How is it already November in this forsaken year? With less than a month left before we put out our best of the year lists, our reviewers are hard at work chugging through all the books we wanted to get to before the year’s end. Part of that effort involves finishing up outstanding Dark Horses, like Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Gloss was the debut I was most excited to check out this year, as its summary made it sound like a bizarre journey through space and time with a lovable crew of rogues on a spaceship that pushed the boundaries of the imagination. The good news is Gloss lived up to my internal hype and is somehow both more and less than what I expected.
Gloss tells the story of Caiden, a recently liberated slave that has lost everything and is looking for revenge. The start of the book is extremely fast-paced, as the reader witnesses Caiden’s picturesque life farming space cows turn into a traumatic nightmare. Caiden was a member of a group of humans who are kept in captivity, and ignorance, so they can raise cattle to feed nophek – giant murder cat things that grow space fuel in their brains. In the vast multiverse of this book’s setting, only a few realities can support nophek biology, so they are worth quite a pretty penny. However, when a virulent plague ends up killing most of the world’s cattle – the overseers of the harvesting project decided to feed the slaves (i.e., Caiden) to the nophek to keep them alive a little longer for harvest. Caiden watches his entire family get brutally torn apart by space lions right in front of him, manages to escape and find a futuristic spaceship, and falls in with a group of five side characters who help him get it off the planet and to safety. Caiden, at about twelve years old, vows to enact a horrific vengeance on the slavers who killed his family and sets out on an epic quest to throw them into the nearest sun.
The plot of Nophek Gloss left me with distinctly mixed feelings, especially because it is absolutely not the focus of the book. Everything feels contrived: Caiden falls into a powerful ship, a friendly and brilliant crew, and a clear plan on how to enact his revenge, in about 10 pages. But, that’s also not really an issue because all of the plot is window-dressing for the ideas, characters, and character growth. If you are looking for a hard science-fiction that has a thrilling and gripping plot that fits thousands of pieces together in an immersive experience, look elsewhere. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes their science fiction couched in the context of the human experience, wants to explore new ideas about how we grow into who we are, and love creative worldbuilding – then look right here.
The characters of Gloss are fantastic, though you should know what you are getting yourself into. The five crewmates that Caiden picks up are delightful, and exploring their individual stories through the chapters was moving and engrossing. On the other hand, Caiden is written, very effectively, to sound like a young boy, and that can make him occasionally extremely annoying. He struggles to learn lessons and often repeats the same mistakes, over and over again. However, through each successive error, we can see that Caiden is truly growing as a person and working through his trauma, which is a big part of the story. Trauma, and how to heal from it, is a cornerstone theme of Gloss. The book is filled with numerous sad stories, from Caiden’s to the crew’s, to any number of other side characters we meet. The trauma is the true antagonist of the story and the reader gets to watch each character they are attached to deal with their horrific pasts in their own way.
But if you aren’t into all of this touchy-feely goodness like I am, the worldbuilding and technology in Gloss are really fun. There are a ton of new ideas for technology – like a fascinating take on forced aging – that I had never read before that kept me thinking long into the night. Gloss also has some really interesting takes on multiverses and spaceships that made the inner child in me heel-click with glee. The prose is also quite vivid and evocative, and there are many instances of stunning imagery that are still sticking with me weeks later.
Interestingly, most of the things I didn’t really like about Gloss were clearly features, not bugs. Hansen has clear and well-realized methods on how she wants to tell her story that took me out of my comfort zone and helped me feel refreshed with the science fiction genre. Nophek Gloss was one of the strongest Dark Horses I have read this year and its weird story and weirder characters have me firmly invested in what happens next. I definitely recommend you use my breakdown of the book to decide if you think it’s for you because those that are drawn to Nophek Gloss are going to love it.
Today we have a full series review of The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff. The series is a quartet of books and in a break with publishing traditions, they all released in the same year over the course of four months. The series contains the following four books: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. This review will be a mix of talking about the series as a whole and diving into various pieces and highlights from the individual books. Spoilers for the fairly large review that follows: we recommend The Nine Realms. It’s an interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes and tells a well-contained epic fantasy story. However, there are some quirks that make it tricky to outright recommend.
Here is a lightning-fast rundown of the plot of the entire series. The books tell the story of Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, and her journey to take back her throne. A Queen in Hiding tells the story of how her mother’s country (Weirandale) is overthrown and how she barely escapes with her life into hiding. The Queen of Raiders covers her teen to early adult years where she starts waging a guerilla war against people who damaged her land. A Broken Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers from the trauma she received in the war and how she makes her way back to her homeland to reclaim her throne. Finally, The Cerulean Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers her throne and begins to change her kingdom for the better. I am massively skipping over a ton of important side characters, general plot elements, and subplots, but I just don’t have the space to list them all out here. Know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s start with one of the series major “problems” first before we get into all the positives. Initially, I was confused as to why all four books were published so close to one another – but the answer presented itself to me as I got near the end of book one. The Nine Realms is less a quartet of books and more a single 2000 page book that had to be drawn and quartered. I imagine there was a conversation at Tor HQ between Kozloff and her editor that went something like this:
Kozloff: “Well, here’s my amazing book!” Editor: “Uhhhh, this is 2000 pages long.” Kozloff: “And?” Editor: “We can’t just publish a 2000 page book, it might fall off a shelf and kill someone.” Kozloff: “Well we can’t really cut it up, so what are we going to do?” Editor: “I guess we will just cut it into four pieces and hope no one notices.”
The illusion doesn’t work. It will be clear to anyone that these books are not four distinct stories. The narrative flows between the books without stop and I suspect I would have been frustrated were I to get to the end of A Queen in Hiding to find the story cut off mid-sentence. But, you may have noticed that when I said this was a “problem,” I put dramatic quotes around the word. Since all the books in the series are already out, this is more of a feature of the series more than an actual issue. The only actual problem here is if you are willing to commit to a fairly long time investment, at a higher price point than usual, for a good story. Personally, I think The Nine Realms is worth it for the following reasons:
The Nine Realms has the depth of a good epic fantasy without the bloat – I really enjoy digging into a meaty epic fantasy with a ton of content I can sink my teeth into. One of the downsides of these huge sweeping series is they tend to have a lot of dilly-dallying. Thankfully, The Nine Realms has the depth of a large scale epic, without the filler content. While it isn’t a Wheel of Time and some parts are over simplistic, the series is well-paced, easy to read, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. a
The magic system is both familiar and original – The magic system revolves around two core concepts. First, each country has a different patron spirit, based mostly on the elements. Each of these spirits imparts different kinds of gifts on their people based on the spirit’s nature. Second, our story mostly focuses on Cérulia, who was granted the ability to speak to animals by the water spirit. Now I have seen a lot of “can talk to animals” powers in fantasy and I was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind by this concept. However, Kozloff’s take on the power is much more strategic and innovative than I was expecting. It is less “talk to animal friends” and more “horse, dog, and wolf general leading her troops into battle.” Cérulia uses her connection to advance her march to her throne, and that leads to some grizzly scenes like when she has to eat a horse she is close with to survive starvation. It’s a new take on a classic fantasy power. a
The story goes beyond the standard good vs. evil trope – Initially I thought this was going to be a black and white story about a princess reclaiming her throne from the bad guys. What this story is actually about is Cérulia slowly understanding why her mother was overthrown, connecting with the common people of the world, and getting a first-hand education of the plights of her country and what needs to be fixed. There is a lot more context to Cérulia’s battle than this type of story usually goes into, and it delights me. a
The world is nicely fleshed out and fully explored over the course of the book – As I mentioned, each country in The Nine Realms has a patron spirit that imparts gifts and shapes their land. I was happy to see that over all four books we get to visit and explore all nine of the countries that give the story its title. While there were a couple that were forgettable, the majority of them have memorable differences and cultures that really bring the world of the series to life. It was a fun place to explore, even if a depressing amount of it involved watching poor people suffer. a
The story is well-paced and easy to read…mostly – Once you get past some initial slow build-up I will talk more about below, the story moves at a nice and exciting pace. I originally planned on just reading book one, but I ended up getting pulled into the story and reading all four over the course of a weekend. There is a very nice flow between the different conflicts and the different characters that keeps everything moving at all times.
There are still some additional road bumps, though. I am not really a fan of the time skips between chapters that keep track of how long has passed since Cérulia fled her home. The skips are meant to give you a sense of urgency because early on you are told that Cérulia has 10 years to reclaim her throne or all goes to hell. It feels like a completely arbitrary timeline that is never actually relevant to the progress of the story. When Cérulia decides to take back her throne it is because she believes she has grown enough in power and maturity to claim it – an element of her character I really liked. In addition, sometimes the books will tell you months will pass, but characters will still be in the same place/time/conversation they were in “three months prior” which disillusioned me to the skips.
Next, let’s talk a little bit about each book and rank them in terms of their quality:
1) A Queen in Hiding – Unfortunately, the first book is easily the worst. While there is a lot of fun worldbuilding and introduction to characters, the narrative can be painfully slow at times as the story begins to build up steam and momentum. The other awkward part of the book is it feels like the “prologue” section of the narrative goes on too long. There is a large portion of the book devoted to Cérulia’s mother, and how she lost the throne. Her mom launches a naval war against some pirates to try and rally her people back to her side and win back her throne. However, while it does set up some interesting themes and character development for Cérulia – it is very hard to be invested in the conflict since you know from the back of the book her mother will fail. This subplot lasts almost three fourths of the book, and I wish it was slightly less prominent.
2) The Queen of Raiders – Fortunately, the second book is the strongest of the series and helps get the reader back on track. Really, the story takes off in the last 20% of Hiding and Raiders just carries on the torch. Raiders is where we see the biggest character growth in both Cérulia and a lot of the supporting cast. It is also where a number of previously unconnected plot lines begin to come together. The world-building continues to expand and Cérulia’s use of magic starts to get a lot more inventive. All of this combined with a climactic finale that actually lines up with the end of the book makes this a great read.
3) A Broken Queen – This installment Is third when ranking best to worst, but it is much better than Hiding. A Broken Queen focuses mostly on the damage the conflict has been inflicting on all sorts of characters in the series – and how they heal from it. In addition, book three is where the antagonists start getting a lot of page time in order to give them depth and complexity, getting the reader much more invested in a complicated situation. A Broken Queen was where a lot of the series themes and ideas came to the surface and the book had a nice thoughtful quality compared to the other three installments. Where Broken struggles is the fact that the entirety of the book feels like a slow build-up to a major climax…that happens 20% into book four. This leaves the book with a lot of slow thoughtful moments, but not many big set pieces to remember it by.
4) The Cerulean Queen – The final book in the quartet is a winner, coming in at second best. Cerulean was a very interesting book because it feels like the majority of it is an epilogue but in a good way. Unsurprising spoilers: early on in the final book Cérulia reclaims her throne – and it’s awesome. But, instead of ending the story at this natural point, Kozloff spends the majority of the rest of the book showing how Cérulia implemented everything she learned in her time as a fugitive to become a great queen. It’s a really great example of satisfying character growth and execution of themes at the same time and it really helps the series stand out in the fantasy landscape.
The Nine Realms is a worthwhile mini-epic that has a nice mix of originality and classic flare. It has some issues, but they are easy to ignore with its fun ideas, flowing characters, and engrossing plot. If you are interested in reading this series, I highly recommend you carve out the time to tackle all four books at once. If you give it time, you will likely find that Cérulia’s story is a fun and worthwhile adventure.
Rating: A Queen in Hiding – 6.5/10 The Queen of Raiders – 8.5/10 A Broken Queen – 8.0/10 The Cerulean Queen – 8.0/10
The excellence of Sorcery of a Queen is honestly flabbergasting. Queen is the second book in The Dragons of Terra trilogy by Brian Naslund, and it’s a crime that as of writing this review there are only 10 ratings on goodreads. This book does so many things right that it straight up blew my mind. It has incredible characters, exciting action, deep and original worldbuilding, a gripping plot, a compelling antagonist, great themes, excellent pacing, strong character growth, and a level of polish and inclusivity that made me positively vibrate with happiness. Sorcery of a Queen is easily one of my top books of 2020; Naslund positively killed it with his second novel.
If you are just hearing about this series for the first time and wondering why I am raving like a lunatic, may I kindly redirect you to my review of book one in the series: Blood of an Exile. Naslund’s first book was a 2019 gem that I missed and didn’t get to until January of this year. I refused to make the same mistake with his second installment. I can’t really go into many plot details without spoiling things, something I absolutely refuse to do. If you have read Blood of an Exile, Queen’s story picks up immediately after the end of book one and revolves primarily around the escalation in stakes, technology, and conflict caused by the first book finale. If you haven’t read Blood of an Exile, you have made a mistake, and I again recommend you check out my review of book one. However, before you realize your error and dive into Exile, let me shout at you about its excellence.
The series follows a quartet of characters: A queen, an exile, a bodyguard, and a young alchemist. Each character has their own rich backstory, and Naslund does a wonderful job giving each of them agency and distinction, while cleverly interweaving their stories. Sorcery of a Queen is an extremely powerful character story and has so much delicious character growth. The alchemist gets pulled into a conflict by chance, but ends up learning about himself and the world while working as a field medic. The queen, a master of politics and leadership, finds that she is actually a woman of action and there is a powerful joy in physically pushing humanity towards a better future. The bodyguard is a woman of honor and conviction, but her chosen path in life forces her to closely examine the value and worth of bonds and where she will draw the line. The exile is a man condemned to death, who learns he cannot die, who then learns he cannot escape death. The amount of change this rollercoaster of events unleashes on his personality and life outlook is a work of art and a truly original observation of the human condition. These are excellent characters.
In general, the overall quality of Queen has also improved from Exile. The prose is better, the action is punchier, and the humor is funnier. The pacing in Exile was good, but Queen’s is perfect. I absolutely flew through this book, reading it in just two weekdays. The POVs all strike this great balance that constantly compels you to read more. The worldbuilding is also just bigger. The stakes of Exile were fairly small, with each of the characters having fairly simple and straightforward goals: stay alive, find a girl, get a job, research dragons. Towards the end of Exile, things began to escalate and it paved the way for Queen to grab a perfect narrative baton-pass and expand into a fully fleshed out world with bigger stakes. In particular, one thing I was enamored with was the evolution of themes. In Exile there was really one major theme, this idea of naturalism and that dragons were an important part of the ecosystem (and hunting them was destroying it). In Queen, this theme is still very present, but a number of additional themes like the cost of war, the nature of friendship, and the dangers of unchecked science all join it to build a much more luscious and juicy story. This enhancement of an already good story builds to something wonderful.
Sorcery of a Queen is fantastic, breaking every single one of my high expectations to tell a story that was nothing short of wonderful. Blood of an Exile had some good ideas and great characters, but Queen has it all. Usually, when I review a book I like to talk about if its best for readers who focus on characters, plot, worlds, or ideas. It is very rare that I come across a book that I can unilaterally recommend to all of those people, and this is one such occasion. I loved Sorcery of a Queen and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.
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.
For those of you who haven’t read through book seven, I would turn back now and reconsider your life choices. There are no spoilers for Tiamat’s Wrath in this review but it is impossible to talk about the plot without spoiling older books to a degree. Wrath picks up right on the tail end of its predecessor, Persepolis Rising, and starts with a major character death on literally the first line. Yeah, that’s a really good metaphor the emotional roller coaster that is this book so strap the fuck in. Wrath focuses on humanity following the rise of Laconia and explores how our collective race reacts to yet another massive change in the structure of galactic power. It is a fairly bleak picture. Our “heroes” have been reduced to covert guerilla fighters who must strike from the shadows with the effectiveness of an ant tanking on a tank, while the Laconia explores ring systems looking for what killed the Protomoleculians.
The book is told from the perspective of Naomi, Bobbie, Alex, the returning Doctor Elvi (from Cibola Burns), and a new character Teresa who happens to be Duarte’s daughter. As always, the characters are just phenomenal and I am more attached to some of them than members of my own family. As I talked about in my Persepolis review, the cast is getting old – Corey paints a vivid picture of a generation that is running out of time metaphorically and literally as they get on in years. Wrath’s themes revolve a lot around people who are questioning if their fight is still worth it after all these years. The book is draped in this pervasive atmosphere of exhaustion, and it bleeds into the reader as you embark on what feels like a final journey with old friends.
While the book is just one emotional kick in the shin after another on the character front, Wrath also finally pulls the curtain back on the two alien races we have been guessing about since book one. You learn a buttload about both the Protomoleculians, and the race that killed them, and it serves beautifully to set us up for the grand finale. It feels weird that Corey has managed to cram so much excellent worldbuilding into the EIGHTH book in a series, but the two of them never seem to stop. The action is fantastic, as always, and the book ends with one of the most exciting and prolonged fights of the entire series. All in all, this is probably one of my favorite Expanse books. My only real criticism is that our current arch-villain, Admiral Duarte, doesn’t feel as magnificent or clever in Wrath as I would have hoped. Duarte makes some questionable choices in Wrath that felt a little out of character and more based on Corey moving the plot where they wanted it to go. However, this was a small complaint on an otherwise stellar book.
Tiamat’s Wrath continues The Expanse’s 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.
I am running late on this review and I feel a deep sense of shame. Orbit was kind enough to send me a super advanced copy, which I promptly shelved because it was too early to review it. Unfortunately, my December reading schedule was a nightmare, so I am only getting to The Hod King now, and I am keenly aware that I should have read it weeks ago. Anyway, welcome to my review of the third Tower of Babel book, The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft. If you missed my reviews of the first two books they can be found here, and here. Although you probably won’t care about this review until you read the first two books – there are no explicit spoilers so you are free to take a look even if you ignored my explicit advice to pick up this series (for which I am judging you).
The Books of Babel are shaping up to be a really hard series to holistically review. Although each book shares the same gripping plot, Bancroft’s incredible prose, and a delightful sense of humor, they also each have very different narrative styles that will pull readers towards one over the other. Senlin Ascends has a boyish naivety to it, and the storytelling is focused mostly on exploring the tower and introducing you to many of its marvels without revealing its secrets. The Arm of the Sphinx, my personal favorite, focuses more on building out the story. It takes the foundation and plot snippets that Senlin Ascends laid and builds them into a plot to rival any of the best fantasy stories out there. The Hod King takes the next logical step and fleshes out the characters to a heightened degree. However, don’t get me wrong – all three books have a lot of wonder, story, and character building in each.
The Books of Babel has been a story about characters from the start, and while we have witnessed Senlin’s slow change from selfish naive schoolteacher to selfless brilliant hero – the rest of the series amazing cast had not nearly been explored enough. To remedy this, The Hod King is split into roughly three equal 200-page parts. Each of these sections tells the same-ish section of the story from a different set of characters POV. Normally, I am not a huge fan of this style of storytelling. While it is always interesting to experience an event through the eyes of a variety of cast members, it can get really boring when 2/3rds of the book rehashes scenes where you already know the outcome. Bancroft remedies this brilliantly in two ways: first, his characters are so interesting that I was able to move past my initial reservations and have a wonderful time hearing about scenes a second time. And second, while the three sections of the story did have large overlaps, they also each moved the plot forward with different plot lines. That being said, if I had one complaint about The Hod King it would be that I don’t feel the plot made enough progress after 600 pages. I don’t really feel like any improvements were made toward remedying the imminent threat to the cast– we just know more about said threat.
At the same time, holy cow is the writing compelling. 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 Hod King also has the most heart, due to its character focus, out of the books so far and there were a number of heartfelt and 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.
In summary, The Hod King is great. The Books of Babel series continues to cement itself as one of the best character stories in the fantasy genre, and Senlin and his crew are an original group of rogues of whom I can’t get enough. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction. The fourth installment of this modern classic cannot come soon enough, and if you aren’t reading these books, you don’t know what you are missing.
Alex White was really working overtime in 2018. Fresh off the release of his debut book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Big Ship), White has just released a sequel with an equally lengthy name, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy (Bad Deal), in the same year. Big Ship was one of my top books in 2018 and I described it as Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The book was fun, exciting, and had excellent combat, but unfortunately also suffered from a cast that was fairly insufferable for the first half of the book. However, this is the price that one must play when you are committed to character growth, which White clearly is, and I was excited to dive into Bad Deal and continue the story we left off from book one. There are some mild spoilers for Big Ship following this paragraph so if you want to remain completely pure I would recommend coming back to this when you have finished book one.
Jumping into the story, Bad Deal is set a few months after the climactic events of Big Ship and we pick back up with Boots and Nilah more or less where we left off. Boots is moping at her distillery but is quickly dragged back onto the Capricious. The crew has grown to include two mysterious twins and our cast of characters are hunting the financial bankers of the villains from book one in order to continue dismantling the shadow organization. The book follows this plot thread through five to six fantastic settings and ridiculous events until ending on a climax that rivals book one. In other words, the plot of this book is a good time. White has a really good eye for exciting scenes and I think these books would make fantastic movies. The magic also continues to be excellent, despite its complete lack of structure. In book one we were introduced to a fairly small range of spell users that had fairly straightforward abilities, such as making shields or integrating with machines/hacking better. In book two, White expands the magic we see noticeably and highlights a number of spell users with weirder abilities – like “hoteliers” whose magic is basically used to make rooms feel like nice hotel lobbies (I am paraphrasing, but not joking). However, despite these strange additions the magic system only felt more vibrant and fun in Bad Deal and found myself simply excited to see what White would show me next.
It was no surprise that the plot and world of Bad Deal were excellent, they were what carried the first novel to lofty heights. Where book one really struggled was its characters, as I only liked the cast for the back third of the book. I am super excited to say that the feeling of affection I felt at the end of Big Ship carried over perfectly and allowed me to hit the ground running in book two. Bad Deal runs like a well-oiled machine, using the character growth from book one to springboard into new emotional issues for the cast. However, the warmth I felt to the various members of the Capricious only strengthened in Bad Deal and I found myself more invested in their dramatic arguments and fragile emotional states. I was on the record as saying I thought Big Ship was “overly dramatic” and I think a lot of this feeling came from not caring about the characters enough as they poured their hearts out. Now that I adore the cast, I had many fewer issues with its soap opera style drama and found myself happily yelling at the characters as they worked through their issues.
If I had to find one issue with Big Ship it would probably be the story structure. The pacing of the book will certainly never leave you bored and moved at a delightfully fast speed. However, when reading the book you can definitely tell that White sat down and planned out three or four events that he wanted to build around and then carefully strung them together. It’s a very minor criticism, and it did very little to detract from my experience, but I wish that these scenes flowed a little better into one another so that the book felt a little less like discrete chunks.
Overall, 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. 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.
Rating: A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy – 9.0/10
A while back we read Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, for our book club (review here). It was a very divisive book for us, which is rare, with ratings all over the place (though still mostly high). I personally came in at the highest impression of the book (giving it a 9/10), but some of my fellow editors more tepid reactions resulted in me delaying my continuation of the series with book two, The Arm of the Sphinx. Well, I have finally gotten around to reading the second book in this incredible series and I can definitely say that my co-contributors can suck it because these books are absolutely incredible.
For those unfamiliar with the first book, you should probably stop reading this and go check it out. However, as a refresher Senlin Ascends follows the story of an obscenely optimistic and naive school teacher who loses his wife in a more or less infinitely tall labyrinth of a tower. He must then take on the tower in search of her, growing into a very different man as he progresses through it. When we had last left our intrepid group from book one, they had stolen an airship and taken to the skies to evade pursuit. Arm of the Sphinx picks up relatively where the first book leaves off; with Senlin assembling a crew (Edith, Iren, Adam, and Voleta) on the stolen ship, the Stone Cloud, consisting of people who have mostly betrayed and been horrible to him and still planning ways to rescue his wife.
Senlin Ascends was our introduction to the tower and its inhabitants. The cast of Senlin Ascends could sometimes be difficult and unpleasant to read about (a cause of several of the mixed reviews in our book club) because those characters were difficult and unpleasant people. However this is a series about growth and change, and the crew each just began to grow and change by the end of book one. Now in Arm of the Sphinx is where these individuals really start to evolve into new more lovable people. Weirdly the thing that Arm of the Sphinx reminded me of most was Mass Effect 2, which is a game hopefully most of you are familiar with. The game is a favorite of people everywhere despite the fact that it did relatively little to progress the overarching story in a series about story. This is because instead of focusing on the plot of the world and larger events, Mass Effect 2 focused on its characters and had you spend the game building and connecting with a crew of people to tackle huge world ending threats in its third installment. This was exactly what I felt was happening in Sphinx as well. Sphinx spends a lot less time showcasing the tower and progressing Senlin’s rescue of his wife than the first book did, and instead focuses on five wonderful character arcs that are told in tandem. The two focal plot points of the book are journeying to meet the Sphinx and meeting the Sphinx, and not much else happens. Instead you get to understand more about each of the battered and broken Stone Cloud crew and watch them slowly change into better and stronger people.
I love the characters of this book. I am not sure how he did it but Josiah has managed to make a set of truly unique and interesting people that I have never come across in books so far. I have fallen in love with each of the crew one at a time, and I found myself constantly surprised at how they changed and who they became as the book progressed. I really just can’t get enough of them, I have not felt this attached to characters since I read Malazan – which is probably the highest compliment I can give a book. On top of all of this, Josiah uses the character arcs to introduce you to the Sphinx, an enigmatic and fascinating overlord of the Tower of Babel. He is a brilliant engineer and an architect of thousands of marvels and seeing the inside of his workshops felt like coming down to Christmas morning as a child – pure joy. The new characters Josiah introduces in this book are just as wonderful as the crew of the Stone Cloud, and just as unique. Through these new characters you learn several new things about the tower and its goings on, and he foreshadows enough plot to fill at least five more novels. So as I said in the review title, this better not be a trilogy because I am not ready to let all of this go after one more book.
The Books of Babel are one of those unfortunate series that lose a handful of initial readers because it is a story about unlikable strangers growing into lovable friends, and some do not have the patience to stick with these characters through the bad times. There is nothing wrong with that, but those that don’t keep reading don’t get to experience the beautiful and soul warming end result of who these people become, and that makes me sad. We are only a few weeks into January and I have already read one of the best books of the year, The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft.
Rating: The Arm of the Sphinx – 10/10
-Andrew: This post is dedicated to my co-contributors, Sean and Will, who can both suck it.
I am sorry it has taken me so long to write the second part of this review, but frankly at over 1600 pages To Green Angel Tower is long even for me. The final book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams, To Green Angel Tower is the longest book I have ever read and took me almost a month of on and off reading to finish. While I was reading Green Angel I tried to imagine what it would be like reading this series growing up. It is rare for me to feel so transported into a book, and I can only think that a younger version of myself would have gone to school and tried to force this book down the throats of everyone I knew, proclaiming I had found the greatest book ever written.
Green Angel helped me solidify my thoughts on the full series very well, and I have come out of the entire trilogy feeling that it has two great strengths and one large weakness. Let’s start with the problematic; I don’t actually think that the plot of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is that interesting in a vacuum. While there certainly were a number of small exciting twists, the general plot of the book is a stereotypical quest fantasy book. In addition, I found the ending of Green Angel to be a little anticlimactic (which isn’t too surprising giving how damn long the build up was). I expected Memory. Sorrow ,and Thorn to have a little bit more exciting of and exciting story, but even though it didn’t quite live up to my desires, it is still one of best series I have read.
I have always found the idea of “journey before destination” romantic and cool, but rarely felt like it was the case that the trip was more important than the end goal. This series is the first time I have ever read something and thought “I don’t actually care how this ends, I just want to keep traveling with these people”. The first major strength of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the places you will go, the things you will see, and the feelings you will have. Osten Ard is alive and waiting to be explored. The cultures, landscapes, and people just sucked me in didn’t let go. There is just so much to see, so much to do, and so many people to meet that you will never be bored.
Speaking of people to meet, the second major strength of the series is the characters. I spoke about this a bit in part 1, but this trilogy might be the best example of character growth I have read ever. The characters change organically through small experiences and relationships and you can see them slowly be shaped into new people. In addition, the cast is so varied and interesting that they have been some of the most memorable characters I have read about in recent memory. I felt more invested and enthralled by any one of hundreds of trials the characters in this series go through than multiple books I have read in the last year. I also really appreciated that so many of the characters were at different life stages. While our protagonists are both teenagers going through typical teenage things, the books make sure to give plenty of POV windows into the larger cast who go across a number of ages and are dealing with any number of different problems. My personal favorite was Tiamak, a swampman scholar who is dealing with the fact that his family/people don’t understand what he does or think it’s valuable. I have definitely dealt with that a bit in life, and I loved Tad William’s take on it. The cast here is wonderful and has something for everyone.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a difficult series to recommend, despite its excellence. So much of what I loved about it was personal and hard to convey, that all I really can say is “it has good characters”, which feels woefully inadequate. This combined with its monumental size means it will likely sit on many peoples to-do lists for a very long time (much like it sat on mine) as I tell you to make sure you get to it eventually. If you are looking for a series with a lot of personal discovery and characters you want to watch grow, then you should take a month and read these three books. You won’t regret it.
Rating: To Green Angel Tower – 8.5/10
Rating: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – 8.5/10
I am trying to spend December cleaning up a couple big releases I missed this year, and the first on my to do list was Provenance, by Ann Leckie. Ann is famous for her Imperial Radch trilogy, a slightly controversial series that I recommend everyone at least check out. Now, coming off that serious and complicated story, Leckie seems to have wanted to do something more fun – so she wrote a fun and complicated story instead. Leckie has returned to the same universe for a spin off book about a group of people involved in a heist/political intrigue/murder mystery/rescue mission/art forgery/winning a family squabble/… so there may be a lot going on with Provenance.
The Imperial Radch trilogy was an innovative science fiction thriller about an AI on a quest for revenge. While I loved the series at the start, I eventually felt that love tarnish slightly because I felt the series had a hard time balancing the personal stories of the characters and the larger story of Leckie’s world, especially in the later books. However, Leckie’s new spin off Provenance brings in everything I liked about her worldbuilding and storytelling, with a greater focus on the personal stories that I gravitated towards in her original trilogy. I was originally going to say that Provenance is much more focused, but that’s not really true. I am not really sure how to explain what the book is about other than “people’s lives”. The book starts with our lead, Ingray, buying the freedom of a man in prison. Her mother is a high ranking aristocrat of society and is soon going to name her heir. Ingray has habitually trailed behind her older brother in the family standings and has decided to make a last ditch effort to embarrass her brother and win her mother’s esteem. This plan unravels in the first few pages and the book instead takes you on a wild chaotic trip through Lekie’s world.
The main “thing” Provenance is actually about is question the idea of one’s “home” and origin, as you might guess from the title. All of the characters are questioning what is their home and who made them who they are, and it is a story about connecting or disconnecting with your roots. It is also about how its ten seemingly unrelated subplots are actually connected. It has this element of mystery and randomness that I found refreshing and charming. All of the subplots are interesting, and do an impressive amount of subtle worldbuilding for the Imperial Radch universe. There are a number of new cultures and people to meet in Provenance, and I found each of them captivating. I was also a much bigger fan of Leckie’s cast in this new book than her original trilogy. Ingray can be a little bit of a wet towel occasionally, but in general I enjoyed my time with her and the support cast is memorable and charming.
As for Provenance’s flaws, though the randomness of the plot was fun and charming, it can make the storytelling feel a little disjointed occasionally. As I also mentioned before, Ingray was sometimes a little underwhelming. There were a ton of things happening around her constantly, and I sometimes felt like she was just being swept along to events with little personal agency while feeling sad. Other than that though, I thought Provenance was a much more well rounded book than Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and likely will be much more widely appealing.
If you liked Leckie’s previous books I am almost sure you will like this one too. If you didn’t like her first trilogy, but found her ideas and world exciting, then you will also probably like this book. If you have no idea who Ann Leckie is, but want a fun sci-fi romp/mystery that defies classification – then you also should check it out. The Quill to Live recommends Provenance – it is a fun book that manages to have a little of everything.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a classic fantasy trilogy by Tad Williams that I have only heard amazing things about. The first novel, The Dragonbone Chair, was published in 1988 and since then it has been the inspiration for any number of authors. I personally missed this classic series, but found it rising to the top of my to do list as Tad has released the first book in a follow up trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, this year and it is the only thing a few reviewers I know are talking about. This piece will cover the first two books, The Dragonbone Chair and The Stone of Farewell, but the final book will have its own piece soon as it is quite literally the longest fantasy book ever written and I don’t have enough space here to cover it.
Building off that last sentence, these books are huge. They have an extremely high page count, are very dense, and go into an enormous amount of detail. If you are looking for some light reading, you are going to have a hard time with Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. However, for those who are willing to take the time with it, you soon begin to see why this series is so highly regarded. The plot of The Dragonbone Chair is not incredibly complicated, in fact one of my first annoyances with the series is that the blurb on the back pretty much perfectly sums up the events of the entire book:
“A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard.
Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die.”
This is pretty much it, a young boy sets out on a classic hero’s journey and is shaped by his experiences. The thing is, while the plot of the book is not exactly revolutionary – the growth of Simon as a character is. Simon’s story is probably the single greatest example of good character development I have ever read in my life. I will not lie to you, the first part of book one was rough for me. Simon starts as a irreverent, self-centered child (though only as much as you would expect of an actual child) and slowly grows into a hero. The beauty of the book is that this doesn’t happen due to some traumatic events resulting in him realizing he should be a better person. Instead, he grows due to the thousands of small interactions with people across the country that help him grow up and become a better person. It is the single most organic growth I have ever seen in a character and the change is truly stunning to watch, although, as mentioned it takes patience and investment on the part of the reader.
While The Dragonbone Chair focuses primarily on Simon, the second book (The Stone of Farewell) sees a large diversification of character screen time. Dragonbone is all about introducing you to Simon and building his foundation as a person – often through his interactions with a wonderful support cast around him. Once you get to Stone though, Simon has built up enough momentum that we do not need to spend every moment with him and it allows Tad to flesh out and grow his incredible support characters and make them closer to secondary protagonists. While Dragonbone took some time to get into, I absolutely flew through Stone.
The first two books show how a seemingly useless young man can change and grow in convincing ways that don’t feel like reader wish fulfillment. Simon’s origin story made me feel like I could be the person I wanted to be with hard work and determination, and that only you can decide who you are. The first two books have earned their place as two of the most powerful pieces of fantasy or fiction I have ever read, but you will have to come back for part two to hear about the finale: To Green Angel Tower (because it is frankly absurdly large and reading it is seriously messing up my review schedule).