Legacy Of Steel – Sharper With Practice

legacy-of-steel-large-1Matthew Ward needs to calm down, because this is the second enormous fantasy book of his that I have reviewed this year, and it is becoming a lot. I am going to assume that he had multiple books already written when Orbit acquired this trilogy because otherwise, he is churning out 1000 page epics every 6 months and might be a robot. Legacy of Steel is the second book in Ward’s aptly named Legacy Trilogy, you can find my review of the first book, Legacy of Ash, here.

Legacy of Steel takes the strong foundation that Ash built and improves on it in a number of ways. Steel feels like an immediate and direct continuation of the plot of book one. Ash ends with a temporary ceasefire (of sorts) in a war that takes up a large portion of the story, and Steel picks up as we step out of this eye in the storm back into the dangerous winds of war. Ash primarily focused on the human and political machinations of Ward’s world and how they drive conflict. On the flip side, Steel has a much greater focus on the divine and how a series of gods have been slinking around in the background secretly pulling strings.

One of my biggest annoyances with Ash as a book was that it actually felt like three 300-page books huddled in a trenchcoat. There were a number of fairly distinct plot arcs in the first novel that each could have been their own story, and I didn’t like them all equally. Steel does a much better job at having a clear, unified, driving story that runs through the entirety of the book. This makes it a much quicker, and more compelling, read, so I had a harder time setting it down. Steel doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. The many interesting themes, such as character identity, the nature of free will, and the morality of choices, are carried through into book two and Steel very much feels like the continuation of a conversation started in book one.

Another thing that Steel really nails is drastically expanding the scope of the world. In book one, we really only get to know two regions of a single country in Ward’s world and only catch glimpses of his gods. Steel fully fleshes out multiple other regions in our protagonist’s country, introduces us to a number of bordering nations, and provides a much more comprehensive look at the gods and their active meddling with mortals.

Our character roster has also both expanded and improved. Josuri is back from book one, and Ward does an amazing job taking the identity crisis he was experiencing and taking it in fun new directions. Viktor, my favorite lead from Ash, is also still around, but he is mostly relegated to the supporting cast. Instead, Ward chose to take a number of support characters from Ash and make them primary POVs in this second book. This rotating cast style really works for me and does a great job getting the reader to key plot moments all around the world in a very natural and organic way. It also keeps you from getting too bored with any one character and manages to make the cast feel both familiar and refreshing at the same time.

Legacy Of Steel is an improvement and escalation of everything that was good about Legacy Of Ash, while also repairing the few issues I had with book one. The two books combined form one of 2020’s largest and most engrossing fantasy stories and they are definitely some of my favorite debuts this year. I know recommending 1800 pages of fantasy books seems like a lot, but if you like epic fantasy you will be doing yourself a disservice by missing these two books.

Rating: Legacy Of Steel – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Nophek Gloss – Whimsical, Prickly, And Keen

51z7qpojazlHow 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.

Rating: Nophek Gloss – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The First Sister – A Little Bit Of Everything, Not Enough Of Something

the-first-sister-9781982126995_hrThe First Sister, by Linden Lewis, is an impressively ambitious debut, and one of our dark horses of 2020. Part space opera, part social commentary, part feminist power piece, and part character-driven narrative, this book has a lot of moving pieces in a fairly small page count (350). It feels like a tiny explosion of everything that makes the science fiction genre a joy to read. But, when you have a book with a low page count and so many ideas, there is only so much you can cram onto each page. The result is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The First Sister is good at a lot of things, but great at almost none of them.

The First Sister tells the story of war across the solar system. Earth and Mars went to town on each other for a long time until all their AIs got up and left to found a more peaceful civilization elsewhere. This left the two planets exposed to the technologically superior outer planets who began to prey on their previous long-time inner planet bullies. Earth and Mars banded together and the solar system found itself in a two-territory conflict with the asteroid belt as a border. But our story isn’t focused on the big picture. Instead, The First Sister tells a very personal story of three characters and how their experiences bring context to the issues humanity is facing.

The biggest protagonist is the titular First Sister. She’s a sort of pseudo nun/sex slave of the Earth/Mars side and she is forced to live her life on one of the capital ships, servicing the troops spiritually and physically. Her voice is taken from her so that she may not complain about what is done to her, but she is allowed some boons. The First Sister is a highly sought-after rank among the slaves and it means that she may only be claimed by the captain of the ship – minimizing her torments. However, we join our First Sister in the midst of a change-up in the leadership of her vessel and her role is in jeopardy – and she will do anything to keep the small privileges she has gained.

The other two POVs consist of Lito and Hiro, a bonded pair of outer planet spies who use neural connectors to link brains. Their link allows them to think and fight in tandem for greater strength and efficiency. When an operation they are conducting goes south, Lito is dishonorably discharged. But, Lito is recalled to service when Hiro goes rogue as the best person to track Hiro down and eliminate them. Lito’s sections involve him tracking Hiro down in the present, while Hiro’s sections take the form of an audio diary that flesh out the duo’s past and why they defected.

The characters of The First Sister are its strong point. All three leads go through an enormous amount of growth over the course of the book and it really helps you get invested in the protagonists. Their stories are interesting and refreshing – plus they each have a lot of personality and depth which makes them feel rewarding to root for. I also have only praise for the supporting cast, which contains a plethora of side characters that do a great job of moving the story along with exciting set pieces and providing a canvas for the protagonists to paint themselves on. Unfortunately, this is where my unfettered praise ends.

The worldbuilding and storytelling in this book is a mixed bag, which is why I transitioned away from them so quickly at the start of the review. The world of The First Sister is awesome, but I constantly found myself struggling with some of Lewis’ new ideas and inventions due to a lack of context. A perfect example of this is I think I correctly described to you which planets are on the two sides of the war, but I am not 100% sure because the sides of the conflict are only talked about once or twice, and even then Lewis uses very vague terms that left me unsure who was who.

Other times, the ordering of information in the book confused me. Lito and Hiro are both masters of these really cool mercury swords that can change shape and style at will. A huge portion of the start of the book shows you how training with these swords is a vital part of how soldiers are trained in the outer rim. But, you are also consistently shown that most combat at the beginning of the book is done with long-range guns that end fights in milliseconds. Thus I found myself wondering “why the heck do they care about swords so much when they have super guns.” Well, near the end of the book it is shown that resources are so thin since the AIs up and left that neither side of the conflict can afford to blow ships out of the sky. So, almost all space battles involve boarding maneuvers to attempt to capture other ships and repel boarders from your own. Thanks to the tight, cramped, and winding ship passages, mercury blades are the most powerful weapon a soldier can use. This turns out to be only one of multiple reasons the reader is shown that the swords are important, but I spent the majority of the book confused about their purpose.

The story itself poses as this massive galactic conflict – but it struggles to make you care beyond the confines of the leads… because the personal stories of the leads are so interesting. The First Sister feels indecisive if it wants to be telling you a macro, or a micro, story – so it tries, and struggles, to do both at the same time. I think the microstories were a lot stronger and the book would have been better served to stick with the smaller tank of the protagonist’s struggles over the fate of humanity.

Additionally, the themes of the book were interesting, but a bit too undefined. The role of the First Sister was fascinating, and her struggles to survive spoke volumes of commentary about the struggles that some women face in the modern world. Yet, the reader is never really given any justification as to why the inner planets have shipbound sex slaves in the first place other than “it would be a horrible thing that bad people would do.” The result is a theme that feels a little divorced from the book because to a degree it feels forced in and foreign to the ecosystem that Lewis developed. For example, we see tons of evidence that homosexuality is open and accepted in the book and gender is fluid. Yet, we are only ever shown women Sisters, even when there are examples of soldiers who desire men. This diminishes the impact of otherwise smart themes, and while I suspect that future books in the series will address some of the worldbuilding issues I had with The First Sister, I needed these answers now to fully enjoy the first book.

Despite its unfocused nature, The First Sister is a captivating read with interesting characters and new takes on thoughtful ideas. I wish Lewis would try to narrow down the scope slightly going forward, or expand the page count to let the multitude of ideas the book contains have room to breathe. The climax of the first book is fantastic and absolutely dug its hooks into my curiosity as to what happens next. Despite a couple of problems, I still recommend The First Sister as a strong debut and one of the better dark horses I have read this year.

Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10
-Andrew

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – A Bridge To Greatness

81llcanwmulNo no, not this time. I am not letting another book in The Thorne Chronicle series slip under my radar. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge (called Revenge going forwards) is the sequel to How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (Rory) by K. Eason. I somehow missed the first book when it came out last year and I refused to commit the same crime twice. You can find my review of Rory here, and you can find some bonus thoughts on it in our Best of Science Fantasy List here. It’s a wonderful story about female empowerment, everyone empowerment, creative problem solving, and how to use words and diplomacy to solve problems. The sequel lives up to the high bar that Rory set, with some minor change-ups that are worth talking about.

Revenge picks up a little while after the ending of Rory. One of my only complaints about the first book was how Eason handled the ending of the story. In essence, at the end of book one Eason waves her hands, lightly summarizes a number of big events that change the status quo of the universe, and announces that the remaining cast of characters from the book disappears into the void. It felt like a hard reset of all the progress the characters had made in Rory, and I am not a huge fan of major off-page events being quickly summarized in epilogues.

However, this reset did do a great job setting up the stakes for Revenge. Revenge’s narrative is split into two stories, each focusing on a different group of people. One follows Rupert (Rory’s old teacher) and Grytt (Rory’s old bodyguard), which I am calling team parental, as they receive a nebulous message that Rory is in danger and they should try to help her. Their story revolves around locating where Rory has gone, building an alliance to go help her, and trying to avoid igniting a war between different races that have a lot of friction. The second storyline follows Rory and the remaining side characters from book one. After too much time in the spotlight, they have decided to carve out a quiet life as salvagers – until they run into salvage that multiple galactic species are fighting over. So in one story, you have Rory and the crew fighting to stay alive while protecting their dangerous find. And in the other story, you have Rory’s parental figures marshaling the troops to come to rescue her.

It’s a really interesting story with a fun fusion of different science fiction and fantasy concepts that kept me engaged the entire time. The plot is generally satisfying, but the ending once again does the thing where it has a large number of major off-page events announced to you in a few pages. This is a bigger problem for me in Revenge than it was in Rory because it exacerbates the second book’s biggest issue – there isn’t enough there. I very much like Revenge, and the paragraphs following this one will talk all about the amazing things the book accomplishes. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I was cheated out of a full book. While the plot of book two was very engaging, there doesn’t feel like there was enough of it for a single book. I didn’t feel like the story had progressed enough to devote one of three books in a trilogy to this story. I found myself feeling starved of content and really wishing that Eason had explored almost everything in the book more. It was pretty disappointing. I get a distinct feeling that this is a classic “bridge book problem,” where the second novel in a trilogy spends too much time setting up the finale and loses some of its own identity.

Yet, all of these feelings are born from the fact that what is there in Revenge is so good. In Rory, Eason focused primarily on the titular character, and the themes revolved around female empowerment, solving situations that feel like they require violence with words, and exploring the idea of diplomacy more than all parties being unhappy with a compromise. These themes are all there in Revenge, but Eason shifts the focus primarily from Rory and her personal growth to the full cast. She elevates the supporting characters and builds a fleet of protagonists with Rory at the helm. This is a wonderful experience because much like Rory all five side characters that got elevated are amazing. In addition, Eason brings in a whole new set of side characters that fill the void left by the old. The result is the chance to read about a ton of meaningful character growth from six (Rory still grows herself) different personalities. It is a buffet of excellent character writing.

Thanks to the expansion of the character focus, we also get a much larger diversity of themes in Revenge. Rory is still dealing with the problems of being a woman in a man’s world, but she also has a whole slew of new problems that divide her focus. One person is coping with the idea of being loved as a person instead of as a possession. One person is coping with the complete loss of their identity and looking for new meaning. One person is coping with the pressures of duty vs friendship. And everyone is dealing with themes like the first contact, the value of lesser evils, and weighing personal loss against the greater good. On top of all of this, Eason does a fabulous job exploring the nature of friendship. There are a number of interesting relationships and dichotomies between different characters that I never see explored, and it was so refreshing to see a more diverse set of connections.

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic book that checks all of my boxes for something I highly recommend. In my opinion, its only failing is how short it feels, but given the pressures of working in a plague riddled world, it is easy to forgive the book for its singular issue. This series is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, and I highly recommend you find the time to read it. Its heartfelt and emotional take on the bonds between people helped me feel more connected to those around me despite being locked inside to socially distance.

Rating: How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew

Sorcery Of A Queen – Brilliance Of An Author

9781250309679The 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.

Rating: Sorcery of a Queen – 10/10
-Andrew

Ormeshadow – A Little Slice Of Life

712zdrcfehlPriya Sharma’s Ormeshadow overflows with dark family secrets, generations of lore, and tragedy. Sharma has a knack for pitting characters against one another with beautifully selected words. Ormeshadow reads like a wood-carving: Sharma removes all the excess material and presents a pristine, sharp product that feels at once succinct and sprawling.

Gideon Belman’s life completely changes when his father, John, ushers the family to Ormeshadow farm on the heels of his failure as a scholar in Bath. The land rests near the Orme–a sleeping dragon, as legend puts it, upon whose back the land has grown. John regales young Gideon with tales of the dragon and his family’s inextricable ties to it. John’s wife, Clare, tolerates the stories. Ormeshadow is tended by John’s brother Thomas, a rugged farmhand supported by his wife Maud, his boys Peter and Samuel, and his daughter Charity. The reunion dredges up years of resentment and hatred, and Gideon is thrust against his wishes into a life that seems intent on dragging him into madness and cruelty.

A true novella, Ormeshadow reads at a brisk pace, following Gideon’s life after the move and skipping years of time. Sharma’s chapters are snapshots in time, and the blanks she leaves can be easily filled in by imaginative readers. It’s almost like a series of vignettes, each serving a simple purpose: to tell us how Gideon has coped with the innumerable tragedies that befall him in Ormeshadow. The short length serves to better the book by quickly leading the reader to new, darker territory with every turn of the page.

The plot itself could be described as predictable (and probably has been described that way by some). However, when a predictable plot point was finally revealed, I felt spurred on by it, rather than hindered. Sharma’s characters are so believable that I became ravenous for more detail. To experience the characters dealing with their struggles is the heart of the story. Moments of realization and heartbreak abound, but they’re overshadowed by the subtler character moments that follow. Peppered throughout the book are the stories of the Orme and how it came to be. These stories lend mystical context to the modern-day goings-on in the tale, and they’re the cherry on top of the Sharma’s prosaic cake.

All that said, if you read Ormeshadow for any reason, let it be the prose. Sharma writes with a lyricism and brevity reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road. She says what must be said, and she does it with remarkable verbal grace. Simple, accessible, and beautiful descriptions lie on every page, and it’s a wonder to behold.

Stories of the Orme and legends of the Belman family give Ormeshadow a distinct mystical bent, as I mentioned above. These, presumably, are the reason for the novella’s “Dark Fantasy” genre-billing. I bring this up because, unless you sensationally interpret the story’s final moments, Ormeshadow is more of a dark realism story. It’s replete with family drama, plenty of lore, and a dash of mystery, but the fantasy elements are minimal. This doesn’t detract from the book’s quality at all. Instead, it’s a fair warning to readers seeking a grim fantasy tale. This novella may not satisfy that particular craving, but it is worth your time.

Priya Sharma’s novella bursts with character and flawless prose. She weaves a tale of family intrigue, dark pasts, and overcoming adversity. For such a quick read, Ormeshadow packs a hell of a punch.

Rating: Ormeshadow – 8.0/10
-Cole

A Brightness Long Ago – Cherished Memories And Lessons Learned

Originally I wasn’t going to review this book because it is by Guy Gavriel Kay, and here at The Quill to Live we basically have a blanket recommendation for anything he has ever written. His ability to churn out a powerful novel that is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, and love note to history is well known. However, it is very likely that A Brightness Long Ago will be our book of the year – thus it seemed important that we actually review it. So here you go: as always, 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. There you go, review over. What, you want more? Fine, I will actually do my job.

A Brightness Long Ago, according to Kay’s book blurb, “is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy”. Unfortunately, because I am an uncultured peasant, I am not familiar enough with European history to have recognized that without his prompting. While some of Kay’s books feel extremely evocative of specific historical times and events, Brightness felt less rooted in real events than some of the other Kay books I have read. As with all Kay books, the story is focused on small individuals who experience moments of something bigger than themselves. In this instance, the larger world events revolve around a long slow conflict between two powerful military leaders: Folco and Teobaldo. They are two proud, brilliant, and unyielding men who are vying to leave their mark on the world. The book follows a continent-sized chess match between these two titanic personalities and explores a number of their attempts to seize power from surrounding powers. Although they are the focus of the plot, the book is much more about the lives that they touch and change in their momentous conflict. In particular, our primary POVs are Danio and Adria – a man of some learning who continuously finds himself at the center of climactic events due to the choices he makes, and a woman who rejects the mantle of aristocracy because she wanted to do something that matters.

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.

I love this book so damn much for so many reasons. Kay’s characters are always perfect, but I haven’t liked a cast this much outside Sailing to Sarantium – Danio and Adria stole my heart and won’t give it back. Kay’s stories usually focus on ordinary people who hear gunshots and run towards the sound. However, Brightness has an interesting mix of characters who seek momentous events out, and those who actively avoid them. For those who have read a number of his other pieces, I feel you will find some interesting fresh personalities in Brightness that defy the expectations of even the most well-read readers.

A Brightness Long Ago was 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 I don’t want to know the person who doesn’t enjoy it. As I said in my first paragraph, 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.

Rating: A Brightness Long Ago – 10/10
-Andrew

For The Killing Of Kings – For The Having Of A Good Time

91fi4au2qflI apparently have a thing for military orders. Or, I guess not military, but organized groups of fantasy heroes. Maybe all of us who read the genre do, as most fantasy books have them. There always seems to be some group of warriors with a cliche name like “the Night Fighters” in every fantasy book. However, every once in a while you get a series like Malazan, or Bloodsong, or even Harry Potter that does these groups of heroes justice and tell you about a club that you would give your left arm to be a part of. This is one of those times. For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones, is the first book in his new The Ring-Sworn Trilogy. It is a phenomenal new story, whose greatest shortcoming is that there is not more of it, and it will likely be one of my top books of 2019.

For the Killing of Kings (FtKoK) tells the story of a post-war Darassus. Through the use of the Altenari, a prestigious military order, and its army, Darassus won a major conflict again its hostile neighboring nations. However, instead of pressing their victory, the royalty sued for peace – electing instead to focus their time upon studying mysterious magical artifacts they found over the course of the conflict instead of hunting down their enemies. This choice fractured the Altenari, with some losing faith in their leaders, and others holding fast to the nation’s new direction. Although the Altenari are somewhat reduced from their former glory, it is still a highly sought after order with many aspirants pledging to try and rise to the high rank of Alten. Our story follows two individuals, Elenai – a high ranking squire in the Altenari order, and Rylin – one of the newest individuals to reach the high rank of Alten after the war. Although both of these individuals are supremely talented, they find themselves in the shadow of the “old guard” of the Altenari (those who helped win the previous war). However, in the course of their duties both of our protagonists stumble over a mystery/conspiracy that threatens Darassus and find themselves working with the old guard to save the nation.

FtKoK has all the hallmarks of a fantasy great. It has an engrossing world, a top tier cast of characters, a fast-paced plot, and smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The world has your typical fantasy backstory – six gods each sat down and made a nation and became their patron. One went crazy and tried to murder the others, and got curbed stomped. While the gods fashioning the various nations isn’t too original, there are a number of details, like that the goods seemed to have built the word in some sort of giant unstable magical dimension, that gives FtKoK a distinguishing flare. While the land of the nations is solid and fairly “normal”, the borders and space between the various realms is this shifting morass of reality that essentially looks like a kaleidoscope that was tossed into a dryer. These shifting lands are extremely unstable, and magic users have learned to essentially build a reality around them as they travel through the lands. This leads to some super cool magic and magical fights in the story and really gives the world of FtKoK a lot of character.

Although the world is cool, it doesn’t hold a candle to the characters. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. Starting with our protagonists, both are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. While they have a ton of differences, Elenai and Rylin are similar in they are both in roles where they feel they have been promoted above their station. Although they technically share ranks (or a rank below) with the rest of the Alten, they are new additions to this prestigious order and feel they still have a lot to do to live up to their ranks. They both have a level of self-awareness that is refreshing and speaks a lot to the virtues of responsibility and sacrifice. And speaking of the old guard, the most established Alten are all brilliantly written characters. Each of them is distinct, engrossing to read about, and improve the enjoyment of the book by their very presence. I love these characters and I want to read more about them.

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. However, while I have a boatload of positive things to say about FtKoK, there were some places that could be improved. First, the book is too short and ends on an outrageously suspenseful cliffhanger. I feel like Jones couldn’t decide where to break up books one and two and just picked a place at random. I only finished the book last night and I am already dying for the sequel. Along a similar line, the pacing sometimes felt too quick. There were fights, dialogues, and expositions that felt a little rushed and I wish Jones took a little more time fleshing out and exploring. I really, really, liked this book and I didn’t like that I sometimes felt that I was being “rushed out the door”. At only 350 pages, I felt that FtKoK could have easily been 600 (a lot happens) and told the same story at a more luxurious pace.

At the end of the day, if the worst thing you can say about a book is that you wish it was twice as long it means you obviously loved it. For the Killing of Kings has raised the Altenari to one of my favorite fantasy orders in a single book, a feat that is no small accomplishment. With its brilliant cast of characters, smart explorations of the burdens of responsibility, and nebulous world and plot – For the Killing of Kings is sure to be one of the best books of 2019 and I recommend you check it out as soon as possible.

Rating: For the Killing of Kings – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Empire Of Ashes – Come Get It While It’s Hot

a19o2yo0d2blI find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.

The PlotEmpire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.

The World – Each book in Draconis 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. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a 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 with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.

The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.

The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.

Rating:
The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10
Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
-Andrew