The Best Of 2018

The end of 2018 is finally upon us, which means it’s time to talk about the best books of the year. 2017 was one of the best years of Sci-fi and Fantasy I have lived to talked about, so it is no surprise that 2018 had some difficulty following its incredible performance. That being said, despite being a weaker year there are still a number of fantastic books that came out this year. If you need gift ideas for a friend or family member that likes fantasy or sci-fi, look no further than any of the entries on this list. As always, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 21 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. Without further adieu, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2018.

51ifgjed8sl21) The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith by Jon Hollins – When I first came across the Dragon Lords series, it was clear that I had found a diamond in the rough in need of a little polish. However, while the first book had some flaws, Jon Hollins showed massive improvement in the sequel last year, and the finale this year. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. Bad Faith has a lot of laughs, a lot of failures, and a boatload of people learn how to be slightly less garbage. Jon Hollins is improving as an author with every book that he writes and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to next.

91mf49yikml20) The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – A sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant, this unique series focuses on cultural warfare and how to crush one’s enemies without lifting a sword. Monster had some small pacing problems, but they failed to detract from the book’s increasingly complex and fascinating world and thrilling political intrigue. Despite an almost entirely new cast, Monster continues to draw readers in with characters you love to hate and hate to love. Dickinson’s prose is some of the best in recent times and his worldbuilding is both complex and compelling. The ending of Monster gives only a small hint of where the story will go next and readers will be hotly anticipating the next book until it is in their hands.

51asw0iub3l19) The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – The only book on the list we haven’t had a chance to review yet, and one of the few non-sequels, this mammoth piece of writing is a call back to classical quest fantasy. There is little innovating about The Ember Blade. It is a coming of age story of a hero with a destiny on a quest for a magic sword. However, just because the book doesn’t have a completely original plot, doesn’t mean it is bad (there is a reason things become tropes). With a relatable cast, a surprising amount of humor, and descriptive prose that brings the world to life, The Ember Blade is an easy book to get lost in. The only thing that keeps the book from placing higher on this list is its extremely slow pacing. The Ember Blade is a fantastic tribute to classical fantasy with a Wooding twist that makes it all the better.

3552056418) A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – Drama is the name of the game in this larger than life debut novel. Big characters, big fights, big magic, and a big plot – this book is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The cast starts out rough and unlikable, but is quickly chiseled down into characters you can dig into. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. The book is an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction, and I wish more people would try similar genre mashups. Big Ship is the strongest debut I read in 2018 and I can’t wait to start reading the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, when it comes out later this month.

mealing_bloodofthegods-tp17) Blood of the Gods by David Mealing – Mealing’s massive debut book, Soul of the World, was a top contender on the 2017’s best of list. He has followed it up with an equally massive sequel less than a year later that continued to knock my socks off. Blood of the Gods continues Mealing’s philosophy of go big or go home. When Mealing first put out Soul of the World I believed he had decided to focus more on telling an imaginative story than on one that was polished and streamlined. After reading Blood of the Gods, I have realized that he was playing a long con, and that he is actually somehow doing both. With over 40 magical powers, this book is chaos incarnate and I can only imagine how much planning must have gone into a storyboard and world of this scope. Mealing has managed to get me to reassess his skill as an author with his second book, Blood of the Gods. While I initially thought he was a crazy imaginative author who might need a little polish; now I think he is a crazy imaginative author who clearly knows what he is doing. You won’t find another author who can pack more magic into a page than David Mealing.

port-of-shadows_full16) Port of Shadows by Glen Cook – This might be a controversial pick, but I can’t help who I am, and who I am is a massive The Black Company fanboy. Glen Cook is one of my absolute favorite authors, and his newest entry into his pivotal The Black Company series is a welcome one. A book for longtime fans of the series, Port of Shadows answers a number of lingering questions leftover from the plot of the original books. It adds a layer of depth to characters I already loved, and I really appreciate that his book exists. Port of Shadows has all the hallmarks of a Cook classic: an unreliable narrator, a visceral brutality, a depressing tone, and more mystery than a cryptogram inside a labyrinth. Those of you who haven’t read The Black Company will likely want to steer clear of this one, but those of you who have – welcome home.

3592153615) The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – This book guaranteed itself a spot on this list by making me say the words “I really liked the love triangle”. I don’t even know where to start with The Defiant Heir. The sequel to The Tethered Mage, Caruso’s second book surpasses its predecessor in every possible way. It has a great cast, intrigue that will keep you up late reading, and a world full of magic that is fun to explore. However, what elevates The Defiant Heir to one of the best books of 2018 are two things. First, a dedication to a theme that we don’t see enough of in the fantasy genre – the idea that with power comes responsibility (#spiderprincess?). And second, a love triangle that I an genuinely invested in (something that has never happened before) and that explores the first theme I just mentioned. The two men in the triangle represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. It was a bold choice on Caruso’s part that paid off in spades and made this one of the best reads of 2018.

3888951014) Charmcaster & Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell – Fun is king. One of two double entries this year, de Castell managed to put out two books in his Spellslinger series that claimed a spot together. There is really nothing more to say about these books than reading them was some of the most fun I had this year. The series continues to be charming, imaginative, engrossing, and easy to read. Reading these books gives me the same cathartic rush that I felt when reading Harry Potter as a child, and there are very few books that can come close to that feeling. De Castell has continued to prove that he is one of the best fantasy authors of this generation and that anything he touches is almost guaranteed to be worth your time. If you haven’t managed to get your hands on Spellslinger yet there are now four great books to dig into, but be prepared to stay up all night reading them back-to-back.

51iif0eja4l13) Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron – Speaking of fun. A large chunk of my free time this year was spent burning through all five Heartstriker books by Rachel Aaron. Although only Last Dragon Standing can make it onto this list (due to when it was published) collectively reading this series was one of the best parts of my year. Aaron has made a fun urban fantasy that moves at breakneck speed and has more delicious family drama than a soap opera. Unfortunately, a large part of the appeal of these books is their fun plot – making them very hard to review or talk about. However, take note of the fact that Last Dragon Standing managed to claim the spot 13th best book in 2018 and use that as a guide as to whether or not it is worth your time.

81s4snnvywl12) Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeRevenant Gun closes out one of the weirdest science fiction series I have ever read. While the first two books in the series were extremely confusing fun, Revenant Gun finally takes us behind the curtain in Oz and shows the reader what is actually going on in the books. Lee has proven that there is method behind the madness and you can trust him to deliver an incredible reading experience, even if you don’t quite understand what is going on. Revenant Gun gives a great send off to some of the most interesting and lovable characters I have read about in the last few years and solidifies The Machineries of Empire series as a top pick in the science fiction genre.

veil-of-spears-front-cover-sm11) A Veil of Spears by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The Song of Shattered Sand is shaping up to be one of my top epic fantasies ever. Every year Beaulieu puts out a new gargantuan book and each year it delivers an excellent read. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story. The stakes are getting higher, the world is getting cooler, and I am growing more and more attached to the characters. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizarro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story.Veil is book three of six in this giant sandy epic, and the series really feels like it has hit its stride. There is no better time to jump into Beaulieu’s incredible series and I will continue to advertise it for free until everyone picks up a copy.

512phkhzbnl10) Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells – Welcome to the top 10 of 2018. Up first we have everyone’s favorite AI finishing out her last two novellas. I love Murderbot. I love her… them… it… you get the idea. Last week when we were making out list of our favorite female protagonists there was a serious discussion if Murderbot counted, because she is one of our favorite protagonists of all genders. The Murderbot Diaries have just been one delightful surprise after another. Novellas this short have no right being as powerful, fun, and poignant as full length novels – but they are. Wells has a real talent for characters, and her murder and media-loving AI is still one of the most relatable characters I read about this year. Murderbot is now getting full length books due to their rampant popularity, so if you haven’t checked out these novellas yet you are doing yourself a grave disservice.

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.indd9) Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence – Grey Sister had huge shoes to fill following our #3 pick from last year, Red Sister. While this less vibrant sequel did not quite live up to its predecessor’s glory, Grey Sister still continued the Lawrence tradition of delivering pulse-pounding action in an enigmatic and engrossing world. Grey Sister has a laser-focused plot and the pacing of a dragster with an open throttle. It introduces us to new POVs, such as Abbess Glass, that do a lot to expand the scope of the story and help the reader grow closer to the collective cast of the book. I tore through this stellar sequel in less than two days and I am counting the hours until I get my hands on the final book in the trilogy.

a19o2yo0d2bl8) The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan – All of the top ten books this year were hard to place, but The Empire of Ashes was a particular thorn in my side. Ryan has been slightly controversial for a number of years due to the ending of his Raven’s Shadow series. However, I don’t think there is a single reader who will argue with me when I say Ryan absolutely nailed the finale of his second trilogy. The Empire of Ashes delivers an unbelievably climatic end to a series that has been a rollercoaster from start to finish. Lizanne might be the most badass protagonist I have ever read about and she is only one of a number of brilliant characters that litter this series. Each book in the Draconis Memoria 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. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping 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. The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and that’s after it started off strong.

tumblr_oi336wcpw81vla796o1_5407) Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey – As always, I like to roll the December Expanse books over into my next years list, as they are definitely one of the best books of any year they come out in, but have a hard time making it onto lists due to their release dates. Persepolis Rising marks the start of the final story arc in the Expanse series, and despite still being two books away I am not ready for this ride to end. Persepolis Rising was one of the most emotionally stressful books I have ever read. I have been reading this series close to a decade now and I am heavily invested in the characters and plot. Watching this behemoth of a series slowly maneuver into its final arc is like watching the health of a loved one slowly deteriorate. The book is amazing, but it is starting to feel like I am saying goodbye to a lifelong friend and I am just not ready yet.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb6) Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – It takes a lot of guts to take a tried and true cast of characters and throw them out the window, but that is exactly what Nicholas Eames did with his second book Bloody Rose. Eames decided to ditch his characters from his previous novel, Kings of the Wyld, in favor of a fresh cast and a new story. It is a true testament to his skill and imagination as an author that Bloody Rose is just as good as its hugely popular predecessor. Bloody Rose once again demonstrates Eames supreme talent for weaving themes into books. Each of the characters embodies a different form of relationship with their parents and they collectively speak to the many flavors of hardship that arise between parent and child. All of this is done in a magical setting, with charismatic characters, satisfying combat, and an engrossing plot that will keep you reading late into the night. With two brilliant books out in two years, I think it is safe to say that Eames is one of the best up and coming authors and a man you will want to keep an eye on in the years to come.

288110185) Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan – Another year another step closer to the top of a best of list. Wrath of Empire shows McClellan continues to improve with every book he writes. This book is the realization of all the potential that the Powder Mage Trilogy had and hopefully a herald for a new caliber of McClellan books. Wrath has flawlessly completed the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought-provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is one of the strongest books of 2018.

Foundryside RD4 clean flat4) Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett – I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. The first book in a brand new series, Bennett introduces readers to a new cast to fall in love with and a host of new imaginative terrors to keep them up at night. The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Foundryside is a really good book, and effortlessly slides into the number four spot on my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth everyone’s time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.

202009_13298883) Circe by Madeline Miller – For anyone who knows about Circe, its high place on this list should be no surprise. I have read a lot of Odysseus books, many of them incredible, but Circe is likely the best. Circe is the kind of book that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. The power of this book is in the prose, which might be some of the best I have ever read. Miller’s language is on par with the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing. Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career.

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_2) The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – Smart, imaginative, otherworldly, and a perfect commentary on society today – The Will to Battle is my second favorite book to come out in 2018. The Terra Ignota books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. The plot of these books is like a 20 dimensional onion, each new layer revealing new concepts and ideas that I have to sit down and work to grasp. Reading The Will to Battle felt like going to a job, but one that I loved and was wildly passionate about. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. The Will to Battle sets up the series perfectly for an explosive conclusion and I have no doubt that this unique science fiction series will be considered a inspirational classic in years to come.

y6481) Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – If I am being honest, 2018’s competition for best book wasn’t even close. It was always going to be Record of a Spaceborn Few. I really don’t have the space to express how much I loved this book in this huge list, so I implore you to please take a moment to read the review in the link. Record is a quiet, contemplative, and slow story about people who make their lives in space. The book moves like a beautiful symphony, each character telling a personal story that weaves together into a beautiful whole. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. There are no end of the universe threats lurking in this book. Instead, Record speaks to struggles all of us have gone, and are going, through and sets them in a wildly imaginative and engrossing science fiction setting. It has the wonder and creativity of any of the best sci-fi books I have read, with a cast of characters that rival any of the best traditional fiction I have read. This book affected me more emotionally than anything else I have read this year, smashing my heart with character tragedies and stitching it back together with victories. Record of a Spaceborn Few is The Quill to Lives’s #1 book of 2018 and I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Andrew

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Fourteen Female Protagonists Worth Your Time

This week a few readers asked us to talk about our favorite female protagonists. We have always wanted to write a post about our favorite women leads in fantasy and sci-fi, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to do it. Four of us sat down and came up with fourteen of our favorite lead characters (we left out anyone from Malazan as we could do an entire post about the female leads in those books). If you are looking for powerful female leads, we promise you that this list will not disappoint. The characters are in no particular order, but we have numbered them to make this huge list easier to read.

vin-by-miranda-meeks-web-703x10891) Vin (Mistborn) Let’s get her out of the way, all of you knew she would be on this list: Vin. I absolutely loved following Vin’s storyline through the Mistborn series. She grew up facing true hardships: beatings, starvation, fighting off unwanted advances, and a harsh older brother who always tried to instill the belief upon her that you can only ever rely on yourself. If there’s one thing Vin learned from her childhood, it’s to be a survivor. But the best part of her story is seeing her evolution. After growing up with people constantly trying to take advantage of her, she falls in with a group of rogues that treat her as a full member of their team. She finally gets to experience trust and friendship and, as part of their exploits, love. In fact, Vin’s love story is one of my favorites across all the novels I’ve read.

Vin suffers from the same imposter syndrome that many of us feel, myself included, and it was extremely life-affirming to see her gain confidence in her own abilities while struggling to accept that she was worthy of the trust and love of the people around her. It’s rarely easy to feel like you fit in with a group of people you admire, and my heart ached sympathetically whenever Vin was down on herself, but that only made me cheer harder when she rises up and lets herself shine.

23548791-_sy540_2) Essun (The Fifth Season) – It’s so hard to talk about why Essun is such a great character without giving away one of my favorite eye-opening moments of The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. Considering the title of the book is the term used to describe a time of apocalyptic change that occurs semi-frequently, and the fact that it’s a three book series, it goes without saying that Essun is resilient. She lives in a harsh world and has suffered more than most in it. At the same time, she’s had moments of joy that most in her world have never matched. It’s a combination, especially when taken in whole at the end of the series, that creates a character whose defining trait is a melancholic sense of moving forward and accepting the hand one has been dealt.

I would never want to be Essun, her life is tragic and her world is harsh. I do, however, want to be like Essun in certain ways. Her sheer determination, her resourcefulness, her willingness to sacrifice for those she loves. Her story is the saddest on this list, but it’s also the most moving and it challenged me the most emotionally. The two of us here at QTL who have read the series have been badgering everyone we know to read this series just so we can have more people to talk about it with. It is worth setting the time and emotional battery power aside to read this difficult, painful, and beautiful series.

259721773) Lizanne Lethridge (The Waking Fire) – In a time where readers are looking for the next badass woman to showcase that women can be tough too, Lizanne stands out from the crowd. Having recently read Legion of Flame, I have gained a new appreciation for Lizanne as a character. Sure, she is a badass super spy with special abilities, but she is also supremely competent and confident in her skills. She prefers nothing more than getting a job done and displays one of the fiercest drives I have experienced in any character. What makes her one of the most interesting female protagonists is her conflicts rarely involve improving her ability to fight. Fighting feels like a roadblock to her, just a thing that must happen in order to achieve her goals. She is incredibly adaptable to any situation, being able to read a room and become the person she needs to be, and Ryan is a good enough writer to make you feel Lizanne trick herself into being that person.

One of my recent favorite character moments involves her, and a man, interested in her romantically, discussing who she is. He mentions that he hates “what the syndicate turned her into”, and with a quiet confidence she responds with something akin to “this had to be inside me from the beginning, otherwise they would have nothing to mold”. It was such a small moment but incredibly cogent moment. And to feel it imbued with her voice in such a succinct defense of who she was while being said to a man who had only an inkling of who she was, was so powerful to me. I only wish I could carry the same confidence that Lizanne has infused within her bones.

22876618-_sy540_4) Ashara Thivani/Komayd (City of Stairs) – Anyone who reads the site regularly will know one of our all-time favorite books is City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. No small part of this love is due to the books incredible protagonist, Shara. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history. When confronted with mysteries and challenges in the novel, she uses this historical knowledge to find answers and solutions that no one else can. She is an agent, a scholar, and a brokenhearted woman with a deep story. The more time you spend with her, the more complex you realize she is, and the more you get to see her grow. She is the niece of a man who threw the world into chaos and disarray, and so has a complex relationship with the people she works to save. She is in love with a man she cannot have, but only loves him the fiercer for it.

Shara stands out among all protagonists, not just female, as a unique and powerful character. Her strengths are a bookish intelligence, an unparalleled wit, a warm and caring heart, and the conviction to always do what is right no matter the cost to herself. She is everything I aspire to be in a person, and if I can live my life with a shadow of a resemblance to how she lives hers – I will die knowing that I have spent my time on this earth wisely.

mulaghesh03-web5) General Turyin Mulagesh (City of Blades) – Have we mentioned we love the Divine Cities Trilogy? The only series to contribute two characters to the list, these books are great for female leads. Our lead lady from book one, Shara, steps down as the leading voice in book two. In her place, a side character from the first novel, Mulagesh, takes over as the primary protagonist. An older woman in a high ranking role in the military, Mulagesh’s story in City of Blades is one of seeking redemptions. She has a brilliant mind for military tactics, is excellent in a fight, and is surprisingly funny given her rather dour disposition. Mulagesh is haunted by the sins of the past, both hers and others. She is a woman who has seen the absolute worst of war and came out realizing that no cause is worth the atrocities she has seen. So, when Mulagesh is dispatched to a city in a state of rebellion she will do anything to keep the simmering conflict from coming to a boil. In this, as with many things, she fails.

Mulagesh is a walking tragedy that shattered my heart into a billion pieces. Her story is one of repeated failure, and the tenacity to stand back up again and keep going. Mulagesh has an inner strength to her that is a wonder to behold. Her refusal to stay down, persistence in the face of failure, wonderful personality, and loving heart make her one of my favorite characters of all time.

bobbie_draper_by_jujufei-d9rnrd76) Bobbie Draper (The Expanse) – If anyone can claim the title of first love in a book, it would be Bobbie Draper. I first read Caliban’s War a few months after it came out, but only can put my admiration for Bobbie into words from a recent re-read. She is the stereotypical tough grunt female marine but brought to life. She is patriotic but pragmatic and willing to see the world as it is, instead of just how she wishes it were. There is something so immediately and organically dynamic about her. Her introduction to The Expanse was explosive and heart wrenching, and her attempts to cope with it humanizing in a way I had not dealt with at the time. The authors saw something in her that went beyond badass female with a penchant for kicking ass and opted to make her a human being with fears and anxieties from her near-death experience. But she also carries every scene she’s in with energy, exhibiting empathy for those around her.

Honestly, I could gush about her for ages, having the best traits of a longtime friend who’s always been there for you. She is admirably tough and tender and knows exactly how much force to apply, physically and emotionally. She will put herself on the line for you, and even knock some sense into you when she feels you need it. I implore you to read the Expanse and experience the thrill of being in her head when she puts on her power suit for yourself.

10510641-_sy540_7) The Lady (The Black Company) Lady, from The Black Company, is probably one of the few female characters I have a complex relationship with. Certainly, it does not hurt that she has 10 books to form that relationship, but she also starts off on the wrong foot with the reader. How can she not be when she is the evil Empress of a dark empire and uses powerful magic to oppress and control the people around her. Not only that, she is in control 10 of the most powerful sorcerers and sorceresses known as The Taken and is rumored to have killed her own twin sister. I do not know about you, but all those facts made her evil and ruthless in my eyes. I do not know if I ever would say Lady is badass. She is too cold, calculating and pragmatic to be awarded such a bombastic descriptor. However, this is where she shines. Rarely are women in her position afforded the characterization she gets. Her focus on the facts, the easily recognizable details and finding whichever ways she can to hold onto her power, with minimal damage was refreshing.

Eventually, the reader gets to see more of what drives her from her POV, and how incredibly detail oriented she is as the series continues, and over time she won me over. She is an excellent example of a humanized villain whose crimes are not forgotten, least of all by Lady herself. Seeing someone with her power, use her skills with such care and introspection to make sure her actions line up with who she wants to be, all while learning to deal with her past make her a light at the end of the tunnel. She is there to show us that it is okay to look towards the future, even if we have hurt people in the past.

threepartsdead_1508) Elayne Kevarian (The Craft Sequence) – Before I wax lyrical about how awesome Elayne Kevarian is, I want to point out that The Craft Sequence has an incredible number and diversity of female leads. Tara Abernathy the young professional craftswoman, Kai Pohala the transgender priestess, Cat the addict cop and avatar for a lost goddess. This entire post could be about the strong women in these books, but I’d like to focus on my personal favorite. Elayne Kevarian is the main reason Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series is in my Tier One category. Starting off in Three Parts Dead (published first but third in chronological order, a confusing decision Gladstone has discussed in the past), Elayne is introduced to us as a studiously professional Craftswoman who is surpassingly competent, intelligent, and cold in more ways than one. By the end of the novel we’re given a few glances past Elayne’s professional exterior and get a peek at who she really is…still surpassingly competent, intelligent, and professional, but far less cold than we’re originally led to believe.

The development of Elayne’s character from demanding boss to trusted colleague in Three Parts Dead is further explored in Last First Snow, a novel that takes place a couple decades before the events in Three Parts. This time acting as one of the main protagonists, a younger and less sure Elayne deals with extensive and detailed urban planning sessions while the city of Dresediel Lex is engulfed in plague, riots, and magical flame. The stress she is put under in this book and how she handles it is unique, interesting, and inspiring. Her reaction to the ramifications of the decisions she made truly humanizes her. I adore competent characters, and Elayne’s ability to thrive under pressure and trust in her own talents to succeed elevate her to one of my absolute favorite characters.

lighbringer2b14-162bkarris2b029) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) Another one of the warrior women on our list, Karris White Oak portrays strength, quick thinking, leadership, creativity, and tenacity. She’s a member of an elite group of bodyguards called the Blackguard, a unit basically like the Secret Service, whose job it is to protect the Prism – a powerful magician and holy symbol in the world of the Lightbringer series. Karris is particularly inspiring due to her ability to overcome hardships. She grew up in a household that left a lot to be desired in terms of familial love and care, and while she struggles with the results of those experiences, she accepts them and moves past them. While certainly not perfect, Karris shows incredible resilience to what life throws at her, and her inner strength is definitely something I admire.

Since a lot of the power of the magic system in this series is based on creativity and speed, it’s also really fantastic to see Karris at work, that is, battling off assassins and warriors to protect the Prism and the people she cares about. She throws together impressive plans, and if (or more often when) they go off the rails, it’s always fun to see how she adapts to the situation. Karris is a foreigner in the Blackguard, the only one of her people to ever be accepted into the elite force. Despite this, she earns the respect of her captain and the other Blackguard through displays of her skill and determination, and I always found myself cheering hard for Karris in almost every situation.

3021251710) Çedamihn Ahyanesh’ala (Twelve Kings in Sharakhai) – If you are looking for a lady who will have your back in a fight, look no further than Çeda. Çeda is many things: a peerless gladiator, a rebel fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful set of foes, and a girl looking for truth. Her combat prowess is exhilarating to read about and she is one of the coolest protagonists on this list. She is overwhelmingly resourceful and spends a large portion of her first novel as a one-woman army fighting against twelve terrible tyrants.

However, as the series moves forward we get to see Çeda grow, learn, and realized that she cannot do everything alone. As she comes to make friends and allies you learn that beneath her hard exterior she has a good heart and a powerful sense of loyalty. Çeda is someone who has been abandoned in a harsh world alone, and yet still somehow can see good in people. She has one of my favorite qualities in a character: a wonderful talent for making friends in unlikely places. Çeda is simply an impressive person, and a character I would be honored to have as a friend.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb11) Tam Hashford (Bloody Rose) – How do you follow up a fantasy romp about the greatest band (read: band of mercenaries) in history getting back together for one last gig? Kings of the Wyld, the first book in The Band series by Nicholas Eames, was one of my favorite books of last year and the prospect of a sequel not focusing on Golden Gabe and Slowhand seemed like folly to me. I was glad to be proven wrong by Bloody Rose, a sequel following the band headed by Gabe’s daughter, Rose. In keeping with the narrative style of the first, the story is told by someone other than the band’s frontman/woman (read: most famous member). In the first book, Clay Cooper was in charge of narration, in Bloody Rose we’re introduced to Tam Hashford. The only daughter of a pair of legendary bandmates, Tam has dreamed her whole life of going on tour and seeing the various areas and cities that make up her world. After her mother’s untimely death, her father quit the band business entirely and raised Tam himself. After some difficulty getting her father to accept her wish to join a band, she does eventually get on the road and travels with Rose and the gang. The story follows the plot of the movie Almost Famous rather closely, and Tam sees what touring is like outside of the cheering crowds and glory.

It would be easy to lose Tam among the massive personalities of the band members, but it is a credit to Eames that he managed to write such a meaningful and warm-hearted coming of age story in the midst of all the action and debauchery. Coming to terms with who she is as a woman in comparison to her mother’s legend, dealing with the fact that her dreams aren’t quite what she imagined them to be, and accepting parts of herself she never imagined are all topics that are dealt with carefully and meaningfully. Tam is a fantastic character and I hope we hear more about her from Eames in the future.

a1zmg0rj1sl12) Aphra Marsh (Winter Tide) – I was struggling for a while with how to describe Aphra Marsh. To those who have already read the story, it would seem strikingly suitable that it was in the frigid wind of the oncoming Chicago winter that it struck me. Aphra Marsh is Nancy Drew, if she were one of the last unchanged members of a race of Lovecraftian “monsters” (the Men of the Water, or Deep Ones) who had survived the genocide of her people by the American government in a WW2 era internment camp and eventually went on to become a bookseller in San Francisco. I know, it sounds like a weird combo, but it all adds up to one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in years.

Fiercely intelligent, loyal, compassionate, selfless, and possessed of an inner drive to understand herself and her stolen history, Aphra Marsh is who I want to be when I grow up. I could go on for pages about how her desire to relearn her people’s old ways of magic and decision to essentially take magical strays into what can best be understood as a combination of her family and a coven inspires me and speaks to me about the strength of humanity’s better nature shining through even when subjected to unfairness and hate. Luckily, a writer whose talent and skill is magnitudes greater than mine (Ruthanna Emrys) already did. Please go read Winter Tide as soon as you finish your current book.

red-sister-low13) Nona Grey (Red Sister) – We like “Magic Schools” quite a great deal here at QTL, so when I found out about a series that follows a group of nuns training young women to be assassins, poisoners, and spies I knew I had to check it out. I didn’t realize I’d also be getting one of my favorite recent protagonists out of the deal. Nona Grey is a troubled young woman saved from execution by the aforementioned order of nuns and brought into the fold to be trained as a Sister. It is there that she meets a diverse group of young women, most of whom she befriends despite her prickly and difficult demeanor.

Unlike a lot of the women on this list, most of whom we meet as mature adults, Nona is a young and impatient adolescent. She can be irrational, arrogant, hot-headed, and rude. Her tendency to charge into situations bullheaded because of her overconfidence in herself or difficulty in controlling her temper can be frustrating at times, but when she manages to pull it off it results in some of the most breathtaking moments in fantasy I’ve read in years. Nona is a flawed protagonist and narrator, but all blades start as rough metal before they’re forged and tempered, and it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to shadow Nona as she works out her kinks and burrs on her journey to becoming the woman she’s meant to be.

2881101614) Lady Vlora Flint (Sins of Empire) – Vlora is a protagonist with a slightly unique circumstance. Introduced in the Powdermage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan, she is initially a side character with nominal depth and not a lot of screen time. However, despite her small presence in the first three books, McClellan thought she had potential and decided to make her the lead voice in a sequel series called Gods of Blood and Powder. If you are interested in reading Vlora’s story, it will take a bit of (enjoyable) work to get to, but she is worth it. She is the general of a mercenary company and as thus, has a degree of hardness and severity that you would expect in a high ranking military officer. She is a brutal strategist and a literal powderkeg in a fight, but my favorite part about Vlora is her problem-solving abilities and flexibility.

I identify with Vlora because, at a high level, she is someone completely out of her depth just trying to stay afloat. Vlora ends up in a supernatural conflict in which she is outgunned by several orders of magnitude. She is someone who is used to being the biggest stick in a fight and intensely dislikes suddenly feeling powerless to what might as well be forces of nature. However, her aforementioned flexibility and adaptability allow her to work with the meager power she has to devastating results. She is one of the best leaders out of any protagonist I have read, female or otherwise.

Record Of A Spaceborn Few – A Masterpiece Of Storytelling

y648No witty title today, just a post about a series that you should be reading. I have talked about Becky Chambers, and her incredible novels, before – but in essence she writes sci-fi slice of life novels. They are quiet, contemplative, and slow stories about people who make their lives in space. The problems that they encounter are rarely the world ending threats you expect in your typical sci-fi novel, and often are more about the pursuit of happiness. When I started reading these novels, I thought the premise was a cool idea but I was unsure how much I would enjoy the execution. Now I sit here wondering if it is too early to declare Record of a Spaceborn Few, book three in The Wayfarers, my best book of 2018.

Note: You don’t have to read these books in order, as they are all technically standalone, but there is enough crossover that I recommend you read them in publication order.

Record follows the story of the human exodus fleet. In Chamber’s universe, a long time ago, Earth began to show signs of environmental decay and collapse. In response to this, a large group of people got together and built a massive self-sustaining fleet to leave our planetary home and sail into the stars for better opportunities. The fleet eventually made contact with other alien races, humanity found new homes, and the exodus fleet completed its purpose. Except, not everyone left the fleet. In fact, a huge contingent of people decided to stay on the armada of ships as they permanently orbit a star gifted to them by another civilization. This story follows the lives of those who chose to remain on the exodus fleet, and the very personal difficulties that they struggle with as they try to find meaning in their own lives within the fleet. The story itself is both somber and uplifting. The book begins with a horrible accident – one of the exodus ships suffers a malfunction and ruptures, killing almost everyone aboard. The rest of the book is fueled by this event as the characters react to their own mortality.

The first two books in this series told beautiful personal stories, but neither of them were on the same level as Record. For starters there are a ton of POVs in Record:

  • Isobel – An older archivist who chronicles the history of the exodus fleet. Through her eyes we see how important the “world” of the fleet has been, and what it means as a symbol of humanity
  • The Alien Gol – I will butcher the spelling of Gol’s full name, but she is essentially a jellyfish like alien that has come to the exodus fleet to learn about it as a sociologist/anthropologist. Through Gol we see what the exodus fleet represents to non-humans
  • Kip – a teenage boy bored with his assigned lot in the Fleet. He has spent his entire life in the fleet and finds its technological shortcomings frustrating. He feels trapped in a decaying lifestyle that his elders have forced on him and doesn’t see the point in spending his entire life on the upkeep of useless ships that he hates. Through Kip we hear the arguments against the fleet and the arguments for leaving it
  • Sawyer – an outsider to the fleet who is trying to immigrate from his previously difficult life. Sawyer is Kip’s foil (and vice-versa) as he represents the universal difficulties that the fleet shields humanity from
  • Eyas – a fleet composter and burial expert. Eyas is a younger character who holds a job of much reverence in the fleet. Through her we experience and come to understand a lot of the culture and values of the fleet
  • Tessa – an engineer with two children. Her POV is a little hard to summarize in a paragraph, as it is very fluid and changes a lot throughout the course of the novel. However, I will say she gives you a lot of insight as a parent and helps you think about what the fleet might mean to future generations

All of these characters represent different opinions and beliefs that exist inside the exodus fleet, and each spend the novel arguing for their point of view. Chambers did an incredible job balancing their arguments so that everyone and no one seems right, giving you a ton to think about. On top of this, Chambers’ ability to personify the different characters is truly incredible. Kip’s POV as a teenage boy feels believable and relatable to my own experiences (when I was that age), while I felt I really understood the plight of a parent thinking about their children when I was inside Tessa’s head. Each character feels realistic, relatable, and lovable – and I adored each of them.

I have nothing but good things to say about Record of a Spaceborn Few. Becky Chambers has created a masterpiece of storytelling that I could read a hundred times and never stop enjoying. This sweet and somber story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the last tearful page. Record made me think a lot about my own life, and the things I take for granted. I feel like reading this book made me a better, more thoughtful, person – and what more can you ask from a story?

Rating: Record of a Spaceborn Few – 10/10
-Andrew

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 5: The Themes

PreviouslyPart 4: The Characters

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While the ten core Malazan books are filled with tons of awesome plot, memorable characters, and more laughs and tears than you know what to do with – Erikson also made sure to pack in some consistent themes and messages that are ever present. There is not enough time left in the year to go into all of these themes, so I am only going to talk about a few of the most impactful for me personally – but know that there are a ton more beyond the handful that I list in this post. These themes are what elevate Malazan in my mind from just a fun read, to a piece of literature, and some of them I have incorporated into my personal identity. So without further ado, let’s first talk about one I already mentioned in the last characters post.

Equality without reserve, strength from diversity – Malazan has an interesting take on equality that I find fascinating. In a lot of fantasy books out there you will read about things like female soldiers or armies made of different races and species, and the tensions that these groups create in their surroundings. In the books, the Malazan Empire is founded on the idea of strength in diversity, and that every single culture and people is welcome. You are a culture that has developed advanced explosives? Bring them in, we can use those. You are a species that has wings? We always wanted an aerial unit. This creates an atmosphere were they are almost no outgroup tensions, and an army that is made up of hundreds of different kinds of people. You will have female soldiers, but unlike other books you don’t have anyone saying “oh that soldier is pretty good, for a girl”. You get tons of races working side by side, but no one making bigoted comments around a campfire about a different group of people. There is plenty of bigotry outside the Empire itself in the series, but the fact that the Malazan people think of bigots as laughably stupid (because their lack of bigotry is why they have the greatest military force in the world) creates the atmosphere of true equality where anyone can be who they want.

The meaning and importance of cultural identity – One the biggest reasons that Malazan feels like a smart, on top of a enjoyable, series is the fact that questions raised by the themes are explored. For example, a direct result of the equality theme is a new conversation about cultural identity – if an empire draws its strength from consuming and incorporating cultures, does that destroy or maintain that culture’s identity? Is cultural identity even important? Are some cultures inherently better than others? Does having a cultural identity catalyze bigotry and hatred towards others? All of these questions are explored in the story, but you will have to read it to hear the answers.

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Who you are is never set in stoneMalazan is about change. Changes to the world, and how people do and don’t change with it. The characters in the story go through an incredible amount of evolution throughout the series, but this theme is most present in that no villain is ever presented as unredeemable. There are a few selfish sociopathic megalomaniac villains in Malazan, but most of them are hurt and scared people who are backed into a corner. Some of them refuse to waver from their paths of destruction, some of them rise to the occasion and become better people, but either way their actions are always shown to be a choice and not a certainty.

Life is full of sadness and tragedy, but it is still worth living – Holy god these books are sad. You will see so many people make incredibly hard choices, incredibly unfair things happen to good people, and unbelievable actions of love that will break your heart. If I told you some of the things that happen to the people in this story you would think it an incredibly depressing book (and it can be in some sections). Except, despite how sad Malazan makes life seem, it also always shows the good that comes out of every hard choice. It shows how five minutes of happiness can outweigh years of work and suffering. It shows the incalculable value of doing good and how you should never let life defeat you – it is always worth living.

And you should never lose your sense of humor – You wouldn’t know it from everything I have said so far, but these are incredibly funny books. There is something magical about the propensity of these characters’ ability to laugh in the face of tragedy. From everything from bad puns to bleak humor, there is no situation where a joke is inappropriate in the world of Malazan. The series is a showcase in the healing power of humor, and the juxtaposition between its laughs and tears only make both categories resonate stronger with the reader.

And finally, here are my three favorite themes of Malazan:

adjuncttavore1The tenacity of heroes, and hope as a tangible action – This is a big one for me. The heroes of Malazan are not those who were born with a myriad of special abilities and the powers of gods in their hands. The heroes of malazan are usually small innocuous people who refused to break under pressure and kept standing and fighting when everyone else gave up. They are the ones who looked at hopeless situations, and instead of sitting there and praying for a solution, got up and did something about it. Even if that something seemed small and inconsequential, they still tried their best to help. This is where the second part of this theme, hope as a tangible action, is present. A lot of Malazan boils down to gods having magical showdowns and the general populace hoping they don’t die. However, many of these conflicts are decided by the actions of a small individual, who looked at a situation way outside his control and tipped the scales by trying to do something about it. These books taught me that everyone can change the world for the better, all you have to do is keep trying.

The power of love, compassion, and friendship – You know that cheesy line that is in so much of media, “hatred never solved anything, only love can fix the world” … or something along those lines. I have always agreed with it, but never had it driven home until I read Malazan. There is so much god damn love in these books that it makes my heart hurt. You will see so many acts of love, compassion, and friendship that will just emotionally shatter you. On top of this, the power of friendship is so overwhelmingly present in these stories that you will want to call your own friends just to tell them how much you appreciate them. One of my favorite subthemes of this is that friendship can happen anywhere. There are so many weird and unlikely friendships in this story that will uplift your spirits. This theme made me a more friendly and outgoing person because it taught me the fact that you can find friendship anywhere, and how everyone is worth befriending.

The collective good of humanity – The biggest, and possibly most important, theme of Malazan. It is simple, direct, and wonderful – people are mostly good. Sure, there are definitely some bad eggs out there. There are people who cannot be redeemed, and do not want to be. Despite this, Malazan claims that the massive majority of the world is filled to the brim with good people who will do the right thing in the end. It is through this that the world slowly changes for the good, because people are inherently good. It is such an incredibly powerful and uplifting message, especially in the face of so much human tragedy in the series, and I love it. It’s a theme that’s hard to believe or agree with sometimes, especially with our current political climate, but if you give Malazan a chance, it will teach you to give humanity a chance. I think that both will impress you in the long run.

Well that’s it guys. You have now read my full review and recommendation of the Malazan series. I started this series, with a lot of help from members of the Quill team, to help pump up and ground a reader about to jump into the series. I hope that it was able to do both of those things for you, or if you have already read it I hope you think I did a good job in my brief break down. Enjoy the books, and if you ever want someone to talk with about how great the series is, you know where to find me.

Rating: The Malazan Book of the Fallen – Best/10
-Andrew and The Quill to Live team

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 4: The Characters

PreviouslyPart 3: The World

1e61c86e4de25936a97f5c448f211490So, a long time ago when I was only just beginning to think about making The Quill to Live, one of my co-editors (Will) asked me to make a list of my 100 favorite fantasy characters of all time. I started making my list, but then turned to him and asked “Wait, do you want me to include Malazan characters in the list, or make them their own separate thing? Because over half of the list will be coming from the series otherwise”. Will thought I must me exaggerating, he thought that the 50+ characters from Malazan I put in my top 100 must be a joke, and then he read the series and put roughly the same amount of Malazan people on his list.

An important thing to understand about this series going in is that it has what I call a “decentralized cast”. There isn’t really a protagonist in Malazan, unless you count the empire itself as a protagonist. Instead, the series reads more like a history book and treats its characters like members of a psychotically complex relay race – each passing the story to one another, carrying it in a race to the finish. That doesn’t mean you won’t have favorites. If you are curious, my absolute top person is Tehol from books five and seven – he is my everything. However, while I did get to spend enough time with Tehol for him to be fully fleshed out and go through a significant character development arc – he still only exists more or less in a fraction of just two of the ten books. In that small amount of time (which probably still boils down to hundreds of pages in his POV) he managed to change me as a person and impart some of the most valuable life lessons I have received from fantasy. While Tehol is my number one, this is true of tons of characters in the series and is what truly makes Malazan the best of the best when it comes to the fantasy genre.

4c2e900b1a8a25a5cd67d72673c2a57fOn top of the hundred or so characters you get detailed POVs from, Erikson also does an incredible job of exposing you to characters from outside their heads (in fact he conveniently wrote a great article on what I mean this very week that you should definitely read). So on top of the hundred of POVs you receive, you will also get to know, love, fear, and respect literally THOUSANDS of other characters. I know this sounds like either a) an exaggeration or b) a negative aspect of the book – but it is neither. Malazan is a series that seems to live by the creed of letting everyone have their cake and eat it too. It pushes boundaries and covers new ground in every possible way. For example, its thousand plus cast has this incredible balance of variety and similarity at the same time. By this I mean first that in Malazan you can find literally every kind of character you can imagine. Everything from the classic tropes (like surly assassins, wise old mages, eccentric geniuses, and masked elite fighters), to stuff you have never seen before (like crippled gods, kind devils, new takes on alcoholism, and humor in unexpected places). Yet despite this ethos of “one-of-every-kind-of-character”, Malazan never feels like it is pandering to anyone or that it is a fake world designed to appeal to all. This is because, despite their differences, there is still this incredible organic overlap of the massive cast that makes the world feel like it is actually alive. The characters and their personalities fit their roles and surroundings and they do this amazing job (one of the themes I will be diving into next post) of reflecting the real world’s complexity, and celebrating it.

Another way that Erikson brings his world to life through the characters is in his diversity of world importance. So far we have spent a ton of time talking about the gods, kings, and mages that walk the earth – bending the world to their whim. But Malazan is not just about the gods, it’s about the little guys as well. There are tons of perspectives from potters, janitors, foot soldiers, handmaids, and every other kind of role that is normally overlooked in a fantasy story. These people are incredible and do a great job of immersing you completely in the Malazan world, telling meaningful stories of their own that will move your heart, and helping aggrandize the gods and kings to give you more respect and awe for some of the other characters. I will not go into spoilers, but there is a minor mage in one of the Malazan books who only got a little bit of page time. They lived a quiet and simple life, but their story left a huge impact on me and I still think about them (and the lessons they taught me) about once every few months.

2283468968_ea1be59bb7Finally, I implied this a little in some of the other things I have said in this post, but the last thing I want to tell you about the incredible Malazan characters is their diversity. The fantasy genre is undergoing a change these days where many have realized it is a little more straight, white, and male than it should be. Perspectives from other genders, sexualities, and ethnicities have been lacking in older material and great strides are being made to produce material to include people from more backgrounds. Initially, I had a slight difficulty understanding that there was this imbalance in the diversity of fantasy writing – because Malazan is such a pillar of effortless inclusion. Eventually I realized that Malazan is a beacon of love for every type of reader and that it is a serious outlier. There is a “main” POV for every kind of reader in this story. Erikson’s and Esslemont’s decision to craft a new world from scratch means that the baggage of a medieval Europe setting are left at the door and everyone is welcome. One of the main tenets and strengths (and another theme I will go into next post) of the Malazan empire is that bigotry is the enemy of progress. A lot of fantasy novels project this as a theme, but none I have read depicts it in the same manner as Malazan. The origins of the empire (learned in the two prequel books I reviewed last week as well as the early core books) are ones of struggling for survival where the founding members did not have the luxury to look down on someone because of their background. Thus the empire was founded on the idea that while everyone is equal, and that different backgrounds just provide new skills and ideas that Malazan can benefit from.

If you have ever felt that you can’t find a character that you can identify with, I encourage you to try the Malazan series. There is someone for everyone in this series, and I am actually sure there are many someones. You will find yourself relating to, and understanding perspectives of, people you never imagined over the course of this series. Its characters will pave the way to a place of higher empathy and understanding of your common man (and woman, and child, and things that can’t be as easily defined), and you will love every moment of it as you live a thousand wonderful and interesting lives.

For me, Malazan’s greatest strength will always be in its characters. However, there is one more aspect that I want to brief you on that Malazan does incredibly well: themes. We saved it for last because this is the hardest and most nebulous part of the series to describe. Tune in tomorrow to hear about some of the running ideas and concepts that Malazan presents to the world.

Part 5: The Themes

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 3: The World

PreviouslyPart 2: The Plot

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Malazan world map by Sadist at the Cartographer’s Guild

One of the longest-standing go-to complaints I hear when I read fantasy book critiques is “lazy world building”. What this refers to is an author taking people and cultures that exist in either our real world (such as Russian or Middle Eastern) or popular established worlds (such as elves and dwarves from Tolkien) and slapping them into their own work with a fresh coat of paint. While I don’t necessarily agree that retrofitting existing people for your book is bad (they work in real life and works of fiction for a reason), there is something truly impressive about creating your own original people and places. For example, one of the most consistent compliments I often hear about people’s favorite fantasy books is how much readers loved diving into new places and cultures they had never seen before. It is a fun and thrilling ride to travel to a place where you don’t know the rules and customs and experience new wonders for the first time. If you are truly lucky, a good book might go beyond having a single new culture for you to immerse in, sometimes getting up to as many as three to five. These books often rise to the top of the recommended lists as they enable a core ideal of the fantasy genre, going to a new world. With all this in mind, let me tell you that Malazan has more than twenty original cultures and worlds for you to explore.

In addition, that number is only that low because I find it difficult to find an umbrella term for the magic, geography, people, places, technology, and races of Malazan. This is a big part of the reason that so many people have trouble breaking into the series, as you will find yourself in very unfamiliar settings where everything has to be relearned – and you don’t have an easy guide. While not every element in Malazan’s world building is original, the execution of all these elements almost always is. A great example of this is the Malazan people themselves. One of the major tenets of the Malazan empire comes from the Roman Empire: instead of wiping out defeated cultures, the Malazan empire accepts and absorbs every people it beats. The result is a country that encompasses the best of every culture and compensates for their individual weaknesses. However, this is where most comparisons to the Roman Empire end. Erikson is an anthropologist by trade and this comes out clearly in his writing. The unique people you meet in your journey with these books feel like functioning societies with governments, infrastructure, beliefs, traditions, magic, and identities.

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Jahgut vs. Soletaken by Michael Kormack

On top of this there are at least 10 races, and that doesn’t count the splits among various human groups. Personally my favorite race from the series is the Jaghut. They are tall, broad humanoids with tusks on their lower jaws – often with darker jewel-toned skin. They are multi-jointed, long lived, and have duplicate organs to replace those that fail in their long life. As a people they are highly isolationist, with a tendency to only meet to court and give birth to the next generation. They have a preference for colder climates and a talent for magic. Though many of the other races think of them as calm, intelligent, cunning, vicious, and unkind – the variety of Jaghut you will meet in Malazan make it hard to categorize them. This is the best descriptive I can give you of the Jaghut as a whole, and it took longer than I expected to type up because I am not able to rely on analogies like I normally would. The Jaghut are not really like any people other than themselves. They don’t feel like they are just “trolls, but with a few things changed”. They feel like a distinctly new thing and they helped me find the joy of discovery I got when I read about things like dragons for the first time. On top of all of this, the Jahgut are only one example – there are tons of other races just as original. The people of Malazan are unlike any you have read about and that makes them all the more fun to read about.

Now let’s talk about the magic. I had to step away from this post and do some re-reading because the magic in Malazan is extremely complicated, and I will go into it in detail in a moment, but the key things you should know are its shares some similarity to Tarot cards/suits and it is massive in scale. If you are looking for subtle spells and small tricks you are in the wrong place. Malazan is filled with fire tornadoes, tsunamis of blood, swords made of lightning, undead armies, flying castles, hammers that cause volcanoes to erupt, and more kinds of magical explosives than I have time to list. The magic is big, flashy, and leaves a big impact on the reader. The magic of Malazan has to do with “warrens/paths” – parallel planes of existence with their own magic. If you have a connection to a specific warren or path (connections can be made through bloodline, bargaining with the realms ruler, or annexing a part of its existence to name a few ways) you gain the ability to use its magic. For example, the Path of Ruse is basically one giant ocean run by a mad sea god – and gaining a connection to Ruse gives you access to a complicated mix of water and wind magic that is super useful if you are on a ship.

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Topper vs. Cowl by Chisomo Phiri

The Malazan series is rare in that its figures of myth and legend can often be found just strolling around. Erikson and and Esslemont do an incredibly job of mixing gods and mortals throughout the series and making the most powerful figures in the world ever present. This is not a series where the divine sit in the clouds afar and judge those beneath them. No, the gods and kings of Malazan get their hands dirty and are on the front lines like everyone else. It makes them feel distinctly human, very relatable, and results in a lot of the previously mentioned flashy magic. Malazan avoids that annoying trope of “two all powerful figures sitting back and glacially accruing power to win a million year struggle”. Instead, Malazan prefers to provide answers to questions such as “what if the god of fire decided he wanted to prove that he could burn hotter than the god of volcanoes and they had a fire throw down?”. The answer to these kinds of questions are magical show downs that persist in my mind as some of the most memorable fantasy I have ever read.

It took me a long time to get a grip on the magic of Malazan, but after enough exposure you will start to see the method to the madness. The real key takeaway is that warrens and paths convey power unto those who hold high positions within their realms and that those positions are almost always in contention. Multiple books revolve around the occurrences of an opening in a warren or path hierarchy, and the ensuing power struggle that inevitably follows. These power struggles are one of the many ways that individuals in Malazan distinguish and endear themselves to the reader. So with that in mind let’s talk about on of the greatest things that Malazan has going for it: the characters.

Part 4: The Characters

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 2: The Plot

PreviouslyPart 1: The Introduction

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Malazan’s plot is huge and sweeping, but let me see if I can help ground you. The first thing to understand about Malazan is that the protagonist isn’t a person, it’s a people. The Malazan Book of the Fallen follows the story of the Malazan empire – and their heroes. The “Book of the Fallen” is a historian’s record of the unsung heroes in Malazan’s history who died trying to make the world a better place – and when the name of the series is essentially “This is a huge eulogy”, I think it should be obvious that a lot of this series is heavy and sad.

The series plot revolves around two overarching subjects, the various conflicts that the Malazan empire is embroiled in all over the world, and a new god who has showed up and is creating tons of problems for everyone (both inside and outside the Malazan empire). The “new” deity, The Crippled God, has upset the delicate balance in the various pantheons of the world and they are deeply unhappy about that. Almost all of the plot of Malazan is driven by gods, and aspiring gods, making plays for power. See, Malazan’s gods are quite interesting in that some of them have divine origins, but others are just mortals who amassed enough power to ascend. I feel obligated to offer a brief explanation of what ascension is and means in the world of Malazan, as Erikson seems to describe it in an intentionally oblique manner throughout the course of the series. Let’s lay down some general ground rules:

  1. To become immortal, one must ascend, or be born a god, or come from another reality, or just be a member of one of a few elder races.
  2. To ascend, one must either amass a lot of magic power, survive a brush with a god, or become a member of a house of a Warren or Path (in brief: Warrens/Paths are essentially planes that are the home and source of types of magic practiced by humans and other races – this will be explain more in the next post).
  3. To become a god, one must become the ruler of a Warren or Path.
  4. Some gods have always existed as fundamental aspects of reality.
  5. Gods can be killed.

gfd9ikf_sti8nmf5d8ggv5qlmw4onvqglgku4wrtyb4There are exceptions to all of the rules I’ve stated above, but you can operate in Malazan keeping those in mind and have a general understanding of what exactly is going on. In Malazan the relative power of everyone is constantly changing, so instead of having the gods on one power level and immortals/mages on another, the power structure is a lot more fluid. What it results in is a whole lot of powerful individuals and deities walking around in everyday life, and all of them view The Crippled God as a new opportunity to raise up their power or cast down their rivals.

This results in a metric ton of small, but dangerous, conflicts cropping up all around the world. The books bounce around to different locations and timelines, documenting events that seem unrelated at first but start to funnel towards one overarching plotline. However, not everything is intertwined, there are literally hundreds of fully fleshed out subplots in the books which is a part of why Malazan feels so much bigger than anything else you will read. The first book follows the stories of the Malazan empire closing out a campaign against the remnants of a rival kingdom, a group of friends trying to win back a title of nobility, a military officer who finds himself on the wrong side of the gods of chance, a covert operation to level a city with an enraged undead sorcerer and a commando insertion to stop said leveling. This is only about half of the plots (thought it covers the biggest ones) in the first book.

There are essentially three sets of stories that all eventually join together, but each cover different parts of the universe. The first you experience (in books one, three, and eight) are the stories of the core Malazan armies as they fight to unify the last remnants of their empire and put down some rebellions. These stories are more focused on military conquest, armed forces, and the culture and traditions of the Malazan empire and the people who inhabit it. The second set of stories (in books two, four, and six) follow a 7yiyg8al90b01number of Malazan irregulars in foreign lands, the Malazan aristocracy, and focus more on outnumbered forces escaping pursuit. The third set of books (five and seven) follows a rival empire of Malazan, the Lether, and how events on a different continent shape the future of Malazan (while also telling the story of the Letherii people themselves). The final two books in the ten book series serve as a nexus point for all the plotlines to meet up, and are incredible. Although I’ve described the three major timelines in the book, and the story elements in each, there are still tons of subplots that don’t fall into these three buckets and many characters jump back and forth between the three story sets. The result is a tale that has no competition for size and scope, and a people and world that feel like they have real lives outside the small amounts of time we spend with each of them.

Telling you the general plots of the back half of the books would be considered spoilers, but I think I am safe to give you a very brief outline of the specific plots of the first five core books:

  • Gardens of the Moon: An elite Malazan commando squad is dispatched to the city of Darujhistan to help/hinder an ascendant who has been baited to crush the city. A group of four unlikely friends in Darujhistan band together to restore the good name of one of them.
  • Deadhouse Gates: An unpopular Malazan army loses their stronghold in The Seven Cities region to a mounting rebellion, called The Whirlwind, against their occupation. They are forced to flee across a desert with a train of refugees in tow and defend them from a much larger army in pursuit
  • Memories of Ice: The elite commandos from book one return to the main Malazan forces for a new conflict. The strongest Malazan armies gather to team up with their long time enemies/rivals, Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake (and their respective forces), to stop an army of cannibals raised by the Pannion Domin. Tensions run high as these long time foes must decide if they can trust each other to stop the incoming hordes.
  • House of Chains: The Whirlwind rebellion from book two has gotten fully up and running and is starting to devastate the land around it. A new army of irregulars is raised around an enigmatic leader, and campaign to suppress the growing unrest.
  • Midnight Tides: Midnight Tides takes place on a new continent, Lether. A jarring transition point in the series, Midnight Tides features an entirely new cast of characters that will eventually meet up with the previous characters later in the series. Here an all powerful empire is quickly realizing that the rumor of a small coalition of seemingly barbaric tribes uniting under an Immortal king might be more than just rumor, and it is definitely a bigger problem than they realized.

While the scope of the plot is incredible, the real power behind Malazan’s uniqueness is the trinity of world, characters, and themes. In each of these categories I would argue Malazan is best in class by a large amount, and hopefully I can convince you as well. Let’s start with the world and culture.

Part 3: The World