Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 4-6

51sght5qhjlWe are back with the second half of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s vignettes! If you are just catching up with The Quill to Live, Orbit has graciously allowed us to publish a series of vignettes that take place between two of our favorite books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you missed part one of this post you can find it here. Thanks again to Adrian and Orbit for giving us the opportunity to post these. We hope you take the time to check out the shorts and original books when you have a second. Enjoy!

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 2

4. Tomb Raiders

When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.

“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.

“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.

“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.

Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.

Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.

Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.

“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.

Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.

But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.

“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.

“Let’s get in there.”

Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.

“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”

A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.

Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.

“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.

He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.

The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.

“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”

“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”

“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.

“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.

“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.

“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.

They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.

“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, virtual, transcending the physical.

But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.

Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.

“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.

“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.

He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?

Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin and Channec and the corpses, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.

Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.

“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”

“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.

“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”

He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.

It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.

“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.

Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.

The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.

He saw it too late: the lights stayed still but the shadows moved.

The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.

He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.

Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.

With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.

She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.

Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.

5. Voyage to Nowhere

You wake in darkness, enclosed. Something is forcing its way into your mouth, down your throat. Something is clamped about your nose. Things are invading you. You fight; you can’t fight: you are restrained. Then something gives; your arm clutches towards your face but strikes a cold, hard surface right before you… above you… you cannot tell. You cannot tell which way is up.

Your hand slithers up the cold surface until it is at your mouth. Tubes, there are tubes. You wrench them out. You stare into the darkness until the lights come on.

They are soft lights, originating from somewhere behind your head. Probably they are intended to be comforting. You are not comforted.

The barrier before you is clear. Looking out of it you see… ranks of clear-fronted coffins in a great dark space. At first you think they are reflections, but all the others of you are asleep, their tubes still plugged into nose and mouth.

You have no idea where you are. You yell. You bang at the clear plastic. It is colder than it was.

There is a voice, a man’s voice.

“Can you hear me?” it says.

You listen. It repeats itself. The voice sounds patient, sad.

“Yes,” you whisper into the tiny coffin that is your world. “I hear you. Who are you?”

“Do you know where you are?” asks the voice, leaving you uncertain whether it’s owner can hear you.

You open your mouth to say, and there is a hole in your mind, a great yawning gulf where the knowledge should be. You do not know where you are. You do not know who you are. Your sense of self is a string of disjointed images: the sun, parents, a brown landscape, the harsh taste of the air.

“Listen to me,” says the voice. “You are on the Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh is a colony ship. Do you remember.”

You know the name, but it’s like someone you met a long time ago. You can’t place it. You try to understand what the voice means. A colony ship…?

The voice continues with its dreadful, didactic patience. “The Gilgamesh is on a journey to another world, do you understand that?”

And you do. When the information abruptly flowers in your mind you feel like weeping. You are coming back to yourself. You are more than these broken fragments. “Yes,” you say, and “Yes!”

“We have star maps from the Old Empire,” the voice confides to you – things you think you knew once, fitting into place like bricks, one on another. “We are humanity, in this ship. We are on a long journey to a planet that we believe the ancients made into another Earth. But an unspoiled Earth, one not poisoned by their war.” There is a terrible, wistful yearning in that voice.

“Who are you?” you demand. If not for that yearning you might have taken it for some thinking computer, such as the ancients were supposed to have.

“My name is Guyen. I am the Gilgamesh’s commander. Right now I’m the only member of Key Crew not in suspension. You and I are the only two human beings awake.”

And you think about that, and you know it must be an honour that they’ve woken you first. You and the commander, of all those sleeping people outside your coffin. “Commander,” you say, “how long before we’re on this new Earth?”

Guyen’s voice says nothing for long time.

“Commander?” you prompt him, and then again. And then again.

“If it is there,” says Guyen’s disembodied voice, “then the Gilgamesh will reach it in approximately twelve-hundred years.

You do not understand. Guyen does not volunteer an explanation. You cannot even think of how to phrase the question. The silence stretches out, and it’s getting colder.

“You see,” the commander tells you eventually, after listening to your teeth chatter, “you are the first.”

“The first to wake.” You can barely get out the words.

“The first cargo malfunction,” Guyen tells you. The words mean nothing. You turn them over in your mind. Still nothing. Then, as though a visual illusion has just flipped before your eyes, you understand.

“We knew this would happen with a proportion of the cargo over the time periods involved,” Guyen goes on, and you wish he would just shut up but you have no way to make him. “I had the Gilgamesh wake me, when it did. You are the first. I felt I owed it to you.” And, perhaps because his voice is all you have, you can hear the ragged edges there: the man who is responsible for everything.

You try to say something. Guyen will never know what your final message to him would have been.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

The light goes out.

6. Trespassers in Eden

Another Earth.

They were working on this place when the bomb went off in Reykjavik, putting the finishing touches to a biosphere imported from earth. A big job, but the planet was perfect for it, the first of a long string of islands in the great empty night. The dream project of a misanthropic genius transhumanist, who planned to make it her grand experiment.

When everything fell apart, when the colonies on Mars and Europa and all the others died, when the signals from Earth ceased, this other Earth circled its far-distant other sun with blithe unconcern. The genius behind it never got to run her experiment. Something else happened instead, something unplanned for, unexpected, unwanted.

All the while, when the tough remnants of the human race lived in the shadow of the ice and dragged themselves back into an understanding of themselves, something else was breeding and growing on this world, a usurper in this human paradise. Not an experiment, barely a mistake, just an unintended side-effect of how things fell out.

And one day, while mankind regrouped on its poison Earth, eyes looked up at the sky and asked Why? and Where did we come from? They looked at the pinprick lights above them and wondered why one moved so swiftly across the sky, never realizing that they were looking at all that was left of their creators.

From something that merely bred and fed, they became something that remembers and builds and dances and thinks. They told their own stories in their own language.

They cannot know that their creators are coming back to haunt them. They cannot know that sometimes, Where did we come from? is the worst question of all.

Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 1-3

51wkqa3knrlToday we have something a bit different and very fun. If you are a reader of the site you might be aware that we absolutely loved Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you haven’t read them before you will hear about all the various things that make them great. So, when Orbit kindly reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of an effort to republish some prologue vignettes that Tchaikovsky wrote for between the two books – it was an emphatic yes. We will be posting the vignettes in two sets, half today and half later this week (found here). Now, in an effort to not drone on like someone giving you their life story similar to an online recipe page – please enjoy these fun prologues to some of our favorite books.

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 1

1. For the Love of All Humanity

There was nothing he could do about the millions watching remotely except show them.

Njall Torek’s record said he was diligent and hardworking. He had come to the University of Reykjavik with immaculate references back before the major establishments had begun vetting their staff quite so carefully. He was well-liked amongst his fellows and he didn’t try to bother the actual academics. He knew his place. That was what most of his superiors felt about Njall: he knew his place. He was a good man for electrical problems, for minor repairs, installations, pest-control even. For a university whose business was increasingly virtual, these little physical problems would crop up, and when they did, Njall would be there to put them right down again.
He had now finished his last little physical problem for the university. Now, like those millions, it was his role to watch from a remote location. What he could do, he had done.

On the physical stage, now, one of the guest speakers was standing to introduce herself. The auditorium was packed out with those were willing to go to the expense of travelling to meet these people. Not students, but industrialists, foreign academics and politicians, big names here to make big deals behind the scenes.

Members, Njall knew, of the conspiracy.

This speaker was a small Chinese woman, grey-haired and neat. She was something in genetic surgery: her team had been key in embryological engineering, or so Njall gathered. There was quite a Chinese contingent in Reykjavik these days. He might have passed her in the street without comment, without knowing that she was one of them.
Some of the others – on the stage, in the audience – he wouldn’t have made that mistake with, not ever.

There was a war on, Njall knew. It was a war against humanity. Njall loved humanity. He was fiercely committed to it, as a patriot was to a nation, as a true believer to a creed. Njall knew humanity had a destiny, and that destiny was being taken away.

These people who had gathered here at Reykjavik, they were traitors to their kind. He knew them all – he had looked at their biographies and their bibliographies, seen the fields they worked in and the ‘achievements’ they were responsible for.

Out there, out past the blue of the sky, there were worlds, Njall knew. Not just the other orbs of Earth’s solar system – settled by human ingenuity, at cost, and still imperfect and hostile places to live. There were worlds around other stars that ships from Earth had reached. They were terraforming them even now, finding planets of the right mass, within the Goldilocks band between death by fire and death by ice, and putting the last touches on them to make a better home than Europa or Titan or even Mars would ever be. Those were humanity’s inheritance, Njall knew. And they were being taken away. These people – people like the men and women and – some of them he couldn’t even tell! – on the stage, they had already made plans for those worlds. And no matter what they might say, Njall knew those plans did not include provision for anything he would recognise as human.

He knew this. He had been told this by his leaders, and he believed them. The defenders of humanity had plenty of friends in high places who knew the truth.

Out there in that auditorium there were people who made computers that thought, or who turned human eggs and seed into abominations, or who altered chimpanzees and dolphins and elephants so they could speak.

Non Ultra Natura. No more than human. That was Njall’s flag. Out there in the auditorium there were already people who had cast off the birthright of their humanity to become part machine, part beast, part something else entirely. Some of Njall’s comrades held that it was against God’s law, but Njall only knew that he was human, and proud to be human, and that those who sought to become more than human would only ever become less, slaves to the AIs and the talking dogs and whatever other atrocities they dreamt up.

There were millions worldwide watching this conference on ‘transhumanism’, millions who had been fooled by this circus into wanting to give up the one true gift they were born with. All Njall could do was show them the error of their ways. All Njall could do was fight for the side of life.

As the next speaker stood – some thing that was neither male nor female, neither human nor machine – Njall felt his revulsion peak, and the bomb he’d set beneath the stage went off.

2. The Last Martian

One hundred and four days.

Jenniver Amartez was impressed, in a way. None of it was supposed to last that long, not in these conditions. But it had struggled gamely on, and there had come a point, around the sixty day mark, when she had thought they had wrought better than anyone had anticipated, and it would last.

By seventy-five days that illusion was gone. The living systems were too complex to find equilibrium, the environment too hostile to give them the time. Everything had begun to die.

The main colony was long dead by then. By the time she had been able to jury-rig a receiver, the only signals she could pick up were automated warnings, and precious few of those. Pretty much everything had been knocked out.

She didn’t want to think about how many Martians there had been, before the virus pulse from Earth. Thousands, certainly. Men and women and children whose parents and grandparents had been Martians. People whose ancestors had come here when the planet truly was a freezing hell, instead of just a steadily deteriorating purgatory. They had lived in domes and they had worked on the atmosphere – painstakingly transforming it into something that was a slower death for humans, and that could just about sustain other life, with help.

She had not realized, until the pulse, just how much help.

Jenniver Alvarez walked through the dying forests of Mars.

Trees stood in tall rows – not really trees, not really like anything that had evolved on earth, but bioengineered life designed to suck in carbon and push out oxygen. The orderly ranks of them ran as far as the eye could see, and the ground around them was carpeted with a man-made moss/fungus symbiote. All artificial, just like everything on Mars was artificial except the rocks and the ice and the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere that was gradually re-establishing its hold on the planet.

A fourth-generation Martian, she had given her life to Mars. Not long ago she had been able to walk in the plantation without a suit, with only a portable air supply to tipple from, like a hip flask. The biomass around her had pumped out heat and oxygen, and she had looked forward to her children or her grandchildren running free and swift in the low gravity, masters of a world made home by the hand of humanity.

Now she wore a suit, for as the atmosphere around her thinned, the heat given out by the plants was sucked away. Now she carried her air with her.

Some part of Mars had been green, for a brief moment: a generation in individual human terms, an eyeblink in the history of the species. Now it was brown as the plantations withered and died around her.

Everything had been so carefully maintained by the computers. The entire colonised area of Mars had been a colossal cybernetic system managed by artificial brains able to tweak every little detail. The vast plantations were maintained by an irrigation network, constantly fed exactly the required balance of nutrients and chemicals to help them conquer the red planet’s ire. When the pulse came, transmitted on multiple frequencies from Earth, travelling at light speed without any warning, every system on Mars had gone down, hopelessly riddled with a virulent artificial plague.

She had been keeping track of the war, of course. There had even been fighting on Mars, though not so very much. Everyone had followed the reports, hoping that someone would win quick enough that a normal service would be resumed. If not for the anti-tech backlash, probably it would have been. But one side in the war had yoked its fortunes to the popular groundswell worked up by the NUNs and the other extremists, and then they found them were the tail trying to wag the dog. They found you can’t just put crazy like that back into the bottle. Every time someone came to the peace table there was another attack, an assassination, something to fan the flames. On Mars, the colonists had listened to the reports grow graver and graver, until there were no more reports, and the only comms they could intercept were military. They were still listening intently when the virus pulse came through.

They had all died, the people in the domes. The computers had been keeping them alive. But Jenniver, out here alone in the agricultural station, she had lived. Here, within the planet’s raw new lungs, the work of human hands had persisted for a few more tens of days.

She passed one of the robot workers, little more than a wasted weight of metal. Everything had gone down. She didn’t want to think of the outer colonies, those fragile little bubbles on the gas giant moons or the mining bases in the asteroid belt. The pulse would have reached them all, and further and further, radiating outwards towards the stars.

Not long now.

Jenniver Amartez stood amidst the dying Martian forests and looked out into the dark sky, seeking the dust-shrouded, silent orb that was Earth.

3. Home Fires

He was a hunter in a harsh season. His name was Rom.

His people lived in the lowlands, near the sea, but the fishing had been poor this year, poorer than the last. The fish were so few, and many of them caught deformed. A strong man could live on fish alone and not get sick, but not the children, not women heavy with child, not the old. So Rom had set out to his old hunting grounds to trap and kill the beasts his forefathers had left him.

Last year he had been everyone’s favourite. He had come home with four sticks strung with rats and squirrels and rabbits. This year the cold had come early – the first snows seemed only a moon after midsummer, and he could count the days he had seen the sun on his fingers and toes. Today, the sky was closed with white cloud, and sky-dust was blowing on the wind, that tasted sour and salt on his tongue.

This year he had set his traps but the beasts did not come. The cold had driven them further afield, or else they remembered Rom and his snares, and their dead relatives, and avoided him.

He knew the legends: how great magicians of an elder age had raised up the beasts and given them thought and speech, and how that had angered God, who had brought the winter to make an end of all the sinners in the world.

Rom wondered sometimes if he was a sinner, and how many sinners were left, for the winters were no less fierce than in his childhood. If anything they were worse.

Rom could not know that the pale masses of dust that still clogged the upper air had thrown back so much of the sun’s heat that his world was gripped between two hands of ice, north and south. Every summer they relaxed their grip, those hands, but each winter those fingers stretched out, further than the year before. But all Rom knew was that the winters grew worse by little increments, and the hunting sparser, and life grew harder. He had been forced to go further afield, each day’s travel a burden on him as the way back lengthened. Now he had come uphill to the broken stone land in the hope that the shelter of the place would have brought in perhaps cats or foxes or even swine, big game to make the journey worthwhile.

But the snows were closing on him, numbing his fingers and nose and ears even though he wrapped his cloaks about him, each a patchwork of tiny pelts.

The broken stone land was ahead of him, as far as the snow let him see: some great towers still stood, reaching high enough to prop the clouds up. Many more had fallen, making the place a maze of broken stone. There were riches there, so they said, but it was haunted by terrible spirits, and there were other tribes, too, jealous of what they had. And surely, if that was the case, the hunting would be no better there. But Rom was desperate.

He had heard that a great guardian had once stood before the Stone Place, warding off any who sought to claim its riches. Now he saw the truth of it, though she had fallen long before, her gigantic stone body strewn in sections down the slope from the broken stump of her feet. She had stood tall and robed and crowned, said the stories, and he believed them, seeing her now. She had one hand lifted high, bearing a sword to smite those who might trespass in the broken stone land.

Rom’s feet dragged: he could not feel them through the chill. Even his own weariness was just a distant drumbeat, slower and slower. If he did not find shelter soon, he would be simply one more hunter who walked out into the world and never returned, and his people would speak his name a few more times, and forget him.

The furthest-flung pieces of the guardian were ahead of him, stone shrapnel looming high, half-smothered with snow. He could see the wind-shadow they cast, though, and forced his senseless legs onwards, step after step, even as the gusts blew fiercer and swifter, a blizzard building in the eternally white sky.

He saw the outflung arm, now in pieces but still reaching out towards him. She had been bearing something aloft, but amongst the fragments of her splendour he saw no shattered sword blade or spear haft. Whatever it was she had been holding, he could not make it out.

As his stumbling progress brought him closer, his mind drifted. He saw her, in his head: a beautiful tall woman standing defiantly, daring any to challenge her. In his mind she was not placed to warn away travellers, but to challenge the winter itself: standing firm against the wind and snow, and in her hand, a flame.

He collapsed at last, but he was in the shadow of the stone. With clumsy, unfeeling hands he got out his sticks and tinder, and lit his fragile fire in the shelter of a broken stone torch.

The Best Of 2019

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

Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Happy 2019 from The Quill to Live Team

Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

51sght5qhjl

So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew