The Best Of 2019

Welcome back to another end of the year list! 2019 is rumbling to a close, which means it’s once again time to talk about the best books of the year. This year was a tough one for us. With our expanded set of reviewers, we got through a much larger number of new books and had a much harder time cutting them down to a top list. The competition was hot for every single spot this year, and our list is coming out a little later than usual due to all the discussions we had about where to rank everything. This year, the competition was so tight that we chose to include 22 books plus a few honorable mentions. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2018 into this list, and December 2019 will be rolled into 2020’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2019.

Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:

4145903722) The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull – A more personal book that takes a large event and brings it home in ways that most first contact stories don’t examine. There are no interstellar battles, no open threats of planetwide war, just three islands, the people that live on them, and the aliens that occupy them. It is an intensely close look at the effects of colonialism in its many forms and how it affects the relationships of those under the boot, literally and metaphorically. While major events rarely happen within the POV of a character, the rumors and feelings of those events bleed into the narrative, coloring the reactions of everyone in different ways. Turnbull makes every interaction feel deliberate, earned, and uncomfortable. He provokes the reader to think about the events of the book. If you want an intimate and contemplative character-based science fiction story, see if you can learn The Lesson.

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_21) System Failure by Joe Zieja – A surprisingly deep ending to an extremely humorous trilogy with a ton of excellent character development. With the publication of his third book, Zieja seems to be done with writing books for the near future–a damn shame, if you ask me. He has demonstrated that he is capable of creating thoughtful commentary and entertaining jokes at the same time, and I consider the Epic Failure trilogy to be one of the best satires I have ever read. Now that book three has stuck the landing, you can be reassured that these books are definitely worth your time. Unless you hate laughter, fun, and joy, and in that case, I am not really sure what to recommend you read.

71e9du8wynl20) Middlegame by Seanan McGuireMiddlegame was a book that flew under my radar for a while. In retrospect, I don’t know how the description didn’t jump off the back of the book at me. The book takes place in a near-future or the alt-universe United States, it’s a little unclear exactly what year the book starts in due to the fact it’s almost entirely about time travel and manipulating the flow of time. In this version of the USA, the magical practice of alchemy is real and there is a secret society of alchemists that have been pulling the strings of government and world development for centuries. The book follows a pair of alchemically created twins as they try to subvert the murderous intent of their maker and find a way to create a future for themselves. The time travel mechanic is handled fantastically, the magic feels truly mystical, and the singsong nature of the prose ties in well with the initial conceit of Asphodel Baker hiding her magic in children’s books. We highly recommend you give it a try.

81hheui0g8l19) The Killing Light by Myke Cole – A stunning finish to an already fantastic series. Myke Cole digs deep offering a sobering but impactful piece of revolution and identity. Cole maintains a loyalty to his characters through to the end, providing rich character growth inside a bombastic action-filled trilogy. The excellent pacing will keep you on the edge of your seat, with a steady but explosive ramping of the stakes in the final act. There is barely a dull moment, but Cole manages to squeeze in the occasional introspective paragraph to develop the characters. While the prose may not be overly detailed, it conveys a range of atmospheres that sell the setting and the fight ahead for Heloise and her compatriots. If you haven’t read the others in the series, this book is worth picking them up for.

51q9knbilel._sx321_bo1204203200_18) The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – Leckie’s first fantasy novel is a slow burn and odd book to pick up, but definitely worth the time. Leckie performs an amazing juggling act by building a new world, exploring the power of language, and the nature of authority in a gripping tale of succession. There is nothing I like more than deconstructing a genre, and Leckie does it with admirable finesse. The human characters are not much to write home about but serve the story in interesting ways that don’t betray who they are. Gods and kings are at each other’s mercy in this robust world where faith is a contract, and not fulfilling it has vast repercussions. If you’re looking for a book that cooks its elements like a stew, rewarding you with a satisfying finish after a deliberate and planned preparation, then look no further than The Raven Tower.

91fi4au2qfl17) For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones – Another of our Dark Horses, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic fantasy novel. It has an engrossing world, a fast-paced plot, and a smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. The protagonists are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free-time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. While I wouldn’t say this book reinvented the wheel, I think it is both a stunning tribute to old school quest fantasy and a fresh and original take on some classic fantasy tropes. This book is worth your time.

gideon-the-ninth-cover16) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – A powerful debut from a new author with a stunning voice, Gideon the Ninth is a story I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. A story with endless ambition and complication, Muir’s debut built a window into her very chaotic and fascinating mind. It takes a clever artist to combine necromancy and a science fiction setting, and yet Muir’s fascinating world seems as effortless as it is captivating. Her universe is both cool and believable, though not necessarily a place I want to live. Although her twists were somewhat unsurprising, her characters were bundles of mystery and watching them evolve over the course of the book was wonderful. Thank god the second book comes out early next year after the ridiculous cliffhanger of an ending in book one. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly.

71uzngwnyel15) This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – I didn’t expect a book about time-traveling super agents fighting a time war on opposite sides to be so…romantic. This Is How You Lose The Time War is a short book that feels so much bigger than it is. The ideas it contains and the relationship it explores expand in weight and depth far past what the short run time should allow. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have created a poetic romance of a sci-fi novella and luxuriate in it. Their prose is lavish but fitting and never feels overwrought despite always toeing the line of excessive. I was moved by this story to a depth that I have difficulty getting across in words and cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to experience the story Red and Blue live within its pages.

51QyF0Oma0L._SX311_BO1204203200_14) A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White – Alex White is on a roll, making two of our best-of-the-year lists in a row with his next installment of The Salvagers series. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. The Quill to Live reviewers will always be drawn toward books that do a good job blending fantasy and science fiction, and White has a real talent for it. These novels are a mind exploding stream of cool ideas and blockbuster set pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

51tbh9qip2l13) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Bancroft’s incredible prose,  delightful sense of humor, and mysterious storytelling are back again with the third installment of his The Books of Babel Series. The Hod King is the latest in an incredible character study and journey of the titular Senlin – and watching him grow book by book has been pure joy. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The book has heart and there were a number of touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction.

51dp2bmink2l12) A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Martine’s debut is a frenetic political space opera that asks the reader to put in some work, for easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the year. The worldbuilding is near seamlessly blended into the narrative, allowing osmosis like an exchange between the characters and their world. It’s a character-driven drama, wherein the characters have as much agency as the situation allows, leading to the characters to deeply question their own identity, especially when it comes to nationality and the goals of an inherited community. To top it off, Empire has one of the most exciting and bombastic conclusions I’ve read in a long while; it closes the book, but it opens the world.

43521682._sy475_11) The Bone Ships by RJ Barker – Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. The world is top-tier in its quality and the plot is surprising in its direction and themes. The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that speaks to me on several levels. This book was one of the only ‘escort quests’ I have ever enjoyed being a part of, and it was a privilege to watch the protagonists forge a legendary ship’s crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.

Welcome to the top 10 of 2019. Please note that the competition for these top 10 spots was fierce this year, so all of these books should be given high accolades.

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_10) The Burning White by Brent Weeks – I gotta tell you, I did not have a lot of faith that Weeks could pull off a powerful ending for The Lightbringer – and wow was I wrong. This is one of the twistiest series I have ever read, and the more turns you have the harder it is the land the final reveal. The Burning White sticks a landing that would earn a straight 10 from Olympic judges. The final installment of this modern classic cements its standing in my mind and does a lot to alleviate some of the minor animosity created by book four in the series. Future generations of readers will not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to read these five books back to back, and will never know the pain of having to wait years to find out what happens in the story next. Give these books a spin if you haven’t already.

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre 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 once again.

The Luminous Dead8) The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – Horror and science fiction have an interesting relationship as they can sometimes explore similar ideas with wildly different approaches. Luckily, Starling is an excellent matchmaker, highlighting both genres’ strongest attributes in her debut, which also happens to be our top Dark Horse pick. The setting and the characters are the biggest stars in this book. Gyre and Em have layers to them that heighten the tension and horror of the deep caves Gyre is exploring. The first person perspective is purposefully disoriented, making the reader feel as if they are in Gyre’s shoes, and needing to ask the questions she herself has trouble answering. The character’s flaws are on full display in an incredibly human fashion. Their reckless decisions feel necessary, but also stupid and punishable. I never really felt safe during the story, especially when Gyre’s radio only partner Em, seemed so questionable. The Luminous Dead has buried itself deep in my brain and will remain there for years to come. If you’re looking for an intimate horror experience, turn out the lights and let the dead light your way.

91dsajyop2l7) A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs – If I had my way this would be in the first slot. I have evangelized about this book to everyone I have spoken to about reading since I experienced it and will continue to for as long as I live. A duology of novellas, one longer than the other, A Lush and Seething Hell may be my favorite book of all time. The longer I’ve had to think about and reflect upon its story the more profoundly it has impacted me and influenced my thoughts. Each of the stories it contains is compelling and moving in the extreme, and while I personally have my favorite of the two either one would top a list of what my personal “best” short stories would be. The genre and subject matter means that by default this book won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to find out personally. I will get my ARC signed by John Hornor Jacobs someday if it is the last thing I do, and I would highly recommend every single person reading this article to go and pick this book up. I cannot wait for what Jacobs does next.

51xnnd8dqtl6) Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey – I have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now.” The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the series tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how The Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.

71wcezdltrl5) Exhalation by Ted Chiang – One of two books to sneak into the top five in the last two weeks of the year and cause a delay on the list. As far as I am concerned, Exhalation should be required reading for everyone. It is a book that evokes curiosity in the reader and kickstarts introspection. It is such a thoughtful and inspirational book and I can’t imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy it. In 300 pages and nine stories, Chiang will drop a boatload of wisdom on you and ask some questions that will have you thinking weeks after you finish the collection. This series of shorts pack punches orders of magnitude larger than other things that have come out this year, it a much smaller package. Just read it, seriously. You really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of these wonderful stories.

356060414) A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie – Like anyone familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised this is in the top five. Headline: author who everyone agrees is dope as hell writes next installment of beloved series and it turns out really good – surprising no one and delighting everyone. Seriously, A Little Hatred is amazing. Abercrombie has ushered in a new generation of characters that are just as compelling, unconventional, and emotional as the last – without cannibalizing his own work. The book is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, one of the best books I have read this year.

51sght5qhjl3) Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – With powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of its predecessor allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. While Time had great characters, Tchaikovsky really upped the ante in Ruin. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. Unfortunately, this closeness led me to feel that some of their stories were not fully explored by the end of the book, but it did not dampen the power of the story overall. Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

81h2bkqvsgyl2) The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This sneaky little snake is the true reason our list is late again this year. The silver-tongued Morgenstern must have known what she was doing when she released 2019’s arguably most anticipated book a week before reviewers like me had to put out best-of lists. I have not written a full review for The Starless Sea yet because I am still digesting how I feel about the book after binging it in a few days. However, I was only about ten pages into the book before I knew it would be a top contender for the book of the year on every fantasy and sci-fi list. With one of the most relatable protagonists of all time, The Starless Sea captured my imagination in a way few stories ever have. The book, simply put, is a work of art. With its stunning exterior and gorgeous prose upon its pages, I found myself holding this modern classic to my chest for comfort after it hammered my heart into oblivious with its touching story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and dive into The Starless Sea.

91gyhjy8mjl1) A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – This year it was a close thing. The difference in ranking between the number one and two books this year is minuscule, but at the end of the day(year) I had to give it to A Brightness Long Ago. Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read. It is a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and is The Quill to Live’s #1 book of 2019 – I urge you to all go find a copy.

-Happy 2019 from The Quill to Live Team

Science Fiction for 2019

2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:

The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.

81fywrtjuolThe Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.

Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.

32758901Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.

Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.

51wkqa3knrlChildren of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”

51o34bvmuol._sx325_bo1204203200_The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).

Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.

26850100Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.

41-d2bw0dpxl._sx324_bo1204203200_Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.

Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.

91alssdftvlArmor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.

9780312536633_p0_v3_s1200x630The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.

An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.

26114545Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.

91rstamsxzlPandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.

A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.

gideon-the-ninth-coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.

Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.

A Halloween Special: But What IS Horror Anyway?

Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.

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Body HorrorThe fear of our own mortality.

Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.

In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.

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Paranormal The fear of our lack of understanding

I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.

Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.

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Psychological The fear we create for ourselves

I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.

Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”

In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.

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Cosmic HorrorThe fear of our own insignificance

Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.

Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.

In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.

Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.

-Will

The Top Ten Butts Of Fantasy And Science Fiction

Okay, so it is distinctly possible that I misunderstood the directions for this thought piece. Apparently I am the only person who thinks about bottoms when told to list the “Best ‘Buts’ of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” But we can’t let good thicc content go to waste, so strap in and get ready for an intellectual dissection of booty. In this list, we explore the iconic backsides of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. What makes a butt stand out? Are all butts created equal? Do some rise above the rest to sit in the upper echelon, looking down upon the lesser derrières? The answers to these questions, of course, are “Bodaciousness and impact,” “No,” and “ASS-olutely.” Here’s our list of the best butts the sci-fi and fantasy world has to offer (in no particular order)!

071tf1) Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings) – As soon as we started talking about butts, my mind immediately went to one of the greatest heroes of fantasy, the hobbit who trekked across a country, putting miles and miles of work into shaping what must be a magnificent bubble butt hidden beneath his elven cloak. But not Frodo, oh no siree. All that wasting away from not eating and the pressure of the One Ring does not a round rump make. Samwise, on the other hand, carried Mr. Frodo up a mountain, climbed innumerable stairs, and stomped his way through swampy marshes, all while powered by friendship. His efforts crafted what I can, and do, imagine is one of the finest toned posteriors in all of Middle Earth. Mmmm mmmm, gimme a big bowl of rabbit stew with an extra serving some of those rump-roasted trouser PO-TA-TOES Sam is carrying around! (Also, an extra shoutout to Samwise for being the only person to make both the But and Butts list)

4723312) Dr. Manhattan (Watchmen)Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan flaunts his blue moon for the majority of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic masterwork. His big, blue butt and…the rest of his blue body (*wink*) are just there through much of the novel, on display for everyone to enjoy. In fact, it’s mildly disappointing when Dr. Manhattan chooses to summon clothing out of thin air, hiding his glorious blue bum from the world. Dr. Manhattan bares it all–not just because he’s ripped, but because he’s beyond the need for clothes. This choice represents the ever-thinning threads that connect him to the humanity he is destined to leave behind. His nudity, though, along with his insane superpowers and the public’s shifting opinion on him, culminates in a heart-wrenching end for Dr. Manhattan’s blue butt. With the HBO show coming up, we imagine many readers will venture into the world of Watchmen for the first time soon, so we’ll avoid spoilers. Come for the blue butt, stay for one of the best stories ever to grace the comic book medium.

81tboqp5v2bl3) Lan Mandragoran (The Wheel of Time) – I don’t think anyone can fight me on this one – Lan Mandragoran has to have one of the hardest, most chiseled, badass asses out there. Do you know what isn’t kind to the butt? Equestrian… Equestrinarianism… Equest… HORSEBACK RIDING. Riding on a horse all day is basically the equivalent of beating your butt into submission until it rises up and can fight a horse. It’s a Rocky montage in which Rocky is your butt, and Apollo is the the saddle/gravity/and horse’s back all rolled into one. And there is no one I can think of in all of fantasy who does more horseback riding than Lan. First off, his horse Mandarb is described as a hulking goliath of an animal which only means that all butt-on-saddle action is more intense. Second off, Lan spends almost every single book riding across the continent either being chased, chasing someone, or racing against time. And there are fourteen books in this sequence. By the end of A Memory of Light, it would not surprise me if Lan’s butt was tougher than his plate mail. He could probably run into battle and simply block sword strikes on his bare keister. Lan Mandragoran’s butt is one of the most capable warriors in a series full of them.

51wkqa3knrl4) Portia (Children of Time) – You want to talk about butts with talents? Asses with aptitude? Proficient posteriors? Cheeks with capability? Keisters with knacks? Butts that can do so many amazing things that it makes other butts look like dumbpoops? Then look no further than the stunning rear end of Portia the spider from Children of Time. Things this butt can do that yours can’t – have full conversations with everyone around her through the use of abdominal paps, literally build a house, forge weapons, create art. Can your butt do any of those things (no a huge poop does not count as any of them, you are gross, sit down)? This incredible lady has a genetically enhanced and specially evolved behind in order to help her survive in a hostile world. Her bottom is straight fire and could give any butt on this list a run for its money. If this was a butt royal, it would be Portia’s that stood victorious on the fields of battle.

81kjbiks-al5) Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender) – Stay with me here. When you show someone your butt, you’re MOONing them. The moon lends waterbenders their greatest power. The moon is the biggest butt in the Avatar world. If you apply the transitive property a few times in a very accurate, peer-reviewed mathematical process, this means that waterbending is essentially buttbending. Katara becomes one of the world’s best buttbenders as the series progresses, carrying over into the graphic novels that follow. She even leverages the power of the moon to bloodbend at one point. That’s badass…or should I say badBUTT? An honorable mention from the Avatar universe goes to Appa, the sky bison whose tail (a clear extension of the butt) packs a punch and frequently launches enemies into oblivion.

91npjuxxkzl6) Alex Kamal (The Expanse) – We have talked about toned butts, we have talked about buff butts, and we have talked about versatile butts – but what about a perfectly preserved butt? Let me ask you, what is a butt’s greatest enemy? Correct, the forces of time and gravity. No matter how powerful the butt, no matter how intense the training routine, time makes fools of all butts. However, there are those who go to great lengths to minimize their keister strain and keep their butts safe. I am talking about spaceship pilots of course. Adrift in the vast expanse of a space vacuum, a pilot’s butt is kept safe from the ravages of a planet’s mass. Alex Kamal, from The Expanse, is a particularly stunning example of the perfect pampered posterior. Not only has he spent most of his life in space, keeping his butt safe, but he also spends almost all of his time in a gel crash couch that even further insulates his booty from harm. Alex’s butt is like a mint condition action figure, worth even more in its packaging. His butt is pristine, pert, and positively bodacious.

lies-lockelamora-web7) Jean Tannen (The Gentlemen Bastards) – If you’re reading this list, there’s approximately a 100% chance you’re thinking “wow this incredible thought piece has made a cultural contribution so powerful that I am inspired to go home and improve my own butt.” We have all been there. So you get to the gym and are looking at the best exercises to do. After looking for a while, you locate the holy grail of buttcheek toning, the squat. Squats are the king of butt exercises and there is no surer way to take your bottom from zero to hero than squatting all the time. But you know who squats a lot? Thieves. Always squatting on rooftops, skulking through alleys, and creeping through homes while they rob people blind. Thus we get to our next member of the posterior pantheon, Jean from The Lies of Locke Lamora. This man’s walk basically resembles the Kazatsky dance as he just squats his way around town. His ass is so toned he could probably grip a flat wall between his two cheeks and suspend himself in the air just by clenching while he gave his arms and legs a nice rest. Thieves have developed the pinnacle of butt-day workout routines for the gym, and there is no thief more devoted to his work out than Jean.

17372039._sy475_8) Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter) – First, let’s address the elephant-butt in the room—namely, Dolores Umbridge’s elephant-butt. Yeah, the toad-like Ministry lackey has a certifiably large derrière, but it’s her general disposition that earns her a spot on this list. Umbridge waltzes into Hogwarts and promptly takes over. She makes students who can literally perform magic simply sit and read books (even though we at QTL know that books are their own special kind of magic, right? *eye roll*). She makes her students carve disciplinary messages onto the backs of their own hands as punishment for speaking out of turn or “telling lies.” Oh, and there’s the whole “I’m a wizarding world mega racist” thing. Umbridge both has and is one of fantasy’s biggest butts, and we love to hate her for it.

70946._sy475_9) Falkor (Neverending Story) – Next up is arguably the biggest butt on this list and probably the most awesome of all butts. Falkor is the magnificent white luck dragon from the Neverending Story, and he is 43 feet long, a good majority of which can be considered a butt. Yes, shut up, his entire body is one long butt, this is my butt article and I get to determine what qualifies as a butt and the glorious 40 feet behind Falkor’s head are definitely a butt. I’ve never wanted to hop on a booty as badly as when I first imagined myself in Atreyu’s place, riding the resplendent and dignified Falkor across the landscape of Fantasia. Imagine holding handfuls of the dragon’s fluffy down fur in your hands as you ride through the skies of Fantasia, and I guarantee you’ll come around and agree that this one of the best butts of sci-fi and fantasy.

30693742._sy475_10) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) – An absolute brutal training regimen and employment as a magical Secret Service agent both mean that Karris White Oak from the Lightbringer series is PROBABLY rocking a serious booty. But, I am not actually sure. Why you ask? Leather. Tons, and tons, of leather. You see, leather is like butt-makeup and when properly applied can make any heinie look heavenly or derriere look devilish. As a member of the Blackguards, Karris (and the rest of the organization) basically spend their lives in so much combat leather that it resembles a gimp suit. She can’t so much as pick up a pencil without the telltale sounds of squeaky, clingy, jetblack cowhide. Even if she wasn’t born with a grade-A bottom, her leathers have probably sculpted her ass into a work of art at this point – serving as a sculptor’s mold that has sat for twenty years. It’s as I always say, fake it until you make it.

40603587._sx318_Bonus Bum: Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher) – Geralt of Rivia has a terrible butt. It’s old, weather worn, severely poisoned, and nothing to look at judging by some of the scenes in The Witcher game series. However, he still almost made the list due to the sheer variety of people, animals, creatures, and magic wielders that have hunted his booty. In every book of the The Witcher series, as well as the games, it seems that someone (or multiple someones) is after his ass. God only knows why multiple sorceresses try, to varying degrees of success, to get on that butt. Kings, Spymasters, Emperors, Bounty Hunters, Archmages, Fey, Undead, Assassins, and more have tried to catch up to Geralt to get a hold of his backside. And let’s not forget the numerous creatures and monsters of The World who try to take a bite out of that booty! And so, despite not making the list as one of the Top Ten Best Butts, Geralt does at least possess possibly the most sought after butt in fantasy.

That’s our round-up–thanks for reading! Any classic butts you think we missed? Want more lists/have an idea for our next one? Let us know in the comments!

The Top Ten “Buts” Of Fantasy And Science Fiction

The science fiction and fantasy pantheon overflows with amazing quotes. The intertwined genres offer heart-wrenching quotes about love, inspiring quotes about courage, uncompromising quotes about hardship, and endless others. At their best, these quotes can profoundly touch the reader and leave a lifelong impact on them. Some of the most impactful quotes I’ve encountered share one notable quality: they include the word “but.” These quotes all build the reader up with a crescendo of anticipation, then pull out the metaphorical rug with a “but” and a revelatory flourish. The “but” is versatile, and it can be used to undercut expectations, give readers hints about the future of the narrative, or make you rethink your stance on a particular character. To prove this, I asked theThe Quill to Live writers to build a list of our favorite “but” quotes, and this is what we came up with. They are in no particular order; enjoy!

17372039._sy475_1) “Oh, yeah. Poor bloke. Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some firsthand experience….” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Rubeus Hagrid’s description of Harry Potter’s first Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher hosts one of the fantasy genre’s most iconic and prescient “buts.” For those who voraciously re-read the series, it’s a darkly playful nod to the tortured Professor Quirrell’s fate at the hands of Voldemort. To the first-years, it’s an indication that something is…off about him. Hagrid, a loyal but not-so-bright fellow, lends the quote a certain gravitas that makes it all the more meaningful. Young Harry trusts Hagrid, and his instincts are sharp enough to know when something’s amiss. This first interaction with Quirrell and the hints Hagrid drops combine to form a literary moment that sets the stage for the remainder of the series–not everyone is trustworthy, and it’s hard work separating the noble from the wicked in the wizarding world.

mv5bmmnlyzrindctzwnhmi00mzi4lthkztctmtuzmmzkmmfmnthmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzkwmjq5nzm40._v1_2) “. . . Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy–of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.” 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

One of science fiction’s most profound “buts” appears early in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following Moon-Watcher and his decidedly unevolved band of ape cohorts in the novel’s opening chapters provides a stark contrast from the movie, allowing the ape-community time to breathe and anchoring the novel in pseudo-human history. This “but” signals the ape colony’s ascent to a more elite and less primitive race, laying the groundwork for the millennia-spanning evolutionary space opera to come.

81tboqp5v2bl3) “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long passed, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

This quote opens Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and graces the top of the first page of The Eye in the World. It’s responsible for beckoning an entire generation of readers into the fantasy genre. For many, it is a profound quote that speaks to the nature of the story of The Wheel of Time – a cycle that never ends. It just goes on, and on, and on, and never deviates from its protracted course… until now. The “but” shows the reader that they are witnessing something special, something one of a kind. It begs the reader to demand of the book “show me why this time will be different.”

071tf4) “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Said by Samwise Gamgee when Frodo loses his hope, this quote speaks to tenacity. The “but” encapsulates the fact that while things might be hard now, the bad times are fleeting. If we just press on and keep placing one foot in front of the other, the dawn will come. This “but” represents rock bottom and a turning point. Although today is a nightmare, tomorrow it will just seem like a dream. This “but” renews the hopes of its readers and shows you that everything is going to be okay. The night is darkest just before the dawn.

220px-the_wise_man27s_fear_uk_cover5) “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss is known for his delightful prose, but this quote in particular always stood out to us. The line is about wisdom and how curiosity, not the sheer volume of one’s knowledge, is the foundation of a smart mind. The “but” in this instance encourages you to go deeper and think hard about which of the two qualities is better. At the same time, it helps organize the line to convince the reader that curiosity and the promise of future knowledge can be better than knowledge alone.

917and4pjfl6) “Honor is dead, but I will see what I can do.”Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

This is one of our favorite quotes of all time, and this might just be our favorite “but.” Declared by Kaladin right before he does something incredibly badass, this “but” serves to hype up the reader for an explosive climax that approaches at full speed. This “but” is a harbinger of awesome and a shepherd of excitement, transitioning the reader into an adrenaline fueled spot on the edge of their seat.

137) “The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

We have seen a ton of serious “buts” so far, but the “but” can also be humorous. It can serve as a straight man, as it does in this famous Douglas Adams quote, to the ridiculous. In this quote, the “but” serves as a foil to the outlandish scenario of dolphins being hyper sentient space-faring aliens, and their gratitude for all the fish we have given them in one form or another over the years. The “but” is the gateway from the normal to the absurd, the everyday to the ridiculous.

41fcrqvocml._sx277_bo1204203200_8) “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

A spectacular quote from a spectacular book shows that Le Guin knew the power of a well placed “but.” The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things, one of which is growth and change. This quote eloquently states an age-old adage: it isn’t about where you are going, it’s about what you experience on the way. This “but” is a quiet and wise leader that takes the reader’s hand and shows them insight and wisdom into their own lives. It is a “but” that wants you to be happier and live better.

91d-77kn-dl9) “If we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.”A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

It’s fitting that a fantasy epic so replete with death and destruction can make such a poignant commentary on the joys of life. George R.R. Martin weaves a massive tale brimming with the worst facets of humanity. Torture, murder, deceit, backstabbing, and any number of other wrongdoings fill the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but through it all, in stark (pun intended) contrast to the woeful world surrounding them, the characters trudge forward and keep a firm grip on those small moments that make them feel alive. This “but” is a forceful commentary on the fleeting nature of life, and a call for Jon Snow and his comrades to seize the day. If you live each day fearful of death, are you really living at all? In response to that question, this “but” shouts a resounding, unequivocal “no.”

8167h8dujnl10) “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Our final “but” comes to us courtesy of Pratchett and Gaiman and speaks to human nature. In their famous collaborative work, Good Omens, the authors toy with the idea of how circumstance and context sculpt human values and morality. In the book, the authors basically make the case that no one is fundamentally good or evil, but a product of their surroundings and choices. The “but” serves to let you in on the secret of the book and give you insight into humanity. It’s a powerful “but” and one of our favorites.

Well, that’s the full list! We hope you have enjoyed our compilation of the top ten “buts” in fantasy and science fiction. This list was compiled through a combined effort of all of The Quill to Live writers, except for Sean, who badly misunderstood the assignment. His list was undignified, inappropriate, and completely mishandled the subject matter of the piece. I doubt anyone would be interested, but if you want to see his list, you can find an article on the best butts here.

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

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.