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

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