The Space Between Worlds – The Abyss As a Mirror

One of my favorite things about writing for this site is the Dark Horse Initiative. One of the best choices we made this year was to split it into halves to discover even more new authors. It forces me to look for books that interest me but I might hesitate to pick up otherwise. The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson, is the ideal dark horse. It’s exactly what you want in a debut novel: new ideas. It’s an engaging examination of identity that is full of grit and character while showing an incredible amount of promise for Micaiah Johnson beyond her debut. It has a couple of issues that are noticeable in the beginning of the book, but are improved upon as the book continues giving me faith that Johnson will only improve as she writes more books in the future. 

In Johnson’s far future setting, people are able to traverse between worlds, three hundred and seventy two of them to be exact. Through the miracle of quantum physics, humanity has found other instances of Earth that are similar enough that information about the future can be gleaned by travelling to them and bringing back the necessary data. While this seems like a boon, not all is well for the world Caralee inhabits. Caralee is a woman able to traverse between worlds, not because she’s particularly skilled, but because she happens to be dead in most of the other worlds. In order to hop to a parallel world, a version of you can’t currently exist in that reality. There are only eight other versions of herself still alive, and another one of them has just died. So Enbridge, the company conducting these excursions, wants to send her there to collect some data, and she can’t help but look into why she may have been killed.

First off, Johnson does an excellent job of keeping the story tightly focused and evenly paced to make sure the reader is hooked to the page. She clearly defines the limits of the multiverse and people’s abilities to travel fairly quickly so that it doesn’t bog down the later thriller- and action-oriented sections. I do want to point out that the beginning has a lot more telling than showing, but it tapers off pretty quickly. It’s not that the telling was uninteresting (in fact, it was extremely compelling), it just created a weird dissonance between the world and Caralee that made me want to know more about the world at large, than Caralee as a person. However, this does get resolved over time as Caralee’s character is brought into sharper focus. I was little concerned that my interest in the wider system would become a frustration that pulled me from Caralee, but Johnson sewed character focused seeds that made her story more interesting and coherent within the world. 

Johnson’s ability to write characters is astounding. There is a lot to like about this book, but something I absolutely loved was reading from Caralee’s perspective. Luckily for me, the entire book is from her point of view. It really helps that she’s such a well thought through character that feels complete in a writing sense, but incomplete in the human sense. She has this world-weary, cynical know-it-all feeling to her that helps her survive, but can sometimes blind her to things right in front of her. Caralee is the perfect lens through which the reader can view the issues of identity that book so heavily grapples with. Through Caralee, and the people who inhabit her admittedly few lives, the reader is treated to examinations of who people might innately be. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Caralee herself was not particularly curious about the nature of the multiverse as her detachment further steeped her in the morass of her own actions. She had a grim acceptance that the others may die, but she had the will to survive, regardless of cost. It made watching her grow and develop that much more satisfying.

Another aspect of the book that really hammered home everything I mentioned above is Johnson’s prose. Her writing is brash, unapologetic, and fierce. There is an undercurrent of anger to Caralee’s practicality as she narrates her life and describes the life of a traverser. The idea that the poor, brown, and black folks are the ones who are able to traverse due to their expectancy to be dead in other worlds clearly affects her, but she tries to hide it from herself by focusing so much on her own survival. Johnson’s writing feels so intentional and sometimes feels as if Caralee is talking to herself, or another version of herself, defending every one of her actions. It makes her feel vulnerable and as if there is a cognitive dissonance to how she has lived her life until this point. It’s fantastic and really pulled me into her life in a way I was not expecting. 

Overall, The Space Between Worlds is an incredible debut. It’s tightly focused and paced like a rocket launch. The world is interesting even though some aspects felt for a while as if they didn’t fit into the plot. Caralee’s voice is so incredibly strong that her development feels earned and true. The writing feels so deliberate and is tinged with a slight animosity, but not so much you’re pushed away from the story, just enough to make you feel as Caralee does. I definitely recommend you grab a copy of this book, and I can’t wait to read more from Micaiah Johnson.

Rating: The Space Between Worlds 8.5/10
-Alex

Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10
-Alex  

The Unspoken Name – A Maze Of Mystery

unspoken-gld-t1Yesterday we posted our first 2020 Dark Horse Initiative list, but you might have missed it because we put it out on an unusual day for us. The reason for this is I was dead set on getting my review of The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, out today, and it felt weird to review it before including it as part of our DHI. The Unspoken Name is a powerful, unusual, and extraordinary debut that will likely be the talk of the town for many months to come. The book is not at all what I expected from its back blurb, but I think that may be the point. This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.

The plot follows Csorwe, an orc priestess of the titular god of “The Unspoken Name.” Her job, for a short period, is to be a conduit for communication between the god and supplicants who come with offerings. She is supposed to serve this role for a number of years, starting as a young child, and eventually be sacrificed to the god at a certain age. She knows that her death is marked on the calendar from day one of her service, and she reacts accordingly, becoming a sullen, fatalistic, and incurious person. What is the point of exploration and discovery when you know you will die soon? This all changes when a supplicant, a Gandalf-esque wizard, comes to The Unspoken and whisks her away right before her death. He enlists her in a bodyguard for a quest to reclaim his homeland and they travel Larkwood’s multiverse (a series of worlds interconnected by a giant maze of portals) seeing all sorts of wonderful things – and that’s about all I am going to tell you.

The story of The Unspoken Name is surprising. It doesn’t follow a clear path and often takes unexpected turns and twists into wonderful new directions. For a large portion of the book, Csorwe doesn’t really have a goal. She thought she was going to die, it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do now. She has some ideas, but not many, and a huge part of the story is her just trying things out and learning about the world. It is a beautiful and unique narrative style that I really enjoyed and gave the book a very pervasive atmosphere of whimsy and wonder. This is helped enormously by the fact that the world is just absolutely wonderful to explore. he magic and multiverse are convoluted and complicated by design to keep everything mysterious. However, what you do learn about – such as the race of giant snake philosophers who built the foundation of civilization as they know it – is wonderful. I also particularly liked how there are a variety of different magical races, but race politics was a very minor footnote in the story. For example, Csorwe is an orc and while that carries through into a lot of her flavor and general identity, there is very little attention and time given to it by the other races or people. The entire book projects this idea of a universe where people come in all shapes and sizes and that is very normal and not worth commenting on.

I ate up every second of the world-building and constantly found myself desperate for more. However, the world is more of a vehicle for the journey of self-discovery that Csorwe and many other characters find themselves on and it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters. The characters are absolutely fantastic. The protagonists mostly share the theme of growth and self-discovery and the antagonists are mired in a refusal to change or grow. It is a powerful high-level idea that plays out wonderfully in the character stories and the individual journeys of the cast are extremely satisfying to boot. I really enjoyed Csorwe. She feels so real and relatable it hurts. Her joy at discovering new things and skills is so sweet, and her mistakes feel like important moments that she learns from and grows. I don’t want to talk too much about the supporting cast for spoiler reasons, but they also share the same arcs and moments.

Despite all my lavish praise, I do think the book struggled in a place or two. In particular, the book can have slightly uneven pacing and some trouble with telling versus showing. While it’s wonderful that the book wanders, Larkwood occasionally seems to feel scared the reader will get bored if she lingers too much in any particular place and jumps from set-piece to set-piece. In a book about stumbling and finding your way, I didn’t think there was enough breathing room to occasionally take in and process things. In addition, for someone who has sheltered her entire life and has “inexperience” as a cornerstone of her personality – Csorwe has a weird tendency to just announce everything there is to know about a person in her head the second she meets someone. Meeting new characters often has Csorwe take one look at them and think things like “he was a cruel man, who seemed like he had a troubled youth. He wasn’t respected by his peers and spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of his father. He didn’t call his mom enough.” I kept waiting to find out she secretly possessed psychic powers or some sort of keen insight, but by the end of the book, it seems like the story just suffers from a little too much telling.

The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first to the last page. A.K. Larkwood has crafted an absolutely stellar debut that only has a few minuscule issues. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next, though I have absolutely no idea where Larkwood will take us next.

Rating: The Unspoken Name – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2020 – Jan to June

After the success of last year’s Dark Horse Initiative, we knew we were going to do it again this year. For those of you just joining us, the DHI is our attempt to sift through all the relatively unknown debuts coming out in a year and bookmark a handful to check out and review just based on their descriptions. However, when we were building the lists this year we realized that we had A LOT of books on it – so we decided to make two. We are splitting the DHI into two lists, one for each half of the year. The following books are our picks for books coming out from January 2020 to June 2020, and we will have a second list for the back half of the year in July.

As mentioned, each of the following 12 books (in no particular order) is something that caught the eyes of one of our reviewers. We will do our best to read and review all of these, but there are only so many hours in the day so no promises we will get to all of them. Regardless, each looks like a promising new story and we are very excited to check them out! Happy 2020 everyone.

  1. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
  2. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
  3. Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
  4. A Song Below Water by Bethany C Morrow
  5. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
  6. Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
  7. Docile by K. M. Sparza
  8. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
  9. The Loop by Ben Oliver
  10. The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
  11. The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
  12. Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson

Fortuna – It Favors the Bold, Also the Bad (But in a Good Way)

41gnfzpyv8l._sx331_bo1204203200_I know it’s not exactly the best way to get excited about a book, but I was immediately attracted to Fortuna, by Kristyn Merbeth, when the eighties synthwave cover was revealed. When Orbit threw in a blurb likening the work to that of Becky Chambers, I was done for. No need to complete the chokehold with a synopsis about a family of space smugglers, but it was there anyway. Fortuna is a great book with a rollicking character-focused story that succeeds in emotional depth but reaches a little too far when it comes to large-scale destruction.

Fortuna is a nice mix of action and character driven narrative. It follows the Kaiser family, a small group of smugglers raised and managed by Auriga Kaiser, the biological mother of the crew. The main characters are Corvus, the eldest brother, and Scorpia, the second oldest. Upon hearing that Corvus is returning to the Fortuna(the name of the ship) after finishing his third year of service within the Titan planetary military, Scorpia hatches her latest plan to make her mother proud so she can take the captain’s reigns and continue the Kaiser legacy. However, Scorpia is not as competent as her confidence suggests, and the system itself has other plans that muddy the Kaiser’s ability to maintain their smuggling business. Amidst the family drama, resources become tight and rumors of war circulate as the planets begin to become more isolationist.

I want to start off by highlighting Merbeth’s exceptional writing ability. The chapters alternate between Corvus and Scorpia, both sides written in a first-person perspective. I normally have issues with first person, because I generally do not like how things are described from that perspective, but Merbeth really knocked it out of the park here. Not only do the two characters feel distinct as people, but it comes through in how they describe the people around them, or the environments they are in. Scorpia comes off as a confident, whip-smart, smooth operator who acknowledges she might drink too much and often looks at people in a buddy-buddy way. Often her descriptions feel as if they are pulled out of hat. Corvus, on the other hand, is reserved, disciplined and all too aware of himself. He constantly feels distanced from those around him, regardless of how close they are. His distance is often self imposed, exemplified by the directness with which he speaks to himself and those around him. It was very distinct and kept me pulled along through the whole ride.

In a similar vein, the characters are fairly deep even though some are built on recognizable foundations. Fortuna shines because of its characters and their relationships with each other. The Kaiser family feels alive, and they have a deep history with each other. They have been through a lot and it shows. Corvus’ return feels monumental, even though it’s subdued and carries a lot of baggage. Merbeth does an excellent job of revealing the experiences and motivations of characters in such a way that their interactions feel natural and uncontrived. I think a lot of people might feel beaten over the head with Scorpia’s flaws, but I think Merbeth nailed it. Scorpia is inconsistent, juvenile, and brash but wants to do what is best for her family and will go to whatever length she feels is necessary to keep them safe and happy. Her alcoholism runs deep, and it takes her a while to deal with it, while the rest around her see it day in and day out. Her flaws, as deep and heartbreaking as they were, were made endearing by her better qualities. Merbeth straddled the line of unbearable and loveable with Scorpia, and it made the book more engaging.

While the intense character drama drove the narrative, I felt that the plot was a little inconsistent. I enjoyed the smuggling and the politics between the different worlds. I also enjoyed that the smugglers were the connections in some sense between the worlds as they all slowly began to close their borders. My biggest issue with the plot was its sense of scale. The amount of destruction that occurs alongside the family drama felt unreal and made some of the arguments the Kaisers had a little garish and cartoonish. Pair that with the fact that a lot of it happened off-screen (for reasons that are apparent within the story that I want to avoid spoilers) also diminished the attachment. Merbeth did a good job in terms of set up and in explaining why the different members of the family would be affected by the events in the way that they were, but the events just felt too big. The planets, while fairly fleshed out, did not have a sense of scale. With the family drama in the forefront, it was hard to appreciate the threat, and just how much of an effect it had, and how the Kaisers were involved. I enjoyed the story and plotting of events in general, but I felt that some of the consequences were too big for a small family of smugglers.

In the end, I had a blast with Fortuna. It was a good ride with a lot of heart, and heavy family drama that felt well built within a well-realized world. The characters were likeable in the long run and felt distinct despite their rough beginnings. The book had its inconsistencies, but like its characters, the better qualities shone all the brighter because of it. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. If you are looking for a small-scale drama among the stars with heavy consequences, then Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth is for you.

Rating: Fortuna – 8.0/10
-Alex

Blood Of An Exile – Missed Gems Of 2019

512bnk8esoglAlright, I am going to be honest here; I did Brian Naslund a disservice when I judged his debut book, Blood of an Exile, by its name and cover and shelved it for later. Although I hated both title and art, after finishing the novel I have to admit that they suit the book perfectly, and I am just being a judgmental ass. Released back in August of last year, the book is the start of the Dragons of Terra series and definitely would have been a contender for my top of 2019 list had I actually got to it in a timely manner. I apologize, Brian Naslund, and hopefully this review will slightly make it up to you.

Blood of an Exile is a book with powerful characters, a rich world, and a fairly inventive plot. Ostensibly, the story follows our protagonist Silas Bershad the Flawless, a man who was sentenced to exile as a dragonslayer for crimes that are revealed throughout the narrative. To be a dragonslayer is a death sentence, and they are forced to roam the land helping towns and cities kill dragons until they die (usually very quickly). However, Bershad refuses to go down and has managed to make a name for himself as the most famous and successful dragonslayer in the world. Very soon after we meet Bershad, he receives a task from the man who exiled him with the promise of freedom should he complete it. Using his status as a famous dragonslayer, Bershad is to sneak into a neighboring country that is gearing up for war, kill a king and save an innocent child in captivity, and then make it back alive with the child in hand. To fail would mean dying an exile, to succeed would mean saving the country that hates him and his freedom.

Initially, this book was looking a bit trope-y and I was concerned I was going to read something I had already experienced hundreds of times before. However, Naslund rapidly disabused me of this notion by showing Blood of an Exile is more than meets the eye. First off, while Bershad is our main protagonist, the story is actually told by four major POVs, an alchemist, an assassin, a princess, and Bershad himself – each of which holds a key piece of the narrative that slot nicely together. The major themes of the book are nature, ecosystems, and how destroying key pieces of any environment can greatly upset the balance. Multiple of the POV’s (including Bershad) are dragon lovers. While they recognize that they are dangerous animals that can cause great harm, dragons are common in this world and are a key piece of every ecosystem they are a part of. While Blood of an Exile is very much an action-packed adventure fantasy, it is also a story about amateur scientists desperately trying to keep humanity from destroying the Earth for fiscal gain – an angle I was not expecting and loved in equal parts. There is a huge focus on the study of dragons and the understanding of their nature. This does a very powerful job of painting them as real living and breathing creatures.

The world-building is phenomenal, with the various political entities feeling like they have clear and memorable identities that aren’t just cut and pasted real-world countries. The cast are all fantastic, even down to the side characters. Even the villains aren’t motivated by the simple goals and are engaging to read and think about. The book does an incredible job exploring how the quest for the betterment of civilization can cause horrible unforeseen problems if you aren’t very careful. Naslund does a very good job using a magical fantasy setting to get you to think about your own waste and usage in the modern world, so expect to be a little uncomfortable.

As for negatives, there are only a few. Although I found the book to be an exciting and compelling read, I felt as though there was a small mismatch in the narrative style and strengths of the book. The characters in Blood of an Exile are treated as tools to move the story along. They are picked up and put down as needed only when their POV makes sense to further the narrative. What this means is that it can sometimes feel like certain characters were getting uneven page time. This felt a bit odd, given that the characters of this book are so strong that I would have been happy to just spend time in their head. The aforementioned princess POV is one of my favorite protagonists, and she shows up as a POV only in the back half of the book with little to no warning. I would have liked a little more even pacing with my time with each character. The book is also fairly crass; which isn’t a problem for me, but it’s something others might take issue with.

In the end, Blood of an Exile was a surprising gem of a book that went unnoticed by many in 2019. It brilliantly combines exciting action, sympathetic characters, smart themes, and a deep world to create a coherent and unique story. It is always rare when you find a book that is both smart and fun at the same time, and Blood of an Exile has both in spades. Brian Naslund should be very proud of his debut book, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Sorcery of a Queen, which comes out this year.

Rating: Blood of an Exile – 8.5/10
-Andrew

An Illusion Of Thieves – A Garden Of Larceny

81zzj2jtx5lI am disappointed that I was unable to get to An Illusion of Thieves, by Cate Glass, sooner – as it likely would have made our best of 2019 list. The first book in the Chimera series, this (ironically) sneaky book has slipped under the radar for many this year, which is a shame. While this debut book has some issues, it is also a fresh and fun take on the heist genre and looks to be building to something incredible. With a little upfront investment and trust, you will soon find yourself in love with the cast and story.

Thieves has an interesting start that is both explosive and slow at the same time. An enormous amount of life changes happen to our protagonist, Romy, in the first few pages. She is a courtesan of a powerful lord in a corrupt city, but her younger brother Neri robs someone and is caught – shaming her into banishment. All of this is set up to place Romy and Neri in the slums of the city where they must both learn jobs to survive. Also, they are both sorcerers who are being hunted for their innate magic. That’s right, welcome to another round of “magic is super outlawed and we must hide our dark secrets”! I tease because it is an overdone trope, but I actually liked how the ban on magic contributed to the set up of this story. The first half of the book feels almost like watching someone play through a well-written life sim. Romy and Neri both struggle with learning basic skills that will keep them from starving to death and allow them to contribute to society. It sounds boring, but it’s actually really engrossing watching them slowly carve out a life together. That being said, hoooo boyyyyy, did I want Neri to die horribly for the first third of this book. A huge chunk of the first part of Thieves is devoted to the evolution of the relationship between Romy and Neri. While it ends in a really compelling and satisfying place, there is a lot of Neri being the absolute worst and Romy having to clean it up for the first 100 pages. Glass is definitely an older child because she has captured the worst frustrations of having a younger sibling perfectly. However, once you make it past the midway point in the book – something interesting happens. The plot and purpose of the book take a drastic, and fascinating, shift.

In the course of building up their meager lives, Romy and Neri meet a large cast of compelling characters who both help and harm them. As the story continues, the magic system in the world is slowly expanded upon more, and you learn that most sorcerers have a unique kind of magic that they can use to influence the world. Romy, for example, can implant memories in people and Neri can walk through walls. The siblings also eventually meet two magic users, who I won’t spoil, and eventually start to explore their powers. And then a catalyst changes the direction of the tale. A character approaches Romy and basically puts her in a difficult situation – she can either rob a very powerful and well-connected person, or watch the city burn down around her. And when placed in a position of helping the greater good at massive personal risk, she creates a super awesome crime-fighting band of super thieves. I cannot express how awesome this was.

One thing you see in a lot of heist novels is a short and colorful introduction into the crew before rapidly moving onto the stealing. Glass takes a much more leisurely and organic route and slowly brings this crew of people together naturally over the course of their lives. It is masterfully done and when push came to shove I honestly found myself thinking “I mean, of course, they are going to form a group of magical super thieves, it absolutely makes sense.” In addition, when An Illusion of Thieves wraps up, you learn about a new world-ending problem that only this crew of magical do-gooders can handle, and they immediately set out to go handle this new problem (which is the set up for book two). Look, if you don’t want to read an episodic series about magical Robin Hood saving the world through larceny than we don’t have a lot in common.

Some other general assessments include that the characters and worldbuilding are good, but a little inconsistent. I felt Glass did an amazing job bringing the city where the book is set to life – but the world didn’t feel like it extended beyond its walls. Similarly, the smaller cast of characters that the book focuses on had a ton of life and depth to them, but some of the side characters occasionally felt like they were mannequins just there to progress the plot.

Overall, I really enjoyed An Illusion of Thieves. It requires a little work at the start, but it rewards your dedication with a one of a kind heist novel with a ton of great character growth and magical fun. It is original, well written, relatable, and stands out amongst a lot of powerful books that came out in 2019. I am really hoping the Chimera series is more than a trilogy because I would enjoy reading many more books about this band of misfits saving the world through the power of crime. This debut is definitely worth your time, please come join me in watching this team of lovable rogues save the world.

Rating: An Illusion of Thieves – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2019 – Derby Download

So 2019 is rolling to a close and we have started eyeing books coming out in 2020 to build our to-do lists. However, while building our reading schedule for next year we realized that we should probably do a wrap-up on our Dark Horse Initiative 2019. P.S., you may notice we have changed this list slightly from our original – that is because we somehow missed that two of our books (Priory and Sixteen) were not actually debuts and have replaced them with other debuts we read. So, below you will find a mini-list of all of the debut books and authors we specifically sought out and read in 2019 in the order of how much we enjoyed them. In addition, given that we have already put out a list of our favorite books of 2019 which contained many of these, we thought we would also spend some time highlighting a few specific books for their contributions to their genres. While we didn’t love all of them, almost all of them brought fresh new ideas to the fantasy and sci-fi genres and should be applauded for trying something new. First, the list of Dark Horses in 2019:

  1. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
  2. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
  3. This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  4. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
  5. For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones
  6. The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull
  7. The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
  8. Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
  9. Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
  10. Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
  11. Titanshade, by Dan Stout
  12. Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell

Books worth additional discussion:

The Luminous DeadThe Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling – What can I say that I haven’t already said about this wonderfully creepy and ambient debut. The limited perspective is engaging, reducing the amount of information the reader receives, heightening the tension. The danger feels ambiguous and ephemeral, making the reader question what is really happening. On top of that, the character to character interaction is sparse, dense and unreliable. Starling does a brilliant job of capturing so much humanity within such a small story. If you’re put off by galaxy-spanning epics, but still want to read something that captures the human condition as it extends to new planets, The Luminous Dead should help light the way.

51tsalt2b0el._sx321_bo1204203200_Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K ChessFamous Men Who Never Lived offers a heartbreaking slice-of-life story with a healthy smattering of sci-fi. Days after reading, I contemplated K Chess’ story of being the “other,” and the book helped me understand concepts I’d never fully grasped before. As I said in my review, Famous Men isn’t an action-packed adventure. Rather, it skews our perception of our own reality by presenting us with a new one and urges us to explore the implications of immigration and racism. It’s a true sci-fi gem that transitioned from dark horse pick to hard-hitting sci-fi favorite.

51gxorcir2lGods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia – I didn’t love this book, but a lot of people will. My problems with the novel were all due to stylistic clash; its campfire story style bored me and failed to pull me into the story. However, there will be many who rightly love this style and list Gods of Jade and Shadow as one of their favorite novels. Moreno-Garcia’s debut stands out as a unique voice, for better or worse, among the endless dross that the fantasy genre produces each year. Her mix of Mexican heritage, evocative prose, and romantic storytelling are absolutely worth checking out so you can assess it for yourself.

71uzngwnyelThis Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – This Is How You Lose the Time War is not the book that you think it is. It certainly wasn’t the book I thought it was when I initially opened it on a plane ride back into the states. The few hours I spent within the world that El-Mohtar and Gladstone described were some of the most magical, whimsical, and heartrendingly beautiful I’ve had in recent memory. The story told about Red and Blue is at times terribly romantic, beautifully horrifying, and is constantly dripping with intent and craft. As multifaceted as poetry but with the unrelenting pace and drive of prose, everyone needs to give This Is How You Lose the Time War a try.

91mbw2bkarelTitanshade, by Dan Stout – Hogwarts P.D. is certainly fresh. Titanshade blends two genres that I absolutely did not think could be blended: buddy cop shows and epic fantasy. You might think that just sounds like urban fantasy, but Titanshade is so much more with its completely original fantasy world – with a modern setting. Titanshade has some flaws, but it did a great job showing that fantasy need not be limited to historical European settings. While the book was both grim and dark, the modern setting allowed it to function as both a drama and escapism tool. The second book in the series is coming out next year, and you better believe I am going back for more.

That’s it for our Dark Horses of 2019! If you liked this mini-project of ours, I have some good news: we will be back in early January with our Dark Horse 2020 to-read picks. See you then!