Yoon Ha Lee is a science fiction writer with a penchant for the strange and the imaginative. His Machineries of Empire series came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed the pants off of myself and many other reviews. His work has a tendency to be surreal and confusing but with clever guardrails built in to get the reader invested long enough to understand what is going on. Since finishing his first trilogy, he has been a part of a number of different projects, one of which is a brand new stand-alone novel called Phoenix Extravagant. But while the premise of the story initially felt extremely strong, the book’s lack of substance eventually turned me off.
Phoenix Extravagant tells the story of Gyen Jebi, a young person in Razanei who is studying to become a painter. Normally this would be an admirable pursuit on its own, but in Razanei painting is a form of magic. Seals, enchantments, and simulacrums can all be created with the stroke of a brush. Jebi hopes to score well on the national placement exam and test into a strong government position to set them and their family up for life. This causes friction with their family as they are a part of a native ethnicity that has been oppressed and subjugated by the Razanei. However, as long as Jebi can earn a living and survive, they are happy to do whatever the Razanei asks of them. That is until Jebi catches the eye of an experimental division of the government. The group kidnaps their family as hostages and forces Jebi to work on a weapon of mass destruction (a fully animated dragon). Jebi must wrestle with their loyalties, discover what is important to them, and find a way to escape this predicament.
This premise has legs. I really liked the idea of exploring painting as a medium for magic. The first part of the book, which focuses on Jebi studying for and taking the placement exam, is great. The stakes are clear, the objective is relatable, and the painting is fascinating. Where the book starts to fall apart is after Jebi is kidnapped to work on the weapon. I just feel like nothing really happens. There is an interesting subplot between a growing relationship between Jebi and a soldier assigned to monitor them – but the majority of the book felt slow and directionless. The dragon simulacrum is exciting at first, but the plot line doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere. Phoenix Extravagant feels like it is trying to do too many things at the same time and only manages to half-ass most of them.
Jebi is also just a boring character. They have no real personality or identity that I could find, and their actions are mostly dictated by dealing with what is directly in front of them. Their importance to the story feels unearned, and the book’s tendency to continually reveal that Jebi is even more special than originally thought feels cliché and boring. The supporting cast isn’t much better. We spend a ton of time trapped in small rooms with individuals who are uninteresting, so I never really got a good feel for the culture – let alone the differences between the groups at odds. The people and places were generally just unengaging.
I was pretty disappointed with Phoenix Extravagant and have a hard time finding many redeemable features other than its clever premise. After reading a number of Lee’s other works I have the distinct feeling that he could do better than this. If you are desperate for a fantasy book with a mechanical dragon and a focus on art, you might enjoy this – but I honestly think there are better pieces out there for even this niche combination. I, unfortunately, do not recommend Phoenix Extravagant.
Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.
To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.
On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.
Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:
1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.
This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.
2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…
The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.
3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.
This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).
4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.
Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.
5) The Long Walk – Kate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.
The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.
Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.
The excellence of Sorcery of a Queen is honestly flabbergasting. Queen is the second book in The Dragons of Terra trilogy by Brian Naslund, and it’s a crime that as of writing this review there are only 10 ratings on goodreads. This book does so many things right that it straight up blew my mind. It has incredible characters, exciting action, deep and original worldbuilding, a gripping plot, a compelling antagonist, great themes, excellent pacing, strong character growth, and a level of polish and inclusivity that made me positively vibrate with happiness. Sorcery of a Queen is easily one of my top books of 2020; Naslund positively killed it with his second novel.
If you are just hearing about this series for the first time and wondering why I am raving like a lunatic, may I kindly redirect you to my review of book one in the series: Blood of an Exile. Naslund’s first book was a 2019 gem that I missed and didn’t get to until January of this year. I refused to make the same mistake with his second installment. I can’t really go into many plot details without spoiling things, something I absolutely refuse to do. If you have read Blood of an Exile, Queen’s story picks up immediately after the end of book one and revolves primarily around the escalation in stakes, technology, and conflict caused by the first book finale. If you haven’t read Blood of an Exile, you have made a mistake, and I again recommend you check out my review of book one. However, before you realize your error and dive into Exile, let me shout at you about its excellence.
The series follows a quartet of characters: A queen, an exile, a bodyguard, and a young alchemist. Each character has their own rich backstory, and Naslund does a wonderful job giving each of them agency and distinction, while cleverly interweaving their stories. Sorcery of a Queen is an extremely powerful character story and has so much delicious character growth. The alchemist gets pulled into a conflict by chance, but ends up learning about himself and the world while working as a field medic. The queen, a master of politics and leadership, finds that she is actually a woman of action and there is a powerful joy in physically pushing humanity towards a better future. The bodyguard is a woman of honor and conviction, but her chosen path in life forces her to closely examine the value and worth of bonds and where she will draw the line. The exile is a man condemned to death, who learns he cannot die, who then learns he cannot escape death. The amount of change this rollercoaster of events unleashes on his personality and life outlook is a work of art and a truly original observation of the human condition. These are excellent characters.
In general, the overall quality of Queen has also improved from Exile. The prose is better, the action is punchier, and the humor is funnier. The pacing in Exile was good, but Queen’s is perfect. I absolutely flew through this book, reading it in just two weekdays. The POVs all strike this great balance that constantly compels you to read more. The worldbuilding is also just bigger. The stakes of Exile were fairly small, with each of the characters having fairly simple and straightforward goals: stay alive, find a girl, get a job, research dragons. Towards the end of Exile, things began to escalate and it paved the way for Queen to grab a perfect narrative baton-pass and expand into a fully fleshed out world with bigger stakes. In particular, one thing I was enamored with was the evolution of themes. In Exile there was really one major theme, this idea of naturalism and that dragons were an important part of the ecosystem (and hunting them was destroying it). In Queen, this theme is still very present, but a number of additional themes like the cost of war, the nature of friendship, and the dangers of unchecked science all join it to build a much more luscious and juicy story. This enhancement of an already good story builds to something wonderful.
Sorcery of a Queen is fantastic, breaking every single one of my high expectations to tell a story that was nothing short of wonderful. Blood of an Exile had some good ideas and great characters, but Queen has it all. Usually, when I review a book I like to talk about if its best for readers who focus on characters, plot, worlds, or ideas. It is very rare that I come across a book that I can unilaterally recommend to all of those people, and this is one such occasion. I loved Sorcery of a Queen and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.
Alright, 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.
Here we have one of the mega-debuts of 2019. Published by Tor, The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons has had one of the largest marketing pushes I have seen in years. I have seen advertising for this book literally everywhere, and it somehow already has a TV deal with Annapurna. As I picked it up it felt too big to fail, and I was extremely curious to see if this massive first entry would live up to the hype or fall short. After reading it, I feel like it surprisingly somehow managed to do both.
The Ruin of Kings is about Kihrin, a thief (sorta) with a destiny to bring ruin to kings (hence the title). Our story follows Kihrin in two timelines that alternate each chapter. In the first, we read about Kihrin’s present life as a slave and his attempts to escape bondage and death while pursuing his destiny with a mysterious order of magic users. The other timeline tells Kihrin’s backstory and explains how he ended up in his current predicament. The alternation of the timelines is one of the novel’s largest strengths, and I think Lyons did a very good job matching the two stories to feel relevant to each other at all times while evenly disseminating information about the world, characters, and plot. This is not an easy thing to do, and Lyons managed to instill a great deal of urgency in both timelines that make the book a fast read despite its 800+ page length.
The problem with the book is that despite its even storytelling, neither timeline has enough story, world, or character building to be satisfactory. The pacing of the book is extremely fast, often to the story’s detriment. Lyons moves Kihrin through the world at a breakneck pace, and I constantly felt like I didn’t spend enough time with any location or character to fully understand them. For example, we start the book in an interesting city with a famous slave market that Lyons builds up to be compelling and mysterious. Then before we can learn more about it, she ejects Kihrin via a metaphorical cannon into the surrounding ocean. Once there, he enters a giant maelstrom filled with enormous sea creatures that hunt him. We learn enough that I want to know more, but then quickly move past and never revisit. In the other timeline, we learn that Kihrin is part of an esteemed thieves guild, and get to see him go on a regular heist. However, we never get a sense that there is anyone other than him and one or two other members in this “giant” thieves guild before it is metaphorically burned down and Lyons moves on to a new plot point.
Lyons moves between ideas so fast that you never really get to sit with them long enough. The shame is I really like her ideas. Almost all the places and things she shows the reader are awesome. I just needed another 400 pages to slow the pacing down and learn more about these small pockets of the world. However, this segues into the other major issue that plagued me in this book: I really don’t like Kihrin. He is a spoiled, melodramatic, Gary Sue who whines so god damn much it is unbelievable. Look, I understand that this is supposed to be a coming of age story and that he grows into a better person, but 800 pages is a reallllly long time to put up with his annoying tendencies. He definitely improves by the end of the book, but I feel like there is still a lot of work to go.
I am actually glad that The Ruin of Kings is becoming a TV show because I think it has a fantastic setting that will do well in a visual medium. However, despite the river of creativity that Lyons has put to paper, the original source material leaves a little bit to be desired. I suspect that less picky readers will enjoy this book a whole lot more than me, so if it sounds interesting to you definitely give it a shot. As for me, I am disappointed that The Ruin of Kings’ fast pacing and exhaustive length greatly hampered my reading experience.
I find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.
The Plot – Empire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.
The World – Each book in Draconis has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot is a step up from his past work with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.
The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.
The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.
Rating: The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10 Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
I thought about spacing these out a little more, but as they say in every single fantasy book with a blacksmith (read: all of them), strike while the iron is hot. Please take a moment to read my review from last week on The Heartstrikers book one, Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron, or a lot of this review won’t make any sense. It was an impressive introduction to a dragon based urban fantasy, and despite its flaws I immediately bought the second book in the series (One Good Dragon Deserves Another) and started reading it. I wanted to jump into a follow up review for book two because it addresses a number of problems I had with the first book, whilend taking the positives and kicking them up a notch for an incredible read. The Heartstrikers is rapidly jumping up my recommendation list and I am super excited I have three more books left to read.
So what’s better about One Good Dragon? Well for one, it’s about twice as long as its previous novel. This gives it a huge amount of additional space for plot, world, and character development. The first book ends with a devious plot from a rival dragon gang foiled, and Julius surviving his mother’s wrath by the skin of his teeth. The second book simply picks up right where Nice Dragons left off, as the aforementioned rival dragon clan comes back for round two. A big theme of The Heartstrikers books is destiny, and the abilities of dragon sages to see and influence the future. In One Good Dragon, an enemy sage has learned a way to force fate down the paths she desires – making things truly unpleasant for the Heartstriker clan. Julius, concerned for the potential destruction of his family, steps up and involves himself in the plots of his mother and enemies to try and save everyone. The plot of book two is a lot more complicated, but a lot more rewarding. Book one felt like a prologue compared to One Good Dragon, and the step up in complexity lead to a much more fulfilling and exciting read. However, I will say that my one complaint for book two was that I had a slightly difficult time understanding some of the internal logic of Rachel Aaron’s world near the end of the story, and she might want to make the workings of some elements of her story a little more clear.
That being said, holy cow did the world building and character development take a significant step up (and it was already strong to begin with). In Nice Dragons Finish Last most of our world building was centered around the Heartstrikers and New Detroit. While it was excellent, it was somewhat narrow in scope – especially compared to the second book which sees an explosion of new characters and cultures introduced. Several new kinds of magic, cultures, and places show up in One Good Dragon and the series has reached the point where I am excited for each new page to see what Rachel Aaron will dream up next. In particular, I loved her “dragon hunter” from the Scandinavian Fjords in this book and hope she continues to work in magic from all over the world (which I am sure she will).
The characters were the big sell from book one, and somehow they have gotten even better. Rachel continues to introduce the reader to a number of Julius’ extended family, each a personality that makes the Heartstriker melting pot more delicious to dive into. In particular, book two brings us Julius’ oldest and most powerful sibling, Amelia, and I can’t get enough of her. In addition, some of my previous complaints about Julius and his repetitious thoughts are gone. His character felt much more coherent and enjoyable to be around, despite still liking him a good deal in the first book.
Overall, One Good Dragon Deserves Another is bigger, better, faster, and stronger than its previous novel. Rachel Aaron clearly improved her already good writing between the books, and I am now selling this series even harder than I was before. The Heartstrikers is turning out to be a real treat and I recommend you check it out as soon as possible. P.S. I am really enjoying the naming conventions.
Rating: One Good Dragon Deserves Another – 8.5/10
I am really annoyed because I thought I had a hidden gem review with this book. Unfortunately, every other reviewer I know apparently read Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron, at the same time as me and has already gotten their review out. However, at the end of the day I am just happy that this story is getting a bunch of exposure because I have so many strong feelings about it. Nice Dragons is a self published (I think, I couldn’t actually confirm) urban fantasy with a ton of heart, and is currently criminally underread. It is the first installment in a five book series that just put out the final book this week. The plot, characters, and worldbuilding are frankly incredible, and while it suffers from some small but noticeable problems, Nice Dragons provides some of the most fun I have had in awhile.
The plot is initially simple. Julius is the youngest and smallest dragon in the Heartstriker family, a dragon clan famous for its large size (number of members) and a powerhouse in the magical world. His mother is extremely disappointed that he doesn’t seem to be doing anything with his life other than avoiding the plans and machinations of her and the other children. To remedy this, she seals his magic and throws him into Detroit with the ultimatum that if he doesn’t do something to make her proud in the next few days he will be put to death. He links up with one of his older siblings who gives him a job/quest, which will hopefully impress his mom and result in his continued existence. While a harmless starting point, things predictably spin out of control and rapidly expand in scope. Rachel has a real talent for keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and the book explodes into a number of different plot threads that are all intertwined. Overall, the story held my interest and kept me engaged the whole way through – and I bought the second book immediately after finishing Nice Dragons.
The worldbuilding is really on point for an urban fantasy. I think that saying urban fantasy has lazy worldbuilding as a genre is a gross generalization, but I will say that I expect less of it than when reading a more traditional fantasy novel. Rachel took that expectation and broke its spine over her knee. Nice Dragons has an astounding amount of imaginative worldbuilding that puts you in a place that is both vaguely familiar and completely new. The book mostly takes place in a reimagined Detroit, and the changes she described paint a city that has evolved into a magical city state – self ruled and self regulated. The mix of background subjects that Rachel draws her inspiration from is also impressively diverse – including lore from England, Mesoamerica, Russia, Scandinavia, and more. This lore is used to highlight small loveable details such as the fact that Heartstrikers are feathered Aztec dragons descended from Quetzalcoatl. It is a small detail, but it felt so fresh in the landscape of traditional european dragons. Every single new idea and detail Rachel introduced in her world had me excited and awestruck.
While I enjoy heaping praise on the plot and worldbuilding, the real place that this book shines is the characters. I ADORE the full cast of this book. It is filled with unique and memorable characters from top to bottom regardless of their immediate importance. Julius’ oldest brother Bob is particularly delightful, and ranks up there with some of my all time favorite characters. Julius himself is wonderful, if a little whiny at first, and the second protagonist Marci (who you meet a little ways into the book) balances him out perfectly. Everyone feels relatable, interesting, and fun making me feel highly invested in each member of the cast.
Despite all my praise, Nice Dragons definitely has a few shortcomings. The most glaring is that a couple conversations in the book can be extremely repetitive. Julius feels like he talks about his status as the weakest dragon in his clan every ten pages, and constantly goes to pains to remind you how he usually tries to avoid his older siblings. Occasionally, his frequent talks of how scary his siblings are can lead to some great emotional payoff when you finally meet them, but often I found myself thinking “yes, yes, I know” when reading pages. Additionally, there is a romance subplot that can be painfully awkward sometimes, though I do like the general direction that it is going.
I read Nice Dragons Finish Last in almost a single sitting, and bought the sequel immediately after setting it down. This by itself should tell you my overall feelings about the book, I highly recommend it to everyone. The Heartstrikers is shaping up to be my favorite urban fantasy ever, and will definitely place well among all books that I have read. If you want to read about a lovable dragon taking on impossible odds, surrounded by fantastic characters, in a kick ass world – then this might be the book for you.
Let me save you some time. The Legion of Flame, by Anthony Ryan, is great. You should absolutely go pick it up and read it (preferably after reading the initial installment The Waking Fire). Great, now we can get into the actual review.
Competition has been harsh this summer. As we pass through June and July, I have seen so many strong releases that it is getting increasingly hard to stand out from the pack. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Anthony Ryan’s next installment of The Draconis Memoria, The Legion of Flame. Continuing the story of Lizanne Lethridge, Clayton Torcreek, and Captain Corrick Hilemore as they attempt to stave off a reptilian apocalypse, Legion picks up almost exactly where The Waking Fire, book one in the series, left off. The White has awoken and is gathering an army of dragons and Spoiled, and doom is coming. Cue our heroes rushing around to a variety of places to try to save the world. The cast has been expanded again, but telling you about the new POV and characters are direct spoilers, so you will have to settle with trusting me that they are excellent additions to an already great group of people.
One of my few complaints with the first book in the series was that while the story and world were inventive and fun, it felt like a lot of the finer details were glossed over in favor of the action. Why do the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Protectorate hate each other so much? Who even is the Blood Cadre? Why didn’t Hilemore get more screen time? Luckily for us, TheLegion of Flame explores more of the world and politics, giving us a much better understanding of why these conflicts exist and who the major players involved in them are. Liz is given a mission to go to the Corvantine Empire to attempt to negotiate a treaty between the Empire and the Ironship Protectorate in the face of the impending attack from the White and his legion of flame (see what I did there?). While we don’t spend a lot of time in Corvus proper, the time we do spend there is rich in detail and gives a much better understanding of the empire and its ruling class. While this is going on, Clay and Hilemore begin a voyage to the South Pole, in an attempt to fulfill the vision Clay saw when he got some white dragon blood in his mouth (gross).
Here we come upon another complaint of mine from book one that is remedied. Hilemore felt like an awesome, but unnecessary, addition in The Waking Fire, with Clay and Liz given a significantly larger portion of screen time. While he still has less chapters than the two of them, he is greatly expanded upon in a way that I felt was beneficial and added a measure of naval fun to a story that had mostly revolved around “Magic Indiana Jones” and “Magic Girl James Bond”.
Speaking of “Magic Girl James Bond”, Liz’s mission takes her to Scorazin, a prison city in the Corvantine Empire that “no one ever escapes from”. I loved this. While it did expand upon the unfortunate and unnecessary (in my opinion) romance between Arberus and Liz, the time she spends within its walls was fast-paced, full of intrigue, and action packed. There were twists aplenty and I was constantly waiting for her next chapter so I could continue the excitement. Liz continues to claw her way up the ranks of my favorite characters with her brilliant competence, interesting mix of cold secret agent mentality and strong moral compass, and asskicking prowess. Character growth is something that I have given Ryan a hard time for in the past, but watching Liz change as she is put through trial after trial is one of my favorite parts of this series.
Touching back on the romance, it seemed like it was a little forced, and only existed to add some unnecessary tension to Lizanne’s story line. Additionally, Liz’s motivations and drives become a little cloudy and hard to understand around the two thirds point in the book and I had a bit of trouble following the logic of her actions for a few chapters. However, this lack of clarity only lasts a short while and soon the book returns to the streamlined and exciting plot that pervades this entire series.
While it continues the overall story, and sets up book three with an absolutely tantalizing cliffhanger (the suspense is actually killing me), TheLegion of Flame contains a remarkably tight story arc of its own, expanding many of the existing plotlines and spinning a whole tapestry of new ones that captivated and astounded me. I spent a ridiculous amount of my time reading this book having absolutely no idea where it was going. The characters are grasping at straws as they try to come up with ways to combat the White, and the narrative structure mimics this beautifully. I was worried that the reveals and twists at the end of the book would not live up to the build up and I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. I am barely able to contain my excitement for the next installment in the series, and continue to be impressed by Ryan’s growth as an author with each of his novels.
If you’re looking for an end of the world driven by dragons, great characters, and a fast-paced but intricate story look no farther than TheLegion of Flame. The Quill to Live heartily recommends this book and series.
As always when I review the end of a series, the review can either go one of two ways: a detailed breakdown of how the author messed up the landing or a confirmation that the last book is still great and an overarching review of the series. I am happy to say that Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennen, falls into the latter category. I have touched on this series a lot here and there in past reviews and other posts, but as it winds to a close I wanted to take a moment to talk about it as a whole and to give it the credit it deserves.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the books follow an anthropologist’s memoirs as she tells the tale of her work with dragons as one of the first female scientists of her time. It must be said that they are beautifully illustrated. The series is five books long, each book taking place in a different setting with different research goals in mind. Each book builds upon the discoveries of the last, ending in a society changing discovery (which I of course won’t spoil). With the arrival of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, we finally get to find out what we have been building towards. My reaction to the big reveal was a good summary of my general feelings towards the series: I was genuinely surprised, intrigued by the really cool concept, but not blown away.
One of the key take aways I keep mentioning when I talk about this series is that while I really enjoy it for a number of reasons, it isn’t the most exciting of stories. I have decided that this isn’t a fair criticism of my experience with the book, because it results directly from one of the book’s biggest positives: these books feel like an actual history/science journal. These five novels are the closest I have ever felt to feeling like dragons were real and alive, and reality is not always super exciting. Science is not a field where everything is splitting the atom every month, there is tons of slow painful research leading up to that – and this series reflects that without its storytelling suffering in the name of accuracy. The series finds the perfect balance of accuracy and liberty with scientific process so that it feels correct, but not boring.
Additionally, Brennan did a fantastic job developing the world and cultures of her series. Looking back over the five books, the vast array of locations and people I explored is impressive. Her world is deeply fleshed out and feels like a real ecosystem. The character growth from both the protagonist (Lady Trent) and the support cast was very well handled and it was great to see character’s prejudices, opinions, and scientific understanding grow and evolve as the series progressed. The story takes place at a time of war, and the elevation of the conflict adds a lot to the tension and excitement of the books. Everything in this paragraph essentially sums up to the fact that The Memoirs of Lady Trent succeed not only as books, but as a collective series. The pacing and exploration of the world are masterfully handled, and the characters and story are a joy to progress with.
If I had to change anything about the series, it would likely to spend a little less time at the beginning of each book prepping for the eventual adventure. I understand the importance of setting a stage, but the first third of each book eventually boiled down to “someone shows Lady Trent something awesome, so she goes on an adventure”. However, even this couldn’t dampen my joy with this story. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of dragons, and I can’t say enough that this is the closest I have gotten to feeling they were alive. The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Memoirs of Lady Trent, and suggests you grab a copy of the books and learn about the natural history of dragons.
Within the Sanctuary of Wings – 8.0/10 The Memoirs of Lady Trent – 8.5/10