the later books suffered because the story POV  moved from one to many and that Queen of Fire ended without a satisfying resolution. Well, I have good news for everyone. If you were a fan of Blood Song and didn’t like the later books, there is a new installment of the series that both returns to a Vaelin centric focus, and answers a ton of lingering questions from Queen of Fire. If you were a fan of all of the books like me, there is now another excellent installment of one of my favorite series by one of my favorite authors. It’s called The Wolf’s Call.

So what is the plot of The Wolf’s Call? Our story picks up several years after the end of the original trilogy and Vaelin has resettled into his role as the Tower Lord in the north of the realm. But, as we all know, conflict tends to follow Vaelin around like a baby duckling. Vaelin learns of trouble brewing to the West, on a new continent that we only hear mentions of in the first series. While initially reluctant to do anything other than sulk in his tower, Vaelin eventually finds the motivation to join the conflict and sails into a new land with only a few of his closest companions from the original trilogy. Vaelin must then use his lifetime of experience in war to stay alive, achieve an objective I won’t spoil, and turn the conflicts that find him in this new land.

The plot of The Wolf’s Call is exactly what I thought it would be, and I am very ok with that. Ryan essentially used a new far off conflict (which he seeded during the original trilogy) to move Vaelin to a new location, strip him of his entourage, and reset his story. It involves a new look at the powers of the Gifted and an antagonist that mirrors Vaelin’s military mind and physical prowess. While there was very little that surprised me about the plot, I still enjoyed it in its entirety. It is mostly just a series of events and situations that Vaelin must react and respond to, which are always fun to read. Vaelin is a weird character, and his unique qualities make him one of my favorites. He is this strange mix of exhaustion and responsibility that paints a picture of a man who is utterly bitter about how much he has given to the world, with a moral compass that refuses to allow him to stop. It creates the perfect personality that you can both deeply identify with (especially as I get older) but also idolize at the same time. I really like his quiet and contemplative personality in a world of charismatic heroes. He is also a complete badass.

You could argue that Vaelin is a Gary Sue, a protagonist that is overpowered and obnoxiously talented – but I would disagree. Even though Vaelin is definitely incredibly strong for a protagonist, his slow built to this point feels earned from his previous books and I feel no guilt reading about him kicking ass after all of the training and experiences he has gone through. Ryan also does a wonderful job of continuing to flesh out his Raven’s Shadow world (though the new series is called The Raven’s Blade) and I like the new setting. It is an interesting hybrid of merchant city-states and Asian culture, with an invigorating new cast. Although we spend 95% of the book in Vaelin’s POV, we do get a few interludes from the sister of the antagonist which do a great job of adding an undercurrent of tension and urgency throughout the book.

My only real issue with The Wolf’s Call is that it suffers from Ryan’s signature problem: if you have not read the previous novels recently, you are going to have a hard time remembering who everyone is. I just wish he added a few more context clues and minor flashbacks when reintroducing characters and names. This lack of context slows down the beginning of the book and it took me a little bit of time to get back up to speed. However, once I was about a fifth into the book I had a clear memory of who most of the cast were and it was fairly smooth sailing until the end.

The Wolf’s Call is a book that everyone will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form. If you haven’t read The Raven’s Shadow trilogy yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out – and if you have, The Wolf’s Call should be at the top of your to-do list.

Rating: The Wolf’s Call – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Empire Of Ashes – Come Get It While It’s Hot

a19o2yo0d2blI find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.

The PlotEmpire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.

The World – Each book in Draconis has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot is a step up from his past work with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.

The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.

The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.

Rating:
The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10
Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
-Andrew

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

The Waking Fire – An Interview with Anthony Ryan

25972177The Waking Fire was my number three choice for books in 2016, so it is safe to say I enjoyed it. Thus, when an opportunity to talk to Anthony Ryan about his story and world arose, you can be sure I pounced on it. I got to speak with Anthony about why and how he created this new fantasy classic, and he provided me with some of the best answers of any author I have spoken with. If you are curious about my review for the first installment of his new series you can find it here. If you want to read the additional things Anthony has to say about his creation you can look below:

With both The Waking Fire and City of Blades this year, I am really digging the early 1900’s fantasy feel of The Waking Fire. What made you want to choose this particular setting compared to the more traditional fantasy time period? Or what was your general inspiration for the story?

I knew I wanted to write something about dragons but didn’t want a cod-Medieval setting as it didn’t really fit the themes I wanted to explore, particularly politics and economics. A post-industrialised setting seemed to offer the most opportunities. The 19th century is a period that offers a great deal of story fodder for a writer; competing empires, enormous technological and geo-political change as well as recurrent revolutions and shifting social norms. Making dragons the central component of the economy of such a world enabled me to tick all the boxes I wanted to tick.

How did you balance the different types of stories (spy, adventure, military) between Liz, Clay, and Hilemore so well?

It’s always best to write what you love so I was careful to choose three of my favourite genres when assembling my cast of characters: the spy story for Lizanne, military adventure for Hilemore and the western for Clay. I also made sure the different story types were interconnected so it seemed plausible that all three could play out in this world. The idea of the Blue trance – in which characters can communicate telepathically across huge distances – was key to ensuring the book doesn’t come across as three separate stories in one.

Who was your favorite character to write of the three? Who was the most difficult (and why)?

I didn’t really have a favourite for this one, all the characters have their pluses and minuses. Clay is a thief and occasional murderer but also brave and fiercely loyal to his friends. Lizanne has her selfless moments but she’s also a cold-blooded killer when the need arises. Hilemore is the most admirable of the three, at least on the surface, but he can be a bit of a stuffed shirt and he’s steeped in a military/conservative outlook. On the whole I think Lizanne presented the biggest challenge because she has the biggest emotional journey.

The dragons of your world are varied and interesting beyond simply being “giant fire lizards”. Were you inspired by specific animals or other sources when you were writing the various species of dragons?

There’s a reason why you can’t keep crocodiles or Komodo dragons as pets (unless you’re mad of course). Reptiles have often struck me as one of the purest examples of nature’s indifference, they kill when they’re hungry and display none of the traits humans find so endearing in fellow mammals. Although I was keen to reflect this in conceiving the drakes, presenting them as real world wild animals rather than anything mystical, it would have been boring if they were just mindless killing machines. It also made for another level of interest to the plot if the humans were to discover that there was a great deal more to the animals they had been exploiting for centuries.

Can you give a brief rundown of how you envision the Ironship Trading Syndicate and the Corvantine Empire? Will we be seeing them more fleshed out in the second book?

The template for the Ironship Trading Syndicate came from the British East India Company of the 18th-19th Century which operated its own army and navy in controlling much of the Indian sub-continent. At the height of its powers this company was probably the richest single entity on Earth, outstripping the governments of the day. Therefore it wasn’t too much of an imaginative leap to conceive of a scenario in which companies like this had simply taken over in the wake of a socio-economic upheaval. I conceived the Corvantine Empire as a bulwark against the rise of corporatism. In some ways it’s of a mix of Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, being both territorially ambitious and decadent to the point where it’s constantly beset by revolt and internal division. We’ll be seeing more of the internal workings of the Syndicate and a lot more of the Corvantine Empire in the second book.

What did you learn from writing your earlier series. The Raven’s Shadow, that you applied to your work on the Draconis Memoria?

My planning and editing processes have become a lot more efficient as a result of writing the Raven’s Shadow books, however, the actual writing itself never seems to get any easier. I think the main lesson I learned is the importance of deadlines – no book ever wrote itself and making sure you deliver on time requires constant and regular effort.

Without giving away spoilers, where does the second book in the Draconis Memoria take us and what are some of the themes?

Revolution is a much more prominent theme in the second book (which is called The Legion of Flame). The characters will be journeying far and wide so we’ll be seeing more of the world beyond the continent of Arradsia, we’ll also learn what the White Drake has in store for humanity and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that it’s not good.

One of my desires from The Waking Fire was to hear more from Hilemore, will he be getting a larger part in book 2?

Hilemore has a prominent role in The Legion of Flame but his overall screen time is about the same as in The Waking Fire. It looks like he’ll have an enlarged role in book 3 though.

Do you think there will be any additional perspectives in the future books, or will you be sticking with our three current leads?

There is one additional point of view character in The Legion of Flame who we’ve met before, but I won’t say who because it’s a massive spoiler. Clay, Lizanne and Hilemore are all back though.

What are you reading in your spare time right now, and do you have any current recommendations of things you have read recently?

I recently finished The Mirror’s Truth, Michael R Fletcher’s sequel to Beyond Redemption which more than lived up to its predecessor – neither are for the faint-hearted though. I also just completed Max Hastings’ The Secret War which is an excellent history of espionage and codebreaking in World War II. Currently, I just started The Judging Eye by R Scott Bakker and Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann, an often hilarious comparison of Hollywood versus real history.

It is a common refrain of fantasy writers that they “don’t read fantasy”. Is that the case with you, and if not what other fantasy writers would you recommend, personally?

I do still read fantasy but think it’s important to explore other genres as well as reading non-fiction. Fantasy writers I enjoy include the already mentioned Michael R Fletcher and R Scott Bakker, whilst the works of KV Johansen and Django Wexler were a recent happy discovery. I’ll also probably read anything by Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, China Mieville and the late great David Gemmell.

The Waking Fire – Hotter Than A Sleeping Ember

25972177I know it’s terrible, but I like puns in my titles. Anthony Ryan caught a lot of flack for Queen of Fire, his final book of The Raven’s Shadow. In the days since I started and finished his new book, The Waking Fire, I have had an alarming number of people come up to me and tell me unasked that they won’t be buying The Waking Fire because of their feelings about Queen. Each and every time I have responded with two comments; judging an author by one book is dumb (I even wrote a post about it), and it is your loss because dear god The Waking Fire is good. I was really nervous to read Ryan’s new book, because regardless of how you feel about Queen, authors often have some trouble breaking into their second major series regardless of how good their first is. I was actually sitting on the subway when I finished my previous book and decided to crack open The Waking Fire and give it a glance. I was so engrossed, so quickly, that I missed my subway stop twice.

So what is The Waking Fire? That is where things get interesting. Ryan’s new book has an enormous scope, and it seamlessly combines three different kinds of novels; spy thriller, military fiction, and an adventure quest. The book is set in a fantasy industrial world where technology is fairly far advanced, but there is still a reliance on magic. Speaking of which, the magic of the book revolves around the consumption of the blood of dragons, of which there are four known types; green, blue, red, and black. By drinking the different blood types, rare individuals can gain incredible powers for a short period of time. The world of The Waking Fire is built on the industrialization of this blood, and the economies of nations ride on the ability to produce the product. The main plot of the book revolves around the hunt for a mythical fifth dragon type, the white, but there are also a number of subplots that run throughout the book that would take too long to list. The book has three major protagonists, one for each of the different categories listed above (spy, military, and adventure). The first is Lizanne, an industrial spy in the employ of a large trade conglomerate, who is tasked with gathering cover knowledge about the location of the white drake. The second is Hilemore, second mate on a ship in employ of the trade conglomerate and tasked with protecting the assets of the company. Finally there is Clay, a younger character from the ghettos who is roped into an adventure to search for the mythical white drake against his will. The book follows each of them separately as they set about their tasks and blends their narratives to tell the full story.

The strengths of The Waking Fire are numerous. The first is that it offers a refreshing and unique setting for a fantasy world with its industrial technology and intense focus on the economy. In addition, the book might be only part spy, part military, and part adventure but it feels like it is an all star novel in each of the genres. The spy craft is intriguing, the military exciting, and the adventure awe inducing. The Waking Fire outperforms books in all three genres, yet doesn’t feel like a mish mash of different books thrown together. Next, the characters are incredible, from protagonist to side characters. I particularly enjoyed the complex relationships that develop all across the book between family, friend, and love interests. The book is also a lot more mature in its philosophies, concepts, and execution than Ryan’s past work. This is a more subtle and clever work than The Raven’s Shadow and I cannot wait to see how it develops. Speaking of which, the plot is good, really good. I don’t really understand how he did it, but somehow Ryan managed to convince me I learned a million things about The Waking Fire as I read it, yet came out feeling like I knew nothing with 1000 questions. It is one of the few books I finished and immediately wanted to reread just to make sure I got everything.

While the positives of the book are numerous, I would be remiss if I did not also talk about the two negatives I encountered. The first is that The Waking Fire really could have benefited from a small synopsis of the different factions at the start of the book. This is a problem that has plagued Ryan in the past, and it took me some time to understand who was working for who and led to some initial confusion. It did not help that my ARC copy did not have this awesome map, but as it was an ARC I can’t dock it points for that.The second is that while the three protagonists stories are all fully realized and equally good, Hilemore’s chapters fall off the face of the Earth (or wherever The Waking Fire takes place)  in the last part of the book and I would have liked a little more time with him than I got.

The Waking Fire is not like Blood Song or the rest of The Raven’s Shadow in the best way possible. Instead Ryan has created a second universe that I like even more than his first and cannot wait to pick up the next installment. With its genre boundary-breaking adventure, The Waking Fire easily will make my list of best books of 2016 and demonstrates that Ryan is more than a one trick pony. The Quill to Live recommends you pick up this fantastic story as soon as you can, and start your own quest for the white drake.

Rating: The Waking Fire – 9.5/10