Hidden Gems Of Fantasy That You Should Be Reading

Recently I had a strange conversation with a gentleman on Twitter. We had posted an update about what our reviewers were reading, and one of the selections was The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This gentleman got upset that we were giving attention to such a well-known series. What this random person didn’t realize is that it’s important for people in our position to read the big popular series to make sure we have topical context when reviewing other things. However, while I was informing the rando politely that he should shove off, I found myself thinking, well why don’t we also put out a piece on series that should be getting more attention than they currently do? So, below is a list of fantasy series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big.  Links to our reviews are in the titles.

Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund Blood of an Exile is a book with powerful characters, a rich world, and a fairly inventive plot. While Blood of an Exile is also very much an action-packed adventure fantasy, it is primarily a story about amateur scientists desperately trying to keep humanity from destroying the Earth for fiscal gain – an angle I was not expecting and loved in equal parts. It’s an eco-fantasy exploring the effects of carelessly damaging parts of the natural world through a versatile cast of memorable individuals. It brilliantly combines exciting action, sympathetic characters, smart themes, and a deep world to create a coherent and unique story. It is always rare when you find a book that is both smart and fun at the same time, and Blood of an Exile has both in spades.

Soul of the World by David Mealing – They say when you write your first book you should start small, which is apparently a saying that Mealing completely ignored. Soul of the World is a huge epic fantasy and just the opening chapter of a complicated and interesting world. The book is set in a semi-alternate history American revolutionary war, except that the English and the French have switched places in the story. The book is initially very confusing with regards to what is going on, but it is still a blast to read as you try to get your feet on solid ground. Our plot follows three protagonists, each a paragon of one of the three magic systems and a window into three different factions in our story. On top of having just a ridiculous number of magic systems, our characters gain an absurd number of powers as the book progresses. In most fantasy novels I have read, you might have a protagonist find one or two new powers in a story and then spend the entire book contemplating how it changes their lives. I kept a counter next to me as I read Soul of the World, and by the halfway mark the protagonists had collectively gained over twenty new powers. It is a magical book, almost overflowing with originality.

Bookburners by Max Gladstone and Company Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self-contained story that plays out like a TV episode. The story follows a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half-hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. It’s written by a group of authors, and they did a great job unifying their voice. While I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end, it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Serials are a bit of a new thing on the reading scene, and this entry is a great place to start.

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher – Look, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line: “Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.” Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. The book is the story of how a woman who has no joy in life falls in love with a cursed eternal warrior bound to a sword, and it’s hilarious. I don’t know what more you can ask for.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – Alright, this one in particular really bothers me. Not only is Guy Gavriel Kay a popular and well-regarded author, but this particular book of his was also our #1 book of 2019 – yet it is criminally underread. Brightness is one of the best character stories I have ever read. It is my second favorite Kay novel, behind Sailing to Sarantium, and only by a little bit. It might be my favorite stand-alone story of all time, so go read it already. If you are curious about the plot you can find a write-up of the story here in my review. This one is certainly worth your time.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Each year, like clockwork, Bradley P. Beaulieu puts out an enormous, detailed, and dense epic fantasy about an original Arabian-inspired world. And each year, like clockwork, I tell people to go read it – but only a select few follow my advice. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out, with the sixth coming this year) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. There are not many authors who seem to love writing their series as much as Bradley P. Beaulieu does. His passion for his books bleeds through every single page, and I frankly don’t understand how he has the stamina to put out this many books so quickly. He has published one book per year(ish) and each one has absolutely no filler. These books are nothing but thousands of pages of plot and story; there is literally zero downtime. I don’t even know how he managed to track all of this when he was writing it. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – Chris Wooding is one of our favorite authors here at QTL for his popular Ketty Jay series. However, Wooding recently started a new series that has flown completely under the radar. The Ember Blade feels like an epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into while paying tribute to the series that started the genre, Lord of the Rings. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head. The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. There is a large set of characters, and it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them.

The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley The Heart of Stone (tHoS) follows the story of Task, a war golem and the last of his kind. Task was built for a specific conflict roughly 400 years prior but has outlived the war, and even the people waging it. The last of the war golems, he has drifted from owner to owner and conflict to conflict until he has arrived at a new land embroiled in a civil war where our story begins. Task has a lot of personality, and frankly, I love him. He is ironically a very human character and it will not take long for you to grow attached to him. After seeing essentially centuries of war and subjugation, Task is understandably quite jaded when it comes to his opinion of people. His thoughts and commentary on human nature and reactions are excellent and bring a lot of thoughtful psychology to the story. Adding to this is Task’s supporting cast of characters that all bring just as much to the table. Whether it be a young girl who is surprisingly wise, a drunk knight whose actual fighting skill is never clear, an armchair general trying to prove his father wrong, or a spy who seems to be on no one’s side but her own – the cast brings a lot of life and excitement to the book. The combat is thrilling, the world is interesting, and The Heart of Stone is a great gem that deserves more appreciation.

An Interview With Max Gladstone

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Max Gladstone is one of the big up and comers in fantasy these days. His Craft Sequence was just nominated for a Hugo for best series, and he has started multiple other group writing projects such as Bookburners. I am increasingly becoming a huge fan of his as he puts out more work, and he graciously agreed to let me ask him questions about his books and his life as an author. If you haven’t checked out any of his work yet you can find reviews for the first two Craft books here and here, and one for Bookburners here. Otherwise please enjoy our conversation below!

First off, some questions about you as an author as a whole:

You have a really interesting writing style that makes me feel like I know you as a person after reading your work. It makes me feel like we are already friends even though we have never met. Do you do this intentionally, do you just write yourself, or am i just insane and projecting because I am lonely?

Hah! I don’t think you’re making it up—I also don’t think I hide in my work too much. Many of my storytelling rhythms come from the gaming table, and when I sit down to write these days I am often just thinking about telling a story to my friends, and including little references and tips of the hat I’m sure they’ll catch. Different sorts of storytelling have their own idiosyncrasies, of course, but that common thread remains.
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Do you have a plan for your career as an author? I know you are sorta wrapping up the first part of The Craft Sequence now (or so I thought until I saw the announcement for Ruin of Angels), and have started up the BookBurner project. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

I have big dreams, and I’m working to see them come true. The tactical maneuvering is a lot more complicated—how do I get from there to here—and contingent on developments. I’m sorry if that sounds vague, but it’s hard to be more specific! In the near term, I’m focusing on writing a few excellent standalone novels, and on filling out the next phase of the Craft Sequence.

What do you like to read? Do you read fantasy and if so do you have favorite books and/or inspiration?

Everything! I read nonfiction, mysteries, plays, poetry, and, of course, fantasy and science fiction. I take joy and inspiration from my favorite authors—there’s a long list, but at the core we have Dorothy Dunnett, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, and Robin McKinley; other major influences include Sam Keith’s The Maxx, The Sandman, Terry Pratchett, and Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West. And I’m always finding new inspiration, in history and literature.

If you could work on a new collaborative piece with any other author, who would you choose?

I don’t know! There are lots of people I’d love to collaborate with—and I’ve started to work with some of them already! Amal El-Mohtar and I are right now putting the finishing touches on an excellent novella that I’m excited to share with people, for example.

Are you doing a book tour anytime soon?

I’m often traveling to conventions—I don’t know about any plans for a book tour for Ruin of Angels, but those don’t generally finalize until later.

Then some questions about your work with your Craft Sequence:

When we read Three Parts Dead for our book club, one of the major things that a group of people loved was its great workplace wish fulfillment. The Craft Sequence feels like one of the most adult fantasy series we have read because of all the professional issues it tackles. Was this intentional or a byproduct of the general ideas you had for your book?

Responses to my books tend to fall into two rough categories: the people for whom it feels like an office power fantasy, and the people for whom it precisely captures the enormity (and enormousness) of their daily work. I think it speaks to the peculiar (and often unhealthy) culture of work these days, that we lionize jobs with this level of intensity. I wrote the Craft Sequence in part because the more I tried to understand my world, the more I found myself relying on the language of fantasy fiction, and I think that, yes, as a result, it is a pretty adult series—in that it’s about things that adults, and people trying to become adults, spend a lot of time worrying about.

I remember hearing that the next Craft Book was going to be Six Feet Over, but that seems to have changed to The Ruin of Angels while I wasn’t looking. Can you talk about what this change means or at least inform me if I am hallucinating new craft books?

No, you aren’t hallucinating! My editor and I decided that Six Feet Over, while an excellent title, wouldn’t be enough of a marker that we were starting a new phase of the Sequence. And since I plan the future books to tick forward in time, rather than jumping around the timeline, dropping numbers from the titles would be a good signal. We’ll see how well that works!

Were there any particular jobs or job stories that you drew from in your personal experience for any of the books?

Nothing I can talk about in an open channel! But in general, the books were informed by my experiences in the non-profit sector, in research firms, and by my friends’ experiences in finance, law, academia, and engineering.

Of all the occupations you have invented in the Craft Sequence, which would you want to do if you lived in the world?

Honestly, I’m not sure! People have a hard time of it in the Craft world, as they do in ours; every cool opportunity brings costs with it. I really like the machine-monks in Dresediel Lex, though. I love the notion of maintenance as a sacrament. I really think it is!

What was the inspiration for the setting of Dresediel Lex? Mesoamerican culture and faith is so rarely touched on (and even more rarely touched on in a meaningful way), that I really sat up and took notice.

I wanted to expand the world of the books and highlight different sorts of cultures existed in this world—and since I wanted the cultures to feel less like a planet of hats, where you have, like, the Warrior culture and the Peaceful Hippy culture and whatever, and more like a through-the-looking-glass version of our own, where complex belief systems produce a whole lot of complex people, I decided to draw heavily on existing analogues. The desert setting suggested Los Angeles and Mexico City; I did a lot of reading on Mesoamerican religion and anthropology, and the dynamics of colonization, and spent a lot of time talking to friends, in hope of getting things right.

There are some seriously metaphysical and strange scenes in the Craft Sequence. Was there any scene that was particularly hard to write?

Not really. My brain’s just pretty weird, I guess.

Would you consider doing a Craft graphic novel?

Certainly! Watch my site for further news….

Finally, some question about the wonderful Bookburners:

Was Bookburners was inspired by Buffy, and/or anything else? What made you want to sit down and write a story about kickass archivists?

I’ve never seen Buffy, but many of our writers have, and Julian, the co-founder of Serial Box, has as well, so we have a lot of Buffy fans on the creative team! As for why we wanted to write about kickass archivists—why wouldn’t you want to write about kickass archivists? There’s all the ass-kicking! And the archiving!

You have successfully completed your first season of Bookburners. What would you say is the most important thing that you have learned while writing the book and collaborating with other authors?

Notecards. Over the course of writing Bookburners S1, I got my notecard game on point, and learned how to outline by basically doing everything Margaret Dunlap does—and it’s changed how I write practically everything. On the one hand, I spend a lot more time planning now, but that time working on the front end makes the writing far smoother, and allows me to focus more on my line-by-line prose work.

What is the process involved in working on something like Bookburners compared to one of your Craft novels?

Now that I’m outlining my novels more, it’s quite similar. With Bookburners, though, there are always more stages, because everyone has to be on the same stage—so we write, and test, and talk to one another about what we’ve written, and go back in for another pass.

It is a strange experience reading a book episodically as opposed to the traditional chapters. I thought you guys did a great job making Bookburners feel like watching TV show episodes, but occasionally it felt like chapters ended rather abruptly. How did you approach making episodes instead of the usual chapters?

Thanks! We try to think of each episode as a story in its own right, with its own beginning, middle, and end, as well as considering its place in the season overall. it requires a little more structural thought out front, but in the end, the greater structure allows us to create a more compelling, propulsive fiction—if we land the beats correctly, of course.

Bookburners – You Will Burn Through It

29238781I haven’t had a lot of experience with books written in groups, but what little experience I have had has been good. When I think of the staggering amount of work that went into a group paper in college, I can only imagine that it is even harder to organize a group of people to write a 600 page novel. However, I am always impressed with how smooth the group books I have read come out, and Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery, is no exception.

Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self contained story that plays out like a TV episode. This is my first time reading a story of this nature, and I found I really liked the experience. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. The group of authors did a great job unifying their voice, and while I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. But what is this show about?

Bookburners follows the story of a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. Our protagonist is an American cop whose brother is possessed by a book in the opening chapter. Once her brother’s situation is “dealt with” (avoiding spoilers) she ends up joining Team Three of the Vatican special forces. Team Three’s job is the study and retrieval of artifacts, Team Two are essentially PR, and Team One are the big guns that move in when a book/artifact gets out of control. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Team Three is made up of five members, Sal (our POV), Menchu, Grace, Asanti, and Liam. Each of them has an interesting, and of course tragic, backstory that got them into this line of work and I loved them all. The characters in this story are all fun, from the protagonists to the villains, but if I had to pick a favorite it would have to be Grace. She is a small Asian woman, and the team’s heavy muscle, and her backstory is one of the most unique and interesting things I have read recently.

One thing I will say is that while I love the world, I think the series could use a little more world building. When reading Bookburners I constantly felt like I did not have enough information about the world they work in. It often felt like we did not get information about their work until moments before we needed it, and this can occasionally make the book’s world feel a little shallow. However, to be fair I think this is something that was bound to happen due to the style of episodic writing. While the world in Bookburners felt a little thin compared to other books in the genre, it still felt much deeper than your traditional TV show. In addition, the moments where we do get worldbuilding really shine. My favorite chapter/episode was one in which the team goes to a supernatural black market and you get to meet all the major players in the magical world.

Overall I really liked Bookburners and I am definitely going to continue following the series. I purchased the first season in the omnibus, and then tried following some of season two as it was published episodically. I have found that I much prefer bingeing the story in one sitting to reading a chapter every so often, so I will be waiting for the seasons to finish to read them all at once. The book is a really fun take on fantasy writing, and if you are looking for something new to keep your reading experience fresh it does quite nicely. I really hope that the team can keep it going for many seasons to come and I can’t wait to see what is in store for Team Three next.

Rating: Bookburners: Season 1 – 8.0/10