The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Best Of 2015

The time has come for ‘Best of 2015’ threads and to reflect on all the wonderful books I enjoyed over the year. This piece will address my top 10 reads published in 2015, but is missing some of the amazing older books I read throughout the year. I read roughly 80 books this year, about half of which (40) were published in 2015, and the following books are my top picks. I found the new releases this year surprisingly less powerful than many sequels. Last year I gave over half the top 10 spots to new releases, whereas this year only three made the cut. It has been a year of very powerful sequels, in particular second installments of series. With that said, let’s talk about some of 2015’s gems and please note that some of the blurbs link to my full reviews of the books.

 

2354736410) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell – one of my top five books from 2014 was Traitor’s Blade, the first of the Greatcoat series, for its incredible humor, emotional impact, and great cast. The follow-up, Knight’s Shadow, was a great addition that explored some large growth in the trinity of main characters, while still keeping the same powerful voice and tone from book one. The plot evolved nicely and the general quality of the book stayed consistent with Traitor’s Blade, but there was slightly less emotional impact in the second novel. With two demonstrations of consistent talent I am eagerly awaiting De Castell’s third entry, Saint’s Blood, in 2016.

 

234444829) The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – The first of the three entries on the list to not be sequels. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of cultural warfare and a young girl whose home is eaten by an oppressive republic in her youth. To fight back, she becomes a cog in the great machine that is the republic and tries to bring it down from the inside. While suffering from some pacing issues, The Traitor Baru Cormorant brought a ton of new ideas to fantasy warfare and is a very different journey than your typical fare. The book has a fast pace start and end, but suffers a little in the middle. Regardless I am looking forward to more from Seth Dickinson.

 

twelve-kings_final-sm2-200x3008) Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The first of a new epic fantasy based in an Arabian setting. The story follows a girl named Cena, a gladiator in Sharakhai, as she tries to survive in an incredible city ruled by twelve kings in the center of a desert. The book had a very slow start but picked up pace rapidly after the first 20%, continuing all the way to the last page. With Bradley having found his groove I cannot wait to pick up the sequel to see where the story will go.

 

51pmvmp67ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_7) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis – I read a lot of good historical fiction this year, with The Mechanical taking the win by a small margin. With its original setting, steampunk science, and character growth it was a refreshing read that distinguishes it from its competition. The story of The Netherlands and France has had me looking for historical fiction of a wider subject than WWII or England. The sequel, The Rising, releases next week and I will be picking it up immediately.

 

208838476) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan – The only finale to make the list, The Autumn Republic finished off a series I don’t feel close to done with yet. McClellan’s world is gigantic, and with the close of this series I feel like we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Despite the ending feeling a little too quick, McClellan has finished a series to be proud of that maintains a high quality and exciting ride the entire way through.

 

 

61j8lp2b-eol-_sy344_bo1204203200_5) Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey – The Expanse novels are rapidly becoming my favorite purchase every summer (as they are released consistently every year in June). This series has now released five out of its nine novels and I have been blown away every single time. Every novel follows new perspectives, new challenges, and pushes the conflicts to new heights. I do not know how Ty Franik and Daniel Abraham are going to top the levels of panic and excitement Nemesis Games gave me, but I have said that about every single release. The books continue to both be a continuation of the greater series, and almost completely self contained at the same time. If you haven’t picked up any of The Expanse series yet, or have been waiting to read more, I highly encourage you to do so.

 

157044594) Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Published early in the year, lots of people have overlooked this sleeper. Steelheart, a novel about powerless humans hunting super heroes, was a surprise hit with me. I decided to read it on a whim, despite not loving the premise,  and was blown away by the result. That being said, the first novel was very self contained and reached a pretty definite conclusion at the end, giving me a lot of concern where Sanderson was going to take the series or if it could remain good. The fact that Firefight is so much better than Steelheart was very hard to process at first. Sanderson takes his winning formula from book one, and makes it deeper, more intense, and simply a lot cooler. Sanderson’s talent for weird magic is on point with his collection of interesting super powers and the plot has a lot more emotional weight than it did in book one. The finale, Calamity, comes out next February and is one of my most anticipated books for 2016.

 

233463353) The Price of Valour by Django Wexler – The Shadow Campaigns keeps creeping up my lists the more and more I think about it. The third installment of five, The Price of Valour is proof that Wexler can learn from his mistakes and has no shortage of imagination. The Thousand Names, Wexler’s debut, was an incredible flintlock fantasy about a remote military campaign that was fast, exciting, and surprising complex. Its sequel, The Shadow Throne, was an attempt to expand the world from the first book and double the cast. While The Shadow Throne had a metric ton of new things I liked, it also felt like it lacked the exciting pace and style of Wexler’s Debut;however, The Price of Valour has it all. With the pacing and intensity of book one, and the amazing cast from book two, the third Shadow Campaign novel is the strongest so far and continues to unravel the gigantic web of mystery that covers the series.

 

220552832) Half the World by Joe AbercrombieHalf the World is the strangest book on this list to me. The second novel of The Shattered Seas trilogy, it stands miles above its prequel and sequel. Half a King (book one) and Half a War (book three) were both good Abercrombie novels (for those of you who know what that means) but neither is close to the level of Half the World. The second novel follows two perspectives, Brand and Thorn, that play off of one another in a truly magical way. It is the story of two people finding their place in the world, realizing who they are, and going on a journey. I have never seen better use of multiple perspective and the book led me on a emotional roller coaster from start to finish. This book is definitely one of Abercrombie’s finest pieces of writing.

 

91ishiycq1l1) Golden Son by Pierce BrownRed Rising is a really enjoyable book. It simultaneously steals all the things that are good from series like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones,  and Ender’s Game while also creating both an imaginative and original setting and an exciting plot. It could simultaneously be described as a guilty pleasure, and an imaginative look as space colonization and class segregation. Red Rising had a pretty damn good thing going for it at the end of book one, and sets itself up to just reuse the incredibly powerful formula again in the sequel Golden Son… and then Pierce Brown decided to throw all of that momentum out the window and go in a completely different direction. The result is a book that felt like a massively different experience from Red Rising with the connecting theme being that both books are incredibly good. I was so confused as to why Pierce Brown would ditch his Red Rising gold mine until I was 10% in and read the entire book in one sitting. This book made me feel like a child again, discovering the wonder of reading for a first time and blowing my mind at every twist and turn. The finale, Morning Star, comes out in February and I highly recommend you check the series out.

Perception – Judging A Book By Its Cover

First impressions are important. Unfortunately, we often judge people in the first 3 seconds we meet them. While many of our initial impressions are wrong, it does not change the fact that our first moments with a person can color how we see all subsequent interactions. I find that the same idea can be applied to books. In my mind, there are three major categories that color our initial impressions of books: the title, the cover art, and the blurb. Each has their own pitfalls and nuances, but at the end of the day their goal is to get potential readers to pick up and open the book.

Book Titles – Books are frequently either dismissed or picked up  based on their title. There has been a great deal of research (here, here, and here and good examples) about the redundancy of fantasy titles, and, as you can see, there are a group of words that appear frequently in fantasy titles. These words often seem to be picked because they are both descriptive of the book and because they seem “cool”. Unfortunately, lots of people have similar ideas of what sounds cool and it often results in situations like I found myself in last year where I was reading Promise of Blood, Blood Song, and A King’s Blood around the same time. In addition to making it hard to keep books straight, sometimes names sound so cliche that I am naturally inclined to avoid them. While it is important to pick evocative titles that represent the story well, authors should be careful to choose a title that doesn’t make people internally groan or roll their eyes when they read it.

Cover Art – The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because that is exactly what people do. I find books to read in a plethora of ways, but one of my favorites is to go to bookstores and look at the various book jackets  on display and pick up ones that look intriguing. I have read some truly terrible books (which will go un-named) because the author was smart enough to hire a great cover artist. Conversely, I held out on reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan for forever because of how ugly I found the covers to be (a mistake). Different art appeals to different people, but the most popular covers tend to make strong artistic statements. Some great examples of fantastic cover art are: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, The Expanse by James Corey and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The First Law books are both incredible to look at and to touch with their textured covers that look like damaged parchment. The Expanse series is one of the few books I have seen to go with bold neon colors in their titles (on the spine) with beautiful sci-fi backdrops. Brilliance stands out with it unconventional minimalist design that just stands out among all the other titles on a shelf. The books do an incredible job of getting noticed and that goes a long way towards getting picked up and opened.

Descriptive Blurbs (scientific name) – It is interesting to me to see the various strategies authors undertake when describing their book. I find that a surprising number of books fail to talk about their unique hooks and angles in the small space provided. Learning that a book can offer me an experience unlike I have ever had is almost a surefire way to get me to pick it up (for example, see my post about Daniel Abraham’s books). However, when providing this information it is all about the showing and not the telling. Many books boldly claim to be one of a kind on their backside, but in practice that rarely holds true. On the other hand, authors like Daniel Abraham, who talk about how their books are about godlike poets, spark imagination and wonder. If you can show me something new, it goes a long way to picking up your book.

I will leave you with a story. I recently finished The Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington (an author I was unfamiliar with). The title, cover, and blurb did not impress me, but I got it for free from Amazon Prime so I picked it up anyway. After sitting on the book for a long time, I felt obligated to read it, no matter how bad it was. After drudging through a painful start I started to actually enjoy it. By the end of the book I was really loving it and ended the story thrilled and excited for the next installment. Upon finishing, I went back and re read the beginning hoping to figure out what was wrong with it. Doing so, I realized that the beginning was fine but my expectations that the book would be bad greatly colored my initial read through of the book. With more confidence in the author and a better mindset going it, I enjoyed the book a lot more.

Daniel Abraham And The Importance Of Creativity

This month my book club read Leviathan Wakes, I just finished reading The Widow’s House, and I am about to start reading Nemesis Games. All three of these books were written or co-written by the author Daniel Abraham, so I thought it might be a good time to take a moment to appreciate one of the weirder and more creative fantasy/sci-fi authors out there.

As I have already said, Daniel Abraham is a strange writer. He has three main bodies of work so far that are all wildly different from most novels in a wonderful way. Abraham is not the best writer I have read. His characters can tend to fall a little flat, his prose needs a little work, and the plethora of other attributes that make up excellent writing can sometimes be a little absent. However, when you read his work you likely won’t even notice these flaws because each of his books are so interesting, exciting, and strange that they will distract you from any problems the books may have.

20350308Lets start with the weirdest of his work, The Long Price Quartet. These books are about… well it is almost impossible to describe. My best one line summary would be “battle poets” but this falls woefully short. The books take place in a world where abstract ideas can be captured via poetry into deities that give the writer complete dominion over that idea. An example of these deities is Seedless, the first one we meet in book 1. Seedless encoumpasses the idea of “lacking a seed” and while that may sound obvious, he can do a number of incredible things. He brings untold wealth to the city of his home by speeding up crop harvest with his ability to remove seeds. But he also represent a weapon of mass destruction to keep foreign armies away because he could make an entire continent barren (wombs without seeds) with a thought.

However, there is a drawback to having these god-ideas as your slave. The deities are always trying to escape the poem that imprisoned them, constantly trying to kill the men and women who captured them. This coupled with the fact that an idea can only be captured by a poem once makes the lives of the poets awful as they either try to find new ideas no one has thought of to bind, or hold the idea they have bound and not get murdered. The long price in the title refers to the cost of a poet’s failing, the cost being a horrific death somehome relating to the abstract idea in their poem. The books continue to get stranger as they go and are truly one of the most unique reads I have ever had.

Next up we have The Dagger and Coin, an epic fantasy about the power of money and subterfuge. This five book story is about a dangerous cult that starts sweeping a world and the people who fight to stop it. The book is heavily focused on the economy and the inner workings of finance. That may sounds dull to some of you, but I promise that Abraham finds a way to make working at a bank house seem exciting and eventful. In addition to its economic focus, the book is set in a world with not one, not two, but thirteen races with major differences; in addition to there also being a 14th race of dragons. Abraham actually published a small piece on the taxonomy of the races that can be found here.

There is a lot of moral grey space in this series, and I honestly find myself relating to one of the “villains” of the story more than anyone else. I would say that these books contain Abraham’s strongest characters out of his series, as all the different players in the book feel like by products of their environment and behave and think in very different ways. The books also go out of their way to defy typical fantasy tropes, such as being a “child of destiny”. If you are looking for something new and different, but are uncomfortable straying as far from the path as the long price, I recommend this series.

Finally, we have my personal favorite of the lot, The Expanse series. The Expanse is written both by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and is a going to be a 9 part space opera. By space opera, I mean a sci fi novel that focuses more on human emotion and interaction that hard science fiction. Each of the books is devoted to different major themes that are explored both literally and metaphorically in the books. The themes cover some topics such as Human arrogance and mastery of the universe, unrestrained science, utilitarianism, manifest destiny, and the list goes on. The books are wildly creative and paint a vivid picture of a human race that has colonized the solar system and slowly redefined allegiances based on the planet of origin.

Leviathan Wakes (the first book) was the single highest rated book my club has read so far (with my personal rating of a 10/10). The appeal comes from all the things I said above, but also from the fact that the stories are probably the most intense and exciting books I have ever read. They are the very definition of edge of the seat excitement and I found I was having literal adrenaline rushes as I read them. The first book revolves around a missing girl, an international conspiracy, and an unknown pathogen reeking havoc on the solar system. From this starting platform the story devolves into further and further mess as people fight to survive in the crazy universe that Abraham and Franck have written.

Daniel Abraham is not the best writer I have ever read, but he is certainly one of the most creative. This creativity expanded the scope of my imagination while reading books, which is not a small feat. If you feel like you keep reading the same book, or you are looking for something to go beyond the bounds of your imagination, or you just think any of the concepts I described were cool, I implore you to read something by Daniel Abraham.