Arm Of The Sphinx – There Better Not Just Be Three Of These

armofthesphinx-coverA 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.

Advertisements

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – Journey Before Destination Part 2

Part 1 here.

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-tower-tor-books

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

Provenance – A Little Of Everything

unnamedI 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.

Rating: Provenance – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – The Paragon Of Growth Part 1

51dbdh9vm0l-_sy344_bo1204203200_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.

61uxop2akxlWhile 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).

Rating:

The Dragonbone Chair – 8.5/10

The Stone of Farewell – 9.0/10

-Andrew