The Last Watch – Rakes Aplenty

The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes, manages the impressive feat of being, and not being, a military science fiction story at the same time. It has all the trappings of a military science fiction: age-old alien threat to humanity, the grizzled old general who kicks ass, a new recruit who is complete garbage but shows potential, and more terminology and army buzz words than you can shake a rifle at. But, it’s actually about a group of soldiers doing their best to man a lifeboat and retreat from an oncoming calamity. Against that backdrop, the military aspect feels like window dressing. This makes the book feel very refreshing and the exact kind of hot take that I look for in one of our Dark Horse debuts.

The book follows two POV characters: Rake, the grizzled kick-ass general (called a Titan in this instance), and Cavalon, an exiled prince who has been thrown into involuntary military service as a fresh recruit. Both of them are members of the Sentinels, a group of universe gatekeepers made up of banished criminals whose job is to sit at the edge of the known universe and watch for attacks from hostile alien species. The book starts with Cavalon showing up on the Argus, the giant defunct capital ship that Rake commands. They go through the usual new recruit tropes (insubordination, creative punishment, moments of distinguishing valor, and slowly building respect on both sides). However, the wrench thrown into the formula comes when the universe starts to rapidly contract and begins eating all of existence. Now this crew of criminals on a busted ancient ship must find a way to save themselves before reality around them ceases to be.

The meat of The Last Watch sits upon a tripod of foci: Rake’s backstory, Cavalon’s character growth, and the mad sprint for survival from the shrinking edge of the universe. Rake is a decorated war hero who has been banished to the edge of the universe to babysit a bunch of criminals. Obviously, she has done something spectacularly awful to end up in this situation, and Dewes parcels out the juicy details at a glacial pace (in a tantalizing good way) over the course of the book. Some of her story beats are a little too trope-y for my taste, but she generally is a great character with a fascinating past that I was on board with.

Up next we have Cavalon, who was a mixed bag. He’s a spoiled brat, and a rake (which is ironic, given the other character’s name), which works nicely as clashing personality points to make him interesting. He is also desperate for Rake’s approval, which was an interesting character growth hook that I liked a lot more than I expected. But, I found that a lot of his sections felt extremely contrived and it often sucked me right out of the story. First, we have the fact that we have a derelict spaceship that suddenly needs to outrun the edge of the universe – so it’s so lucky that Cavalon, with his 3 spaceship repair degrees, arrived the same day. Then we have the fact that he is obsessed with “cutting the shit” – a request Rake makes of him early in the story. She essentially wants him to stop creating problems and just be a productive member of the team, but Cavalon makes being unproblematic his entire personality. There was a particularly unpleasant series of events where Cavalon gets tortured to the point he almost dies by another squadmate, and he doesn’t report it because he doesn’t want to be difficult?!?! WHAT? It just goes a little too far to be believable, and I wish his entire deal had been reined in a bit.

Finally, we have the mad dash for survival – and this is actually where the book shines the most. The escape from the boundary of space is exciting, and the various set pieces that the crew jumps around in their escape keep the book moving at a great pace with a lot of memorable scenes. The one problem I ran into a few times was struggling badly with understanding Dewes’ descriptions of actions. Despite rereading some scenes 5+ times, I just could not figure out what was happening in certain space maneuvers. I was left scratching my head when I was supposed to be exulting in moments of character triumph, which could be frustrating.

All in all, I definitely liked The Last Watch and recommend that you check it out. There are certain pieces of it that I struggled with, but the sum is definitely more than the parts. Its strange combination of characters and plot creates a wonderful vehicle for a wild and memorable ride and the character stories have me fully invested and excited for the sequel. I just hope that between now and the next book I find a way to better understand how to read some of Dewes’ big moments.

Rating: The Last Watch – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Unbroken – Cracked But Not Shattered

After the absolute tour de force of Winter’s Orbit, I had high hopes for my second Dark Horse debut of the year: The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark. This book is all about picking sides and watching characters choose between a rock and a hard place. It has a colonial African setting, which is delightfully refreshing, and an interesting premise. With all of this information bouncing around in my head, my expectations were extremely high. So, when I finally got my hands on an ARC of Clark’s debut, I was mildly disappointed to find that my impressions of the book were mixed. There is nothing enormously problematic with this piece of fiction, but it feels like it’s just slightly off in a number of small ways that add up over time to a middling experience.

The plot of The Unbroken centers around two characters: Touraine and Luca. Touraine is a Qazali native, and slave conscript of the Balladairan empire. Balladairan feels like a pseudo fantasy France allegory (given its naming conventions and culture), and Qazali feels like a representative of France’s African colonies. Touraine was shipped off as a youth, stolen from her homeland, and forced into an experimental colonial regiment of the Balladairan armed forces. She rose up the ranks to lieutenant and has now been deployed as a peacekeeping force back in her home country. This has left her understandably conflicted as she wrestles with her allegiance to an overwhelming power that has given her a token of authority despite their constant mistreatment, and her actual homeland who resent her as a Balladairan lapdog and want nothing to do with her.

The second lead is Luca, a Balladairan princess. She has been shipped off to the colonies by her scheming regent uncle to keep her out of the way and reduce her influence. Luca, being a brilliant and cunning woman with her sights on early ascension to her throne, decides to use this semi-exile to cement her power outside her uncle’s control by rallying the colonies to her banner. After an unfortunate series of events that leave both women in a bad position, they decide to essentially team up and see if they can navigate the complicated political morass of the situation together. Unsurprisingly, a romance begins to brew between them.

You might notice that I have devoted a lot more review space than usual to the plot of The Unbroken. That is because it is easily its strongest point and what kept me coming back to push through a number of other issues that erected barriers in my path. The Unbroken’s biggest issue, which compounds all its others, is that it just feels too vague most of the time it is telling its story. Motivations feel undefined, locations feel unfinished, and sometimes dialogue feels like there are pieces of the conversation missing from the page. Here are some examples. Luca tells you that she needs to use the colonies, and their unknown mysterious magic, to offset her uncle and win back her throne. But for a very large portion of the book, Luca never explains why she needs these things, how she expects to use them, and what the end result will be. You are just expected to take these statements at face value and run with them. The main event that causes the two protagonists to fall into league is the court marshaling of Touraine for a crime that she obviously didn’t commit. There is absolutely no evidence, no motivation for the crime, a crystal clear alibi, and no clear reason why she would be accused in the first place. It feels like a moment of plot convenience to catalyze getting the two POVs on the same team – but I can’t tell if Clark just expects me to be fine with a bare-bones justification of why this is happening or if this is a comment on how corrupt the Balladairan court process is to colonials that I just missed because of how underdeveloped the cultures can feel.

Let’s talk about worldbuilding. Early on in the series, you get a glimpse of the mysterious magic of the Qazali. It is part of the driving reason why Luca wants to use the colonies as a base for her power, and that is pretty much all of the worldbuilding you get for an entire half of a book. It is agonizingly frustrating because the book noticeably ramps up in descriptives as it moves into its back half, but I don’t understand why I had to slog through the first half without a clear grasp of the world I was exploring. A point in the book’s favor is that both protagonists are actually great. I felt they were nicely complex, their romance is very believable (despite some slightly awkward dialogue here and there), and they are very different from one another in a way that compliments each other. Then we have the antagonists, such as Rogan, who feel like ridiculous caricatures. Rogan is a noble officer of the Balladairan armed forces whose entire purpose is to continually say he is going to rape Touraine with no repercussions to show you how poorly the colonial soldiers are treated. It feels absolutely absurd and instead of railing against Rogan, I found myself waiting for a more interesting antagonist to present themselves.

On the other hand, the themes of choice in the book are very nicely realized and kept me coming back despite my misgivings. I felt a lot of emotional investment in the complicated situation Touraine finds herself in and I found myself hungering to see if she could find a way to find an answer to her problems. Her story picks up significantly once the two POVs team up about 20% into the book, though the first fifth is very slow. Luca is more consistently interesting from start to finish. Her scheming makes her feel more like a treacherous royal advisor archetype and it was fun to see the troupe as a protagonist we are routing for instead of an antagonist.

Ultimately, my thoughts on The Unbroken remain unclear even after finishing it and thinking about this review. The premise and story have massive potential, and some of it is very clearly realized. However, there is a lot of energy lost thanks to the overwhelming sense of vagueness that the narrative exudes that sometimes smothered my interest in pressing further into the book. I think I still recommend this series and think Clark has a lot of promise, but The Unbroken is certainly not a flawless masterpiece.

Rating: The Unbroken – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Winter’s Orbit – A Hot Romance With Subtlety And Gravity

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell, surprised me in a lot of ways. For starters, it is one of our Dark Horses for 2021, so I knew almost nothing about it other than its plot synopsis. Then there is the fact that I wasn’t particularly sure I would like Winter’s Orbit given its stated plot. It contains a lot of story elements I don’t particularly gravitate towards (romance, trauma, and arranged marriage to name a few), but I am also not adverse to. But when I dug in I found myself reading a book about characters that anyone can relate to, a story that is as clever as it is entertaining, and a novel that is likely going to be one of the strongest debuts of the year.

I would describe Winter’s Orbit as a romance first, science fiction political thriller second. The book follows two male protagonists, Kiem and Jainan – who are obviously going to fall in love. If you think this is a spoiler, I don’t know how to help you. The set up for their awkward relationship is a politically arranged marriage to save the Iskat Empire. The Iskat Empire has long dominated their system through treaties and political alliances – but is trying to pass a sort of galactic inspection in order to maintain their place on a larger scale. Part of this inspection involves Iskat proving that it is treating its vassal planets well and that people are happy. So when an unfortunate tragedy befalls Kiem’s cousin, Taam, and disrupts a high profile marriage between an Iskat prince and a Thean consort, there is a sudden rush to smooth things over and make it look like there aren’t any skeletons in the closet. Enter Kiem, a charismatic sop who has never done anything of any importance for his imperial family and has always been unimportant. He finds himself suddenly married to his cousin’s widow, Jainan, with instruction to just make it look like things are going well until the galactic auditor leaves. But, as Kiem and Jainan attempt to navigate their uniquely awkward situation they begin to suspect that Taam’s death may not have been an accident and try to sift through the political morass for the truth. 

One of the things I really like about Winter’s Orbit is its approach to romance. The focus is on the sweet and heartfelt parts of love – not the passionate lusty parts – though there is a presence of both. The story felt akin to an origin story of two best friends who are into each other sexually rather than some torrid affair that is supposed to get the reader hot and bothered. As someone who doesn’t like too much sex in his stories, this greatly appealed to me. I don’t care much for on-page boinking, but I do love affection and friendship. Orbit does a remarkable job showing what I think are the best parts of the relationship – those first moments you are getting to know someone and starting to feel that there is wonderful chemistry.

Speaking of chemistry, Kiem and Jainan are lovely. Kiem is boisterous, loud, charismatic, messy, and warm. Jainan is patient, tenacious, kind, quiet, calculating, and cerebral. They both are such interesting characters that don’t feel quite matched for one another, but Maxwell slowly maps out their powerful bond over the course of the book. The supporting cast is also fun, but most of our time is spent solely with the two lovebirds. The plot of the book has nice political elements that will keep you entertained – but the true appeal is definitely the romance. What is particularly impressive is how Maxwell parcels out and gifts the reader little pieces of Kiem and Jainan’s backstories while keeping you in the dark as to what exactly is going on. There is some very nice and subtle exploration of past trauma and relationship baggage that was extremely well handled and got me to sit back and just bask in how clever the writing was.

There was only one issue I ended up having with Winter’s Orbit is that it ends up having noticeably unbalanced POVs. For the first quarter of the book, there is this fun back and forth between the two leads as they assess and start to feel each other out. It’s very satisfying to hear both internal monologues back to back like a secret conversation that only the reader is hearing. But as the book progresses one POV (which will remain unnamed) starts to dominate the storytelling because of the needs of the narrative, and while it was still great, I definitely missed that powerful back and forth from the start of the book.

I was wildly impressed with Winter’s Orbit across the board: as a debut, as a romance, and as a strong contender for one of the best books of 2021. The characters are relatable and complex, the romance is different and compelling, and the world and politics are imaginative and fun. Cast aside any hesitation you have about this romantic story and give it a spin. I guarantee you will find yourself over a moon with joy.

Rating: Winter’s Orbit – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2021: January Through July

Welcome to 2021 everyone! Another year means another dark horse book list. 2021 boasts a boatload of promising SFF debuts, and we have plans to read a whole bunch of ‘em. It is always fun to dig in and highlight new authors to help them in their journeys to greatness. Like last year’s list, though, this year has such a huge selection of debuts that the only way to manage it is to split it into two halves. So, without further ado, here’s our dark horse list for January through July, 2021. 

As always, stay tuned for reviews of each book, then keep an eye out for our first half wrap up in July! While we will make every effort to cover all of these books our list is always in flux. So don’t be surprised if the round-up is missing some and or has some new inclusions. 

Last thing before the list: Alex already reviewed H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke, marking our first dark horse review of the year. Read his review here

The Quill To Live Dark Horse picks, H1 2021:

  1. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
  2. Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
  3. The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
  4. The Forever Sea by Joshua Philip Johnson
  5. Reset by Sarina Dahlan
  6. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
  7. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
  8. The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes

Hall of Smoke – Give Me S’more

Hall of SmokeI’ve never been entirely enamored with Norse mythology. Or at least, I’ve never been exposed to it in a way that has subsumed me in the ways that Greek mythology has permeated a lot of western pop culture. When I get snippets, there is a small part of me that begins to crave, but I never fully take the plunge. Sure, I know few of the names of the gods, along with several denizens of their bestiary, but it’s not ingrained in my psyche like the Greek myths. So when I saw a debut author releasing a Norse inspired fantasy, I just had to put on the Dark Horse list. Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long, despite it’s rocky start, is a worthy read with the feel of a legend in the making.

The story follows the Eangi warrior priestess Hessa in her journey to earn back her goddess’ favor. Hessa recently fell out of Eang’s grace by not killing a traveller that stayed within her temple, as she was ordered to do. Hessa was just following hearth law, so the visitor came and went. While Hessa was waiting for a sign from Eang to know how to gain back her favor, Eang sent the very subtle omen of having her home village raided and burned down by a band of Algatt warriors. Her husband was killed and the survivors were enslaved, her goddess nowhere in sight. Hessa tries to fight back with what little fire of Eang she had within her, but she is ultimately captured herself. Hessa herself is then sold to Omaskat, the man her god demanded she kill. In a scuffle she breaks free, is whisked away by a river miles away from her home with only one goal in mind, vengeance.

There was a lot I like about this book, but before I get to that, I do want to address the main issue I ran into while trying to get into the story. The first third of the book was a slog for me. Generally, this is somewhat a me issue, since I generally dislike straight forward first person perspectives, but I just didn’t find Hessa all that compelling on her own. She’s a bit narrow minded and blind to the world around her beyond her duties to the Goddess Eang and preparing for the annual raiding parties by nearby tribes. It makes sense, but I just found it hard to care for the struggles she was facing. It didn’t help that a lot of her internal monologue felt very repetitive. The aspect I did enjoy the most about this time in the book was Long’s description of the environment. However, once the reader experiences the Gods Hessa has to contend with, the story kicks off and Hessa truly begins her journey.

Hessa really starts to shine once she encounters Nisien at a place known as Oulden’s Feet, named for the god of the Soulderni people. Here she has to contend with someone outside her village, and learn more about their ways. Nisien works as a good foil because he’s seen a lot of the world, since he used to be an auxiliary in the Arpa (similar to the Roman Empire) army. I particularly liked that meeting someone who was not a raider of her lands, and being cared for by them doesn’t really seem to change her, as much as it allows her to open up. Not long after meeting Nisien, the pantheon of Gods within Hall begins their parade, and what a parade it is. Long’s Norse themed gods were a delight, and the story she weaves within her tale is filled with nice twists and turns fueled by Hessa’s choices and the whims of the gods. Ogam, the son of Eang and Winter (yeah, THE WINTER) steals the show every time he shows up. He has an unmatched charisma and bravado that really sets him apart from the other humans and gods Hessa encounters. Every encounter she has with something in the world feels meaningful in a mythical way, and it became fun to just explore the land with her while she tries to carry out her mission of revenge.

The land itself feels alive and breathing. Obviously, there are many gods, and each one seems to have their own tribes of people worshipping them and carrying out their will in the mortal realm. There are conflicts spurned by belief, as much as there is acceptance in their existence. There is an ebb and flow to the land and the people that Long portrays quite well, even as it starts to fall apart. The regions felt solid, but breathable as if most of the people didn’t recognize any sort of borders (except for the Arpans) beyond their particular villages and places of worship. There is a map at the end of my copy, but personally, I think Long captures the feeling of knowing the land, without the map. There are places that Hessa feels comfortable in, and there are places that are mythical to her, even though they are not hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I truly felt transported to another world where the vastness of the world had yet to be realized by the people you were engaged with and it was magical.

Long has written a solid debut. Sure it has a rocky start, but if you stick with the story just a little bit, it will definitely be worth it. The descriptions of the land, and the people who inhabit it are fun and mesmerizing. The mythology is a blast in it’s own right, and Hessa’s journey through it truly is fantastic. I didn’t even get into how enjoyable the action scenes were, but I was honestly more impressed with the rest of the book. It is Hessa’s story, and Long does an admirable job of making the revelations feel like they are hers and not just an expansion of the world. If you are at all interested in Norse inspired fantasy, I definitely recommend you check out Hall of Smoke.

Rating: Hall of Smoke – 7.5/10
-Alex

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Dark Horse Roundup – 2020

IT’S THE MOST WONDERFULLLL TIME OF THE YEARRRRRR. Namely, the time when we get to discuss our Dark Horse books. This year, each of us picked six to ten debuts to read, and if you caught our H1 round-up, you’ll know we did a pretty good job of keeping up with 2020’s veritable onslaught of debut books.

But instead of an H2 round-up, we’re closing out our 2020 Dark Horse initiative with a list of our favorite debuts of the year. We each picked two debut titles that stuck out from the rest. If you are looking for fresh new content, ideas, and faces for 2020, this list should provide you with the authors that really made an entrance this year.

Andrew – My dark horses were a real mixed bag this year. Some of my picks ended up being my most disappointing reads of 2020, but there were also a few that made it to my top echelon of the year. Of the eight dark horses I read, The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, and Nophek Gloss, by Essa Hansen, were the two that rose to the top.

unspoken-gld-t1The Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. While the pacing was a little uneven, it was definitely one of the most memorable books I read in 2020. I read The Unspoken Name back in January and I still remember a number of senses, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. The series also feels like it is going somewhere and did book one a great job of building up excitement for the sequel novels. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into your reader. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you too you should do so now. You can find our review here.

51z7qpojazlNophek Gloss was also super fresh. Clearly, there is a theme on why I liked certain debuts this year. But, while Gloss definitely did a great job of throwing some fun new science fiction concepts at me, it was the characters and their story that brought me around. I have always been a huge sucker for beautiful, quiet, personal journeys in a science fiction setting. Essa Hansen’s book shows us that we are more than our trauma. Gloss is such a weirdly hopeful story, despite the fact that it is painted with a profound amount of tragedy and loss. It reminded me that I am kinda tired of reading about these dystopian futures and that reading a story with a light at the end of the tunnel does a lot for someone who is living their own dystopia. Nophek Gloss is a beautiful book, check it out. You can find our review here.

ColeMan, I picked some stinkers this year. Thank goodness for Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe and Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars (Honorable mention to Shveta Tahkrar’s Star Daughter, a fun YA adventure chock-full of Indian mythology). They were easily my two favorite dark horse picks, rising above the other four on my list. Both books have me giddy at the prospect of more writing from these fantastic new authors.

elatsoeElatsoe emerged as my favorite dark horse of the year. Darcie Little Badger’s magical murder mystery tour (as I lovingly called it in my review) tells an intriguing tale that falls somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Protagonist Ellie (short for Elatsoe) sets out to solve her cousins murder using her unique ability to commune with the spirits of the dead. There’s a whole lot to love about Elatsoe, but my favorite aspect was the constant presence of Native American mythology. Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she brings elements of her culture to life through her prose. She has experience writing for Marvel, and Elatsoe shows she’s got long-form fiction chops, too. I can’t wait to see where Little Badger takes us next. You can find our review here.

screen-shot-2020-08-17-at-5.46.42-pmNick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars reads like a video game speed run. Just as you’ve surpassed one checkpoint, another passes in a blur as antihero Michael Kingman navigates the treacherous political landscape of this unique fantasy world. Indeed, the speed can at times be a hindrance in Kingdom, but the story is well-suited to a quickfire pace, and jumping from one event to the next at lightning speed emulates the scattershot magic of Kingman’s world, where overusing spellcraft can eliminate some of your memories. The Kingdom of Liars is an all-around solid debut (praised by Brandon Sanderson himself), and the follow-up is slated for 2021. Martell is one to watch. You can find our review here.

Alex I don’t want to brag or anything but I was incredibly pleased with most of the debuts I read this year. Not only were their first books a treat to read, but all of those authors have an abundance of potential to keep readers hooked for years to come. I for one will be picking up the future works of Micaiah Johnson, Lindsay Ellis, and Premee Mohamed with absolute glee. Honestly, there was only one bad book out of my picks, and I’d rather not relive that experience if I can avoid it. The following are two of my favorites from 2020.

docileI have never read a romance book, or a book where the romance was the central storyline. Thankfully, Szpara’s Docile was able to lure me with the promise of analyzing the effects of capitalism through the main relationship. Quickly though I became enthralled with the romance and very much wanted these two men to work out their issues and find some humanity within each other. Szpara is an enchanting writer that knows when to be subtle and knows when to sound the air horn when it comes to his characters’ relationship with the themes he wishes to tease out. Even though it feels like I read it two years ago (thanks 2020), it still sticks with me and I can’t wait to see what Szpara has in store for us. You can find our review here.

HenchOh my god, did Natalie Zina Walschots blow me away with Hench. There are a few decent deconstructions of the superhero genre out there, but it is rare that it is done with such love and passion for the supervillains. Walschots offers a fresh look at a genre that is growing increasingly complacent and repetitive, and delivers it with a poignant passion. The writing is top notch, making the characters come alive in human and fantastic ways. Walschots ingrains you in Anna’s life, following her from her lowly days as a temp hench to the right hand woman of the top supervillain and it’s glorious. Spreadsheets as a superpower never looked so good, and felt so fun and powerful. The action scenes are few, but impactful and extremely character oriented. If you love superheroes, or are tired of the genre and want a fresher look, this is the book for you. You can find our review here.

Nophek Gloss – Whimsical, Prickly, And Keen

51z7qpojazlHow is it already November in this forsaken year? With less than a month left before we put out our best of the year lists, our reviewers are hard at work chugging through all the books we wanted to get to before the year’s end. Part of that effort involves finishing up outstanding Dark Horses, like Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Gloss was the debut I was most excited to check out this year, as its summary made it sound like a bizarre journey through space and time with a lovable crew of rogues on a spaceship that pushed the boundaries of the imagination. The good news is Gloss lived up to my internal hype and is somehow both more and less than what I expected.

Gloss tells the story of Caiden, a recently liberated slave that has lost everything and is looking for revenge. The start of the book is extremely fast-paced, as the reader witnesses Caiden’s picturesque life farming space cows turn into a traumatic nightmare. Caiden was a member of a group of humans who are kept in captivity, and ignorance, so they can raise cattle to feed nophek – giant murder cat things that grow space fuel in their brains. In the vast multiverse of this book’s setting, only a few realities can support nophek biology, so they are worth quite a pretty penny. However, when a virulent plague ends up killing most of the world’s cattle – the overseers of the harvesting project decided to feed the slaves (i.e., Caiden) to the nophek to keep them alive a little longer for harvest. Caiden watches his entire family get brutally torn apart by space lions right in front of him, manages to escape and find a futuristic spaceship, and falls in with a group of five side characters who help him get it off the planet and to safety. Caiden, at about twelve years old, vows to enact a horrific vengeance on the slavers who killed his family and sets out on an epic quest to throw them into the nearest sun.

The plot of Nophek Gloss left me with distinctly mixed feelings, especially because it is absolutely not the focus of the book. Everything feels contrived: Caiden falls into a powerful ship, a friendly and brilliant crew, and a clear plan on how to enact his revenge, in about 10 pages. But, that’s also not really an issue because all of the plot is window-dressing for the ideas, characters, and character growth. If you are looking for a hard science-fiction that has a thrilling and gripping plot that fits thousands of pieces together in an immersive experience, look elsewhere. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes their science fiction couched in the context of the human experience, wants to explore new ideas about how we grow into who we are, and love creative worldbuilding – then look right here.

The characters of Gloss are fantastic, though you should know what you are getting yourself into. The five crewmates that Caiden picks up are delightful, and exploring their individual stories through the chapters was moving and engrossing. On the other hand, Caiden is written, very effectively, to sound like a young boy, and that can make him occasionally extremely annoying. He struggles to learn lessons and often repeats the same mistakes, over and over again. However, through each successive error, we can see that Caiden is truly growing as a person and working through his trauma, which is a big part of the story. Trauma, and how to heal from it, is a cornerstone theme of Gloss. The book is filled with numerous sad stories, from Caiden’s to the crew’s, to any number of other side characters we meet. The trauma is the true antagonist of the story and the reader gets to watch each character they are attached to deal with their horrific pasts in their own way.

But if you aren’t into all of this touchy-feely goodness like I am, the worldbuilding and technology in Gloss are really fun. There are a ton of new ideas for technology – like a fascinating take on forced aging – that I had never read before that kept me thinking long into the night. Gloss also has some really interesting takes on multiverses and spaceships that made the inner child in me heel-click with glee. The prose is also quite vivid and evocative, and there are many instances of stunning imagery that are still sticking with me weeks later.

Interestingly, most of the things I didn’t really like about Gloss were clearly features, not bugs. Hansen has clear and well-realized methods on how she wants to tell her story that took me out of my comfort zone and helped me feel refreshed with the science fiction genre. Nophek Gloss was one of the strongest Dark Horses I have read this year and its weird story and weirder characters have me firmly invested in what happens next. I definitely recommend you use my breakdown of the book to decide if you think it’s for you because those that are drawn to Nophek Gloss are going to love it.

Rating: Nophek Gloss – 8.0/10
-Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Axiom’s End – Ellis’ Beginning

Axioms EndAxiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.

Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.

As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.

First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.

Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.

Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.

If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Axiom’s End 8.5/10
-Alex

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole