Shorefall – Remember To Breathe

Do you like rollercoasters? Do you like feeling the grim reaper’s breath on your neck as you hurtle through time and space at speeds that the human mind wasn’t meant to comprehend? Does being super incredibly stressed for uncomfortably long periods of time turn you on? If you answered yes to any of these questions have I got a book for you! Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it.

If you are just reading The Quill to Live for the first time, welcome to the site! Please know that we collectively love RJB and think he is one of the best contemporary writers of modern fantasy. Shorefall did little to dissuade us of that notion. The book is the sequel to Foundryside (our review of book one can be found here) and while Shorefall picks up the narrative three years later – it only feels like seconds. Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregory have founded their own scriving house with plans to use the technology they invent, steal, and extort to better the world around them and burn the remaining established houses to the ground. However, these plans need to take a major pause when they learn of an otherworldly threat descending on their beloved city. There are some mild spoilers for Foundryside after the cover picture so turn back now if you haven’t read the first book and want to remain completely pure.

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At the end of book one, the Foundrysiders released what seemed to be a god from her entrapment. They had mixed feelings about this, but feel decidedly negative when they learn that a second opposing diety looks poised to also return to wage war on everything. The first hierophant, a man who could wipe cities off the planet with a thought, is coming back. The Foundrysiders begin to scramble to prevent the hierophant’s return, as it could spell the end of reality itself.

Here’s the thing. I thought Shorefall would be a story about our lovable crew from book one working together to figure out how to prevent this clearly unstoppable force of nature from coming back and ruining existence. The book would be a game of tag between the Foundrysiders and the cult ushering the hierophant’s return. At the end of the book, the cult might get successful in bringing him back in some form and we would have an intense set up for book three in this series. That is not what happened, at all. I am sorry for these mild Shorefall spoilers, but the first hierophant makes it back in something like the first 10% of the book. The entirety of Shorefall after this point essentially becomes the story of “what if a team of four talented engineers got into a batshit insane pissing match with Cthulu?” It is one of the most intense and fast-paced stories I have ever read, with the sense of palpable urgency never letting up for a single second. Every second of this novel feels appropriately like a mere mortal standing firm against the will of a cosmic deity and saying “fuck you.” It is a work of art.

The magic continues to be one of the coolest and most imaginative concepts that I have ever read. Bennett refuses to be backed into a corner by his premise and continues to find more and more interesting ways to step outside the box he built for himself. The way the characters use and bend the rules of the world to affect change feels like an inconceivably large puzzle snapping into the correct configuration. The magic is also still visceral and nightmarish. I am haunted by some of the descriptions and deaths from this series. I see them in my mind when I lay down to sleep at night and cannot block the sounds of their imagined cries as they are ripped to pieces. This series is not for the squeamish.

Shorefall is so much more than I expected. On top of giving me enough anxiety to have a stroke, it has truly beautiful character stories. Just like in book one the POV is split between all four of our leads, with a slightly greater focus placed on Sancia and Gregory. Each character is dealing with some heavy stuff that is explored in great detail. To give you a peek into some of their trials: Sancia is trying to understand what to do with her life now that she has stability for the first time ever. Gregory is trying to gain some semblance of control over literally anything to feel like he has a shred of agency in his life. Berenice is struggling with the idea that while she is amazing at many things, in order to do what is needed she has to step outside the comfort zone she has hidden in her entire life. Orso is coping with the profound realization that most of his life’s work isn’t going to amount to anything and trying to find meaning in his existence. This is only a fraction of what these characters are going through and it is wonderful.

However, I will say that while it is truly impressive that Bennett managed to create such a fast-paced story with such memorable character arcs – it feels like these two powerful elements of the story do not compliment each other well. The pacing rips you through the story so fast there is rarely time to sit and digest things. This works well from a plot perspective because it keeps you so off-balance that every new piece of information feels like an amazing twist. But these character stories are beautiful and deserve to be luxuriated in, and there simply doesn’t feel like there is enough time to do so with how fact the pace moves. I just want it all, to be pulled across a lake of imagination at the speed of sound and at the same time sit on the shores and calmly enjoy the view.

Shorefall is not what I expected in the best way possible. It is a lightning strike to the spine, an explosion of ideas and feelings, and a hauntingly beautiful story about good people making hard choices. It is a success as a sequel in every possible way and I can think of and if you are not already reading The Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett you are missing out. Shorefall is not a book to let pass you by like a ship in the night.

Rating: Shorefall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Steel Crow Saga – Everybody’s Got Problems

51re9unfc2blWell let’s get this out of the way early: Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger, feels like someone sat down and tried to combine the best parts of Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and did an admirable job. A lot of how you will feel about this book is how you react to the last sentence. If this concept fills you with excited glee, you are probably going to love it to pieces. If this concept fills you with trepidation, you will likely find the book to be a bit lukewarm. To be fair, distilling this impressive book down to a single sentence is an injustice, so let’s dig more into the meat of this interesting story and see what it has to offer.

Steel Crow Saga is the first book in a series of the same name and follows four different POVs in political intrigue seasoned with a lot of action. Our leads are Lee, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Tala, and everybody has issues they need to resolve. Each of them comes from a different nation that represents a different piece of the world – each with a different real-world Asian allegory. Tala is a soldier from Sanbu (Phillippines), Jimuro is a prince from Tomoda (Japanese), Xiulan is a detective from Shang (China), and Lee is a thief from Jeongson (Korea). I found the inspirations from the countries tasteful and interesting, but as a Caucasian American I am absolutely not the right person to weigh in on that and I recommend seeking other sources if this is a concern for you. The book takes place right after an all-out war between the nations. Tomoda launched a campaign of dominance that successfully subjugated all the other countries, however, after a harsh occupation they were eventually beaten back and conquered themselves by Shang and Sanbu. The story focuses on transporting the last living royal of Tomoda back to his country to assume the throne in the hopes that all the countries might be able to put their conflicts to bed and begin moving forward. Unfortunately, peace is not what everyone wants and this relatively simple task quickly becomes complicated and potentially deadly.

Okay, now that you have a general gist of the plot, let’s talk about the pros and cons. First pro: the world-building. The reimagining of these Asian countries is a lot of fun. Each nation has a good mix of real-world culture and new spins that make the fantasy counterparts take a healthy step away from their inspirations. The book focuses heavily on two different magic styles native to different countries. The Tomodese can Steelpact, an ability gained through their perfect attenuation with nature, allowing them to put pieces of their souls into metal and breathe life into it. This allows them to be leaps and bounds ahead of their rivals in technological advancements, have swords that cut through anything like a lightsabre, and have the best marksmen around with their firearms. On the other hand, the Shang and the Sanbu have pokemon. They can pact with a single animal of almost any kind to turn them into giant energy versions of the creature that can be summoned and dismissed at will. Both magics are pretty awesome. In general, I liked the world-building a lot. However, I felt there were a few holes and gaps in the world Krueger showed us, even though I got the sense that he was saving them for later books, not that he hadn’t developed the missing areas.

Up next is the characters, who get mixed marks. On a personal introspective level, the cast is all fantastic. All four leads are all complex and interesting individuals that you will rapidly find yourself growing attached too. All of them have different issues they are dealing with and its very rewarding to watch how their very different personalities grapple with these difficult subjects. In addition, the supporting characters all have memorable quicks that did a great job sticking them into my memory so that most of them remain fresh in my mind weeks after finishing the book. Unfortunately, this is where my praise now must turn to criticism, as the chemistry between the characters is…. rough. While I really enjoyed the introspective parts, many character interactions often felt tonally inconsistent, a little too simple, and repetitive. The table stakes for characters in this book are that they have experienced the horrors of war. But, a good half of the dialogue between all the characters in this story feels like it can be boiled down to fingerpointing. You are shown very quickly that all sides of the war did some horrible things, but then you have to listen to the characters repeatedly say “no, your side was worse” over and over again for the majority of the book. It is exhausting and while I understand the desire to explore the topic of post-war devastation to culture and society, the wonderful delicate introspection the characters do inside their own head was massively overpowered by the back and forth accusations in the dialogue.

The plot was also a bit messy. While the book starts out strong with a clear goal and obstacles to overcome, it seems to rapidly descend into a series of disconnected set pieces where really cool magic and action happens. And I do want to emphasize, there are some really cool magic and action. However, I often found myself not understanding why, where, and how some things were happening. The antagonist is also frankly a bit of a disappointment. The set up for the villain is great, but the reveal and climax felt like they didn’t really match the scope of the rest of the story. There are some great twists though, and while I didn’t love the plot as a collective there were a number of pieces of it that I enjoyed immensely in isolation.

Steel Crow Saga is a book with a lot of things to offer and a fun concept that just falls short of being stellar. The world is a joy to explore, I love the characters, the action is exciting, and the magic is both original and nostalgic at the same time. It just needed a slightly more directed plot with some better character chemistry and it would have been one of my top books of 2019. Instead, I think it is a good book that has a lot of potential. I will definitely continue the series and look forward to seeing if Krueger can elevate it a bit in the next chapter.

Rating: Steel Crow Saga – 7.0/10
-Andrew