Fantasy Cop Throw Down – A Triple Review

I’m switching things up today and reviewing three books at once. Why? Because I accidentally read three fantasy cop stories in two weeks and I don’t think I have it in me to review each one separately, but I want to talk about all of them. So the question of the day is this: which of the following fantasy cop novels takes home the golden gumshoe? Is it a) The Last Smile In Sunder City by Luke Arnold, b) The Last Sun by K. D. Edwards, or c) Titan’s Day by Dan Stout? For full transparency, Sunder and Last Sun are both the first book in their respective series, while Titan’s Day is a sequel to Titanshade, a book I have already reviewed. It’s possible that because of this I came into this showdown with a favorite, but let it be known that I attempted to curtail my bias to the best of my ability.

Next, let’s establish some judging criteria. I want to keep this clean and easy, so I’ll judge the books on three categories: worldbuilding, plot, and characters. For worldbuilding, I am looking for reasons this story couldn’t just be a cop drama – show me a cool world that adds something to the story and tension. For the plot, I am looking for a mystery or drama that is exciting and keeps me guessing. For characters, I am looking (begging) for a cast that breaks out of the bottomless pit of cop tropes and tired cast members you can find in any cop show. Now, let’s meet our contestants.

Sunder City is about a former soldier turned PI named Fetch Phillips. He is searching for repentance in a ruined world that he had a hand in destroying. Years ago he was part of an army that accidentally ripped magic out of the world, badly disfiguring and killing the majority of fantasy creatures that lived in it. Now he tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined.

The Last Sun is about Rune Saint John, the last child of the fallen Sun Court. John is the last remaining member of an aristocratic Atlantean family. The Atlanteans are essentially high tech magical elves who resurfaced the continent of Atlantis to live alongside humans because they were bored (I am not doing it justice, but it’s complicated and not well explained). There are TONS of magical families in Atlantis with different powers, and John is hired to search for a missing son of one of the most prominent ones.

Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and tells the next chapter of Detective Carter – a good cop who isn’t afraid to do the right thing no matter what. This book follows the discovery of a new source of energy in an oil town that is desperate for something to restart its dying economy. While political factions squabble over the new lifeblood of the city, Carter single-mindedly pursues a seemingly unrelated murder case of a “candy”. He is forced to navigate political pressures and resist becoming a pawn in the struggles tipping the city toward anarchy. But when more innocent lives are lost and time runs short, he’s forced to decide if justice is worth sparking an all-out war in the streets during the biggest celebration of the year: Titan’s Day.

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Category one: worldbuilding. Worldbuilding (to me) in a fantasy cop story is more important than in a normal book. The author has to justify placing the story in a fantasy setting instead of just writing a piece of fiction. In addition, the best fantasy cop stories tie the investigation/crimes to the magic while making the worldbuilding clear enough that the reader can use it to solve the crime themselves. What I don’t want, is to read a cop story in a cool world where the magic is just a backdrop.

Sunder City starts us off strong by killing it with the worldbuilding. Luke Arnold has crafted an impressively detailed magical world then pulled the rug out from under it. He does a fantastic job of showing the reader how magic was a foundation that his society was built on – and how it crumpled, was rebuilt, and evolved once the magic disappeared. The worldbuilding is brilliantly interwoven with the mystery, and he empowers the reader to solve it themselves. Sunder City gets 4 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

The Last Sun, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. On the good hand, the world and magic are cool as heck. Each house has a different set of powers and there is a fun and inventive magic system involving the use of trinkets called “crests”. On the bad hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t quite feel coherent. It constantly feels like Edwards is giving the reader just enough information to get them through the current scene and that the world beyond the current situation is unfinished. I didn’t really believe the world was a real place. And while the magic was integral to the mystery of the plot, I didn’t really feel equipped to solve it. The Last Sun gets 2 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Titan’s Day likely had the strongest worldbuilding of the three, but I need to ding it slightly. If you read my review of the previous novel you will see that the series has an impressively well-realized world. Stout put an agonizing amount of detail into how his magic and worldbuilding are fused into the world and the story. The rules and restrictions of the magic are set down like laws and it empowers the reader wonderfully to enter the mind of the protagonist and solve the crimes. However, one thing I was unimpressed with was I did not feel like Titan’s Day did a good job expanding the world past the road that Titanshade paved for it. Titan’s Day gets 3 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

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Category two: plot. This one in my mind is the most subjective. I don’t have crystal clear criteria for the plot – but what I am hoping for is a story that isn’t predictable, is exciting, and has some good twists.

Sunder City has a perfectly serviceable plot, but it didn’t really impress me. The story focuses primarily on how the case takes Fetch through a cavalcade of situations that are difficult due to his involvement in the destruction of magic. The plot feels more like a vehicle for character growth than a good murder mystery. At the same time, it isn’t terrible, and there were a few good twists. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for plot.

The Last Sun was my frontrunner for plot. Despite the fact that the book didn’t set me up to solve the mystery myself, I was extremely invested in what was happening and urgently turning pages to find out what happened. In some ways, Edwards’ loose worldbuilding helped the book here as it provided a stronger sense of mystery and intrigue. In addition, The Last Sun has excellent combat and action scenes that put it at the top of the group in terms of excitement. The Last Sun gets 4 out of 5 for plot.

Titan’s Day continues to make this competition difficult by being complicated. On some level, I actually think Titan’s plot is phenomenal – but I am the wrong audience for it. Titan focuses on hyperrealism and trying to make the book feel like it uses real police work. I am sure there is someone out there who will really appreciate this, but it is not me. I found Titan’s Day’s plot boring — a rehash of the same exact story as Titanshade. The book felt like it had almost no growth whatsoever, and I didn’t like where it started. Titan’s Day gets 2 out of 5 for plot.

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Category three: characters. With characters, I am looking for all the usual hallmarks of good character design: depth, growth, relatability, and originality. In particular, I was hoping to see something beyond the usual tropes you see in every cop drama on TV.

Sunder City has good characters that pull you into the story. Fetch is a complicated person with some very believable demons. The slow reveal of his past over the course of the story is a masterclass example in how to control what information to give the reader when. On the other hand, the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sunder City is the Fetch show and it doesn’t feel like there is much room for anyone else. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for characters.

The Last Sun does well on characters. John is fun, relatable, original, and deep enough to stand out in this crowd. In addition, there is a plethora of supporting cast members who stand well on their own and do a lot to enhance the story. I was invested in almost every character who made it onto the page and I think Edwards killed it on their character writing. The Last Sun gets 5 out of 5 for characters.

Titan’s Day has terrible characters. I don’t know how else to phrase it. They are box standard tropes of the timeless cop identities. The characters have almost no depth. They demonstrate little to no growth over two entire books. I didn’t really like or care about any of them. After two books of no one growing or evolving, I found myself frustrated with the cast and considering giving up on the book entirely. Titan’s Day gets 1 out of 5 for characters.

Final Scores: The Last Sun just barely edges out The Last Smile In Sunder City to take my top spot of cop books I have read within the last two weeks – which is clearly a prestigious victory. Coming in way beneath both is Titan’s Day, which struggled to do anything with the excellent groundwork that Titanshade built. If I had compared Titanshade to the other two books I think the competition would have been a lot closer to a threeway tie – but I don’t think it would have taken the crown. Though each of these books has its strengths and weaknesses, The Last Sun is my recommendation for any of you looking for a good fantasy cop drama right now.

Rating:

The Last Sun – 7.5/10
The Last Smile In Sunder City – 7.0/10
Titan’s Day – 4.0/10

-Andrew

Titanshade – Familiar Yet Fantastical

91mbw2bkarelAlright, I am back from my wedding and honeymoon where I read nine books on the beach – so I have a ton of new stuff to talk about and am excited to get back into it. Let’s see if I still remember how to write a review. The first book I want to talk about this week is Titanshade, by Dan Stout. It is a fantasy buddy cop book and one of our dark horse selections for this year. I was eager to tear into it for a number of reasons, the simplest being “can it do a better job at a fantasy buddy cop story than the train wreck that was Netflix’s Bright from last year.” The short answer is yes, it is much better, but that bar was extremely low and there is a lot of space between “terrible” and “amazing.”

As mentioned, Titanshade is a fantasy buddy cop book. The plot is fairly straightforward: our lead cop protagonist, Carter, is an excellent but unconventional cop with a troubled past that has mired his career in the cases that no one else will touch. He lives and works in the city of Titanshade, a Siberian industrial city that holds high esteem in the world because it produces most of the known supply of oil. The city sits nestled in a northern icy wasteland next to a mountain that contains a chained god who is constantly being tortured by devils (we don’t really know why). The god’s agony produces a massive amount of heat, warming the area and allowing workers to live in the shade of the titan. Unfortunately, Titanshade is running out of oil. The wells are running dry and the city needs to find a new source of income and power to remain relevant in the world. So when Carter stumbles onto a murder case that threatens upcoming talks to transform the cities industries he is assigned a young plucky non-humanoid partner to work the case and keep the city from metaphorically dying.

The murder investigation is fun and interesting, but if you are familiar with a cop or detective dramas the story isn’t really something you haven’t seen a million times before. Carter is assigned a young partner named Ajax, an adorable yet effective cop who serves as a good foil to Carter. He is this strange bug humanoid creature, and while he and Carter have a ton of friction at first they unsurprisingly come to trust and like one another over the course of the book. Titanshade’s plot doesn’t really stand out and does nothing to reinvent genre clichés that I personally find extremely tired. If you are hoping that this would be the new frontier of cop stories then you might be disappointed. However, this book still has a ton to offer readers if they have the right expectations.

In my opinion, the target audience of Titanshade is people who like both cop shows and fantasy and are looking for something that bridges the gap. While the plot isn’t innovative, the characters are extremely enjoyable and the world-building is fantastic. Carter and Ajax are just fun to read about, and it’s hard not to find yourself enjoying their relationship even though you know where it is going from page one. Originally I was going to say that the world-building is simplistic, but a more accurate adjective would be to say that it is streamlined. Titanshade’s fantastical elements are fairly subdued. There are a ton of different fantasy races, all cool and original, but all of them are essentially humans with very different physiology. There aren’t tons of psychological or cultural differences between the species. Additionally, although there are magic and fantastical things – they are incorporated to accomplish things that we already have in the modern world through the use of technology. Dan Stout has essentially taken our existing world, and stripped a bunch of the tech, and then replaced it with things that are powered by magic. The result is a world that feels both extremely familiar, yet exciting and fun to explore. It is a really cathartic read, giving you a tried and true plot that you are sure to enjoy – in an original setting that enhances instead of distracting from the plot. My only complaint with the world-building is that there were still some pretty big questions left unanswered from book one, that I can only assume Stout will answer in later books.

If you like cop shows and fantasy books, you will almost certainly like Titanshade. Although it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, the book is a wonderful reskinning of popular cop tropes with a lovable cast. Thank you Dan Stout for giving me an absolutely perfect beach read, and I can’t wait to check out what is next for Carter and Ajax. Go check out this debut book when you get a chance.

Rating: Titanshade – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Dark Horse Initiative – 2019

Every year the Quill to Live sit down in December to plan our collective reading schedule for the next year. It’s a long process, and it heavily involves combing through release dates of series we are following and, more importantly, digging into the hundreds of upcoming and highly anticipated book lists made by publishers, authors, other reviewers, and general fantasy and sci-fi fans. Through this process, we give our yearly reading schedules a little bit of structure – but one of the other benefits is picking out potential dark horses to keep an eye on. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a dark horse is a competitor who comes out of nowhere against all odds to win. In our case, we use it to refer to books that almost no one has heard of that we want to check out or keep an eye on. Sometimes this results in us reading terrible books that we might or might not review depending on how productive we feel our criticism will be. However, other times it results in us being able to champion new and upcoming authors who deserve more recognition.

Recently, we have been getting a lot of requests to describe the 2019 books we are excited about, in particular, the dark horses we have our eyes on. Thus, going forward we will put out a list of our annual dark horses in case you want to keep an eye on them as well. We will put this list out earlier next year, and while we will do our best to review every book on this list, the inclusion of a book does not guarantee we will be able to get to and review it. Here are the dark horses The Quill to Live is watching in 2019 (in no particular order). Goodreads links are on the pictures:

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  1. For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones: As I mentioned we are a bit late on this list this year, so we have actually already reviewed this one. We loved it, check it out!
  2. Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell
  3. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
  4. The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
  5. Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
  6. The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
  7. Titanshade, by Dan Stout
  8. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
  9. Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
  10. Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
  11. Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker
  12. This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone