Construct – The Foundations Have Been Laid

23365568I’ve never had the inclination to read self-published titles. I’m always worried I’ll read into it too deeply or be overly critical, because I can so rarely turn off that portion of my brain. So when Luke Matthews reached out to me and requested an honest review of his self-published book Construct, I was a little hesitant. After thinking about it though, I decided to give it a shot. Construct ended up being something unexpected, and though it certainly has some flaws, the work Matthews put into his world and characters shows a lot of potential.

Construct follows Samuel, an artificial being that has awakened from a terrible memory as the building he is in is burning down around him. He recognizes he is not human, doesn’t know his own name, but feels hunted nonetheless. Deep down he feels his memory is important and puts him in further danger, and so he hides from nearby voices searching the wreckage. He sets off on a journey to find out who and what he is, and why someone would want to kill him. It is a streamlined and clean concept that works for the book.

I want to start off by highlighting my favorite part about this book: Matthews’ writing. He is incredibly thorough with his descriptions, allowing the reader to feel the world. I immediately felt as if I was in some sort of dark fantasy western, where small towns and large cities were miles from each other, and the populace mostly tried to keep out of trouble. People knew each other by their dealings and less by reputation, which was something I rarely notice in other books. Matthews’ descriptions built a good sense of rhythm too, allowing the pace to slow down a little and take stock with more vivid descriptions. Meanwhile, the action scenes and tension heavy dialogues were focused on the characters and their emotions. While Matthew’s prose is his greatest strength, it also shows some weaknesses. Especially when it comes to the emotional range of the characters, they often felt like anime characters, where the most extreme forms of emotion were always on display. It wasn’t bad – especially since he uses a large vocabulary – but once I noticed it, I could not unsee it.

The characters, in general, were enjoyable.. Samuel as the ever-curious and ever-surprising construct was delightful. He has a childlike curiosity that was heightened, not hampered, by the danger he felt. However, this felt like one of the only aspects of his personality and he rarely ever made any character-defining decisions for himself. There often was a lot of telling about how he was different from “other” constructs, without too many comparisons showing how others operate. It became stale fairly quickly as even Samuel began to finish other character’s sentences pointing it out. I do want to point out though that for a decent amount of the book, Samuel did feel out of place, in a good way. The beginning of the book highlighted this the most with his interior narration being distanced even from himself, as he tried to work out who or what he was. It was an excellent beginning to his character that really showed off Matthews’ style.

A lot of the intrigue was dictated by a fairly solid supporting cast. The people Samuel meets along the way, felt like they had their own little lives that were interrupted by his presence. Conversations between Samuel and others were more often revealing of the supporting cast, highlighting their motivations and concerns. They never felt insightful of Samuel himself however, beyond the aforementioned curiosity. There were a few unexplained moments where characters seemed overly reactive to others’ choices, but I think some of that is supposed to be left for another book. The villains felt pretty typical– overly caricatured as headhunters who really loved to headhunt. I enjoyed the dynamic between the villainous duo, their banter being something I looked forward to, but it didn’t really give me too much insight into who they were. Since they are about thirty percent of the book’s point of view, it felt like more could have been made of them.

As far as the plot goes, while it didn’t reinvent the genre it was also clean and direct. In particular, Matthews excelled in his pacing. The book moves fast, but gives some time for the plot and characters to breathe. There wasn’t a single moment that felt wasted, and it felt pretty good to read a plot-heavy book that did not dilly dally. Each stop along Samuel’s path gave him something to consider, and his presence altered characters he encountered in some fashion. The constant feeling of the chase saturated every page once the reader and Samuel were made aware of it. There were a few contrived moments, especially when there were some out of left field point of view switches, but overall I enjoyed the story. It was a fairly typical story of lost memory but executed well in an entertaining way.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Construct. It is not a heavy read, and it’s fun despite some of its issues. The world is intriguing though I feel like it has not been fully revealed. The characters went through a lot and not everyone comes out okay in the end. Matthews clearly left room for more to be told as there is a lot of character tension left unresolved. I want to thank the author for both the opportunity and the free copy of his book in exchange for an honest review. And In the spirit of that, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to more of Matthews’ work.

Rating: Construct – 7.0/10
Alex

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Childhood Meets Brutality

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart

Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors. 

The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs. 

The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons. 

So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it. 

Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read. 

The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next. 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: 8.0/10

Hearts of Oak – It Did Not Grow On Me

When I read the premise of Hearts of Oak, by Eddie Robson, I got excited. Growing buildings within an expanding city? Sign me up. The main character is an architect trying to understand the underpinnings of her world after being awoken from a stupor that required her to continuously expand the kingdom? Heck yeah, this is right up my alley. On top of that, just throw in a talking cat, who is the best friend and advisor to the king of this land? Let me get a blanket and curl up on the couch. Unfortunately, this little novella did not really live up to the hype, and maybe that is my fault in some respects. All in all Hearts of Oak is a short novel that is full of twists and turns but lacks any real character and heart. 

The book starts off interesting enough as Iona, the main protagonist, is reviewing plans for several of the buildings in her city, noting the absurdity of the continuous expansion of buildings for what seems to be no reason. Her colleague has recently died in a building collapse, and something weird happens at his funeral. Another man runs and jumps onto the casket as it is carted into a furnace for cremation. While unsettling, it is not until she investigates the collapsed building, does Iona start to feel like something is off. Meanwhile, the King debates with his advisor, the aforementioned talking cat, about approving more and more construction, confused as to why he should not be concerned with the people within his city. o

I’ll just pull this splinter out right away, I did not like this book. The beginning felt charming at first but quickly lurched into tedium. Iona was unconvincing as a character, let alone an architect. She often griped about her job, and the sheer audacity of the King to request larger and larger buildings without accounting for the needed strength to ensure their long term viability. Character moments involved a lot of telling, leading to Iona feeling like what someone thought an architect should act like. There was no real connection to the city or the world she had a part in building, the descriptives were minimal, and there was no real enchantment with particular buildings or the city as a whole. Her sole trait of “being an architect” felt superficial and became completely irrelevant as the book progressed. One could say, “well the twists make it irrelevant”, and to them I say hooey. The plot did not connect me with Iona, nor did it set her apart from the other characters. 

Speaking of the other characters, they barely felt integral to the plot. The King, the book’s other point of view, just spends his time listening to his cat and sitting around for most of the book. He barely adds any real context beyond “this is why the city must expand.” It could have been interesting if the humor or satire felt more direct, but most of the time it just felt like a red herring. As with most of the characters, the King felt like an undeveloped concept tossed into the book to make the world feel interesting, but ended up adding no real character or drama. The other characters I could barely remember, and didn’t have any particular traits beyond “they existed.”

I hear you say, “Alex, but if everything is in service to the plot, that must at least be enjoyable right?” Well, readers, this is where it gets a little messy. I will say there were certainly interesting twists and turns throughout the book that made the plot somewhat exciting. However, there was no weight to the discoveries. I did not get any sensation from the fast-paced unraveling of the mysteries. I do not want to get into specifics to avoid spoilers, but if things feel off as you read the book, it’s because things are off. As much as I wanted to enjoy these revelations, they felt hamstrung by their spontaneity. Each successive reveal felt like a jack-in-the-box, with Iona furiously cranking until the clown pops out, and she can move onto the next one. It just had no real build-up, and the absurdity of each reveal quickly lost its luster after the second or third twist.

In the end, Hearts of Oak was not bad, it just did not resonate with me in any way. The interesting bits of the premise were window dressing with no real impact on the story. The characters were a vehicle to move the plot along, offering no substantive opinions of their own, and having zero on-screen development. The climax left much to be desired, as whatever cathartic character moment Robson was going for fell flat. There were some cool ideas through the book, but there was no exploration of them. I can’t even really recommend it as a fast-paced low-stakes palate cleanser, as it just left a bland but coating taste in my mouth. 

Rating: Hearts of Oak – 5.0/10
-Alex

Every Heart A Doorway – Magic Meets Reality

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Seanan McGuire weaves a poignant tale in Every Heart A Doorway, the first novella in her award-winning Wayward Children series. Through expert world-building and a sharp writing style, Every Heart A Doorway provides a heart-wrenching look at belonging, acceptance, and what it means to be stripped of them. 

When protagonist Nancy finds herself ejected from The Land of the Dead back into the “real” world–our world–her parents don’t understand her anymore. After finding a doorway to the Land of the Dead, Nancy spent months learning to be perfectly still, walking the pomegranate orchards under a dark sky, and dancing with the Lord of the Dead. Convinced of her “delusions” after what they believe was a kidnapping, Nancy’s parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There, Nancy discovers that her story, though unique in its details, is more common than she thought. The Home for Wayward Children hosts a few dozen students who found portals to other worlds. Lands of sugar and sweets, worlds where children can run across rainbows, goblin kingdoms, fairy worlds, frolicking skeletons, and many others are counted among the places her peers have visited–and left. Nancy quickly learns that all of Eleanor West’s students wish, on some level, to return “home.” Tragedy strikes as a fellow student is murdered, and Nancy spirals into the darkness of her new world as she and her new cohorts struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to solve the murder.

It’s hard to do right by Seanan McGuire’s beautiful plot with only a short paragraph like that. Every Heart a Doorway, clocking in at a brisk 163 pages, packs a dense narrative punch. The effortless homage to classic portal fantasy and the subversion of the tropes it has created reverberate throughout the book’s plot. This is a story about stories, and the layers are stacked with such care that it’s easy to balance them all even as the pages whisk by at breakneck speed. It’s a testament to McGuire’s talent that these precariously perched elements all blend together so well. Her words about magic have a way of becoming magic on the page, and her narratives are joyous to read. Every Heart contains a murder mystery, tales of worlds beyond our own, coming-of-age commentary, hardship, loss, and so much more. McGuire deftly handles her myriad concepts within a small space, and it’s beyond commendable; it’s worth celebrating. The most I can truly say while remaining spoiler-free is that all the interwoven concepts within this single story are worth exploring, and the story is worth reading.

Dissonance prevails in Every Heart a Doorway. Nancy and her classmates have been ejected from worlds where they felt perfectly at home, and their original world doesn’t make sense to them any longer. Nancy’s desire for stillness, honed by her long stay in the Land of the Dead, is in constant competition with our world’s need for incessant motion. The Wayward Children are dissonant with one another, each coming from portal worlds that have different rules and ways of living. The happiness of finding a world you can call home spars with the darkness of being expelled from that home. McGuire’s concepts are at odds with one another on every single page, offering an elegant commentary on what it feels like to be different, to come from a different place, or to be perceived as different despite countless similarities.

That said, Every Heart a Doorway brushes some of its dissonant narrative elements under the rug. These moments are jarring–for example, the students at Eleanor West’s Home remain virtually unfazed by the death of a fellow student after finding the body. Eleanor cancels classes for half a day, and the teachers notice something is off about the students. The police are referred to as “authorities,” but there’s always some sneaky way Eleanor can conveniently avoid their involvement in anything suspicious or outright villainous. For a book whose premier strength is its handling of intriguing concepts, this glancing over is a significant blemish. 

Fortunately, Every Heart’s weaknesses end there. The characters shine with a unique type of radiance only one who has walked between worlds can claim. Two adult figures bear signs of deep loss and yearning while they try to imbue their charges with a sense of hope. Nancy’s ragtag group of former world-hoppers comprises a few really compelling characters. Among them is Kade, a gender-fluid expatriate of Fairyland; twin sisters Jacqueline (who prefers “Jack”), a bowtie-wearing scientist, and Jill, a vampire’s ward; and Christopher, a flutist whose instrument can animate skeletons. Like I said above, there’s a lot to explore here, and McGuire delivers with dynamic and sympathetic characters. 

Every Heart a Doorway ends with a glimmer of hope and the promise of more beyond Nancy’s story (don’t worry, I’m reviewing the rest of the series, too!). Brimming with personality and breezing by with the help of smart and succinct prose, McGuire’s charming novella is an excellent read. 

Every Heart A Doorway: 8.0/10

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – Fantasy Divorce Simulator

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro, by K.S. Villoso, is equal parts compelling, refreshing, engrossing, and frustrating. The novel has a problem– it has an extremely rough start in the service of setting up a brilliant finale. Before I dive in and start lauding the book’s many positive qualities, I want to say this upfront: if you get easily frustrated with dumb characters, or you don’t like investing in unenjoyable characters for long term payoff, this book likely isn’t for you. However, if you consider yourself of great patience, want to read a refreshing fantasy story, and like character growth, I may have a treat for you.

Oren-Yaro grabbed my attention right off the bat with its premise. Our story follows Queen Talyien. Princess of a country that lost a bloody war, she was sold off as a hostage bride to the winning side in order to secure peaceful days for both nations. This works (for a while) until her husband metaphorically goes for a pack of cigarettes and just never comes back. Left to raise their only son and govern a hostile nation, Talyien suddenly has problems. However, she manages to make do and come out on top, until she receives a message from her deadbeat co-monarch (duarch?) that he wants to meet and talk. She agrees to meet him and this is where our story takes off. The story follows Talyien as she navigates her way to the meeting, deals with the meeting (which is a request for a divorce), and decides what she wants to do. All of it is a rollercoaster of both good and bad.

The good: Talyien, when alone, is really fun to watch. There are a number of “princess slumming it” scenes that are very endearing with great dialogue. The investigation of divorce in a feudal state is interesting – and Villoso’s idea of how it might play out is captivating. There is a clear air of mystery and unreliable narrator in the first 90% of the book, and the reveal of what has been hidden at the end is pretty good.

The bad: Talyien, when with other characters, is awful. She is obnoxious, seems to drop several points of intelligence, and is just grating. The politics and lore of the world feel unnecessarily dense and confusing due to their stark and vague descriptions. Several of the supporting cast, like Talyien’s son, have zero character depth other than “make Talyien feel bad.” Seriously, her son shows up like five times in the first quarter of the book and all he ever contributes is “why did you make dad go away?” The unreliable narration is a little too unreliable. Talyien comes off as unlikable due to a perceived lack of consistent character for the majority of the book and it can be very hard to read.

The ending of the book is awesome, but I had to be told by someone else to finish the novel as I quit Oren-Yaro my first time reading it due to frustration. I think Villoso played her cards a little too close to the chest in order to make a grand reveal– though the reveal is indeed grand. If you have a lot of patience and you find the premise compelling, I hesitantly recommend The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro. However, I think its choppy narration and its sometimes difficult characters would make it hard to recommend it to everyone.

Rating: The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – 6.0/10
-Andrew

The Prestige: Showstopper

My journey with The Prestige fittingly began with a bit of magic trickery. “Oh, if you like the movie you have to read the book.” The bookseller explained. He went on, “One hundred percent worth it.” Then, with a flourish of legerdemain and misdirection, the book miraculously appeared in my bag while my fifteen dollars in cash (a budget set by my wife to limit my purchase to one book) materialized in the cash register. And so Christopher Priest’s novel of feuding stage magicians, famously developed for the silver screen in 2006, landed on my to-read pile. 

Normally I would disregard a book’s adaptation to any other media in my review. But like the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the film and the book versions of The Prestige remain inextricably intertwined. To keep things spoiler-free, here’s my warning: if you’ve seen the movie prior to picking up the novel, you will start ahead of the game. You’ll be privy to many, but crucially not all, of the secrets within. 

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier each have a great-great-grandchild exploring the mysteries of their descendants. This delicately frames the narrative in a semi-modern day (the book was first published in 1995) mystery. These short segments bookend the crux of the novel: two large sections that outline each of the dueling magician’s lives in his own words. Alfred Borden sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of magic and how it’s performed. He tells of his feud with Rupert Angier and the many years over which it occurs. His story sways beautifully between personal growth and regression, and he drops details that form the outside borders of a puzzle. The first pieces are there, but there’s much left to fill in. 

After an interlude from the two descendants, Rupert Angier tells his side of the story through his diary. It covers 20 years of his life and often skips huge chunks of time, but the burden of completing the puzzle falls on his narrative. In this, author Christopher Priest delivers. 

I’ve stayed deliberately tight-lipped about the details of the plot for good reason: it’s juicy and immensely entertaining. Watching this story unfold reflects the wonder of a magic show. Laden with misdirection and twists, The Prestige reads as one fantastic illusion. Borden and Angier tell their respective sides of the tale with brash egos befitting career stage performers, and the first-person approach lends a certain weight of plausibility to their outlandish recountings. Priest’s deep characters and elegant prose go a long, long way in making this book a mystery worth unfurling.

The downside to Priest’s narrative approach is the pacing. Borden and Angier feel incredibly real throughout the novel, thanks to Priest’s prosaic heavy lifting. The downside? Reading through two entire lives told autobiographically feels slow. In a book where details are essential to the story, it’s easily forgivable. But it’s also worth noting that, even at 360 pages, it’s a slow read. What I’m really trying to say here is this: if you start The Prestige, you’re signing up for a slow burn. You have to be content to let the details simmer as you trek through the pages. If you can manage that, you’re in for a great payoff. 

And that’s where the book really shines. The ending, though crafted with similar reveals to the movie, takes things one step further. The final 30 pages offer a veritable treasure trove for prefer-the-book purists. There’s merit in the entire story, but the finale alone makes the journey worthwhile. Combining elements of horror and mystery, it packs a real mystical punch. The end of this novel-length magic trick is the exclamation mark on a beautifully written, sometimes rambling, entirely entertaining sentence. 

Rating: The Prestige – 8.5/10

The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

shadowsaint

Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will

 

The Rise of Kyoshi – Solid as a Rock

F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi, written with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, breaks new ground in the Avatar universe while paying homage to the source material that fans love. The novel explores new territories and pursues intriguing storylines that equally satisfy that Avatar craving and provide a fresh journey back to the world of benders. 

The Rise of Kyoshi follows the titular earth Avatar in her early days. Yee cleverly circumvents tried-and-true Avatar tropes–discovering the new Avatar, training montages, etc.– by placing Kyoshi in the center of a secret scandal. The Avatar has been incorrectly identified, and Kyoshi is his servant. The revelation that Kyoshi is the actual Avatar (and has been living with the misidentified one) kickstarts an Aang-worthy whirlwind of controversy, betrayal, and growth for both Kyoshi and her comrades. From there, the story meanders through the Earth Kingdom as Kyoshi learns about herself and her bending abilities. Yee weaves an elegant tapestry of politics, history, bending, and character to build upon the world fans know and love, but Rise doesn’t lean on these Avatar-trappings for support. Rather, Yee builds on the rich lore of the Avatar universe and crafts a unique story that deftly avoids using the critically acclaimed source material as a crutch. 

Kyoshi’s story is one of heartbreak, personal discovery, and hunger for power. We meet her as a fledgling bender who’s been cast aside by her parents, teachers, and society at large. Her adventures characterize her as a tough but unseasoned bender who has a keen eye for strategy but has yet to find her true moral compass. In this way, she’s an interesting middle ground between the two Avatars we’ve explored most in the two TV shows: Aang and Korra. Kyoshi blends Aang’s thirst for bending prowess with Korra’s search for meaning and self-discovery, creating a powerhouse character that’s just plain fun to read about. 

The supporting cast boasts a collection of interesting characters who typically stray into archetypal territory. While The Rise of Kyoshi deals with heavy themes and doesn’t steer clear of tough topics, the characters adjacent to Kyoshi are indicative of the young adult genre stamp. Kyoshi’s “Team Avatar” comprises a smattering of benders who each have a stand-out personality trait: there’s the aloof/suspicious leader of the bunch, the reluctant sifu, the warmhearted but tough-on-the-outside friend, and many more. This isn’t to say they aren’t lovable or enjoyable to see in action. Instead, I got the sense that there’s more to the characters than is readily available here.

The most unexpected surprise during my read-through was the exquisite description of bending. As an Avatar superfan, I worried that prose wouldn’t be a fit vehicle for the insane acts of bending often portrayed by the core series or the graphic novels. But Yee rose to the challenge and doled out amazing bending set-pieces. He treats bending techniques with great care and makes it feel real and intuitive, which is a crucial element in any Avatar story. 

The Rise of Kyoshi begs the question: will non-Avatar fans enjoy this/is it a good entry point to the world? My opinion: this book is best served as a dessert following the entree that is the series rather than an appetizer. It uses the series as its foundation, despite being a prequel, and deals out fan service in a tasteful way that gives added meaning to ardent fans. That said, a new reader could very much enjoy the prosaic introduction to Avatar and use it as a gateway to the larger pantheon of TV and graphic novels set in the same universe. 

Casting aside any previous fandom or lack thereof, The Rise of Kyoshi is an excellent extension of Avatar lore. Kyoshi is a perfect subject, lending a new perspective to the Avatar’s history and duties outside of Aang and Korra. As the avatar universe continues to successfully expand, it’s impressive how the worldbuilding remains consistently high quality, fresh, and doesn’t step on the toes of what came before. I’m already eagerly awaiting The Shadow of Kyoshi, which releases July 2020. If you’re a fan of Avatar in any capacity, this one’s for you.

Rating: The Rise of Kyoshi – 8.5/10

-Cole

A First-Time Stephen King Reader Walks into a Pet Sematary…

…and the punchline is an 850-ish word essay about his inaugural experience with The King of Horror, which Google tells me is one of Stephen King’s nicknames.

9781982115982_p0_v3_s1200x630It’s admittedly difficult to kick off a piece like this knowing full well that Stephen King has a body of work large enough to be called a pantheon (58 novels!) and a following loyal enough to produce curated meme listicles, “read this if you like Stephen King” listicles, and other clickbait about the guy’s storytelling prowess. Case in point: Stephen King has a fanbase that rivals the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, and for good reason. As a first-time Stephen King reader, Pet Sematary (review to come) acted as the Jud Crandall to my Louis Creed, leading me into a world of creepy spooky stuff that I don’t fully understand.

I closed out Pet Sematary with a newfound appreciation for an author whose work I should’ve started reading years ago. And it’s still early, but to borrow some corporate jargon, I have three key takeaways.

Practice Makes Perfect Prose

There’s no way around it: the dude can write. Pet Sematary boasts a heavy plot and complex themes, but King navigates those rough waters with breezy prose. His writing bears telltale signs of a seasoned veteran. King can describe human thought and stream of consciousness with unmatched skill. When you write as much as King does, you’ll inevitably learn a few tricks of the trade, and that firm grasp on the craft of writing radiated throughout my first foray into King’s work. I won’t belabor the point here, but check out my coming review for more on the technical aspects of his writing.

On a more conceptual level, King’s wordsmithery does wonders to destroy barriers of entry into the horror genre. Despite the wishes of Will, The Quill to Live’s resident horror expert, I’ve steered wildly clear from anything remotely scary because one time I watched The Conjuring and couldn’t sleep for three days. Pet Sematary may not have prepared me for a deep dive into the vast pool of horror writing, but it’s moved the needle from “Absolutely not” to “tentatively excited about the genre’s prospects.” King’s prosaic guidance into an unfamiliar branch of literature opened my eyes to new possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, he convinced me that the horror genre can play host to meaningful explorations of difficult concepts and lofty themes.

Motifs, Mo’ Problems? Not Quite

Speaking as a reformed Fantasy purist with a years-long preference for Young Adult writing, I’ve read my fair share of books that simply present ideas without deeply exploring them. Now, following my reformation, I’ve ventured into new literary territory and learned the difference between merely presenting concepts and actually grappling with them. Pet Sematary fortified my relatively recent love for complex adult (no, not that kind of adult) fiction thanks to King’s thematic prowess.

Reading Pet Sematary, I felt the crushing weight of death on my shoulders. It’s omnipresent through the novel, and it rears its head in unique, intriguing ways. The doctor protagonist’s no-nonsense attitude toward death balances exquisitely with his wife’s terror at a minuscule hint of it. His young daughter’s reluctance to accept it as a possibility rests in the middle of her parents’ views, neatly filling in the spectrum.

When death rears its ugly head, which happens at various points in various ways, I feel prepared to analyze the events through the lenses Stephen King so elegantly builds. His motifs rise in volume chapter by chapter in a deft crescendo of prose that feeds directly into the novel’s climax.

King treats all of his motifs with equal care. And while death plays a starring role, others join the fray to create a food-for-thought tapestry that’s punctuated by the terrifying story that lies beneath.

Creepy>Scary

It’s one thing to make me jump in my seat with a well-timed scare, and it’s another thing to inject a sense of looming dread and doom into every paragraph. In Pet Sematary, King does both quite well, but his appreciation for balance makes this one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

There were three very specific moments in Pet Sematary that scared me enough to raise my heart rate and compel me to look around the house for intruders. These scares are spaced out and surprising, even when I sensed something scary around the next narrative corner. I literally hesitated to pet my own cats as I read the book.

The story that resides in between these scares, though, is violently eery. King weaves a narrative that’s laced with horrifyingly unsettling moments, concepts, and occurrences that had me on edge, turning digital pages as fast as I could.

This probably boils down strictly to personal preference, but King’s foundation of creepy atmosphere sprinkled with truly jump-worthy scares is a recipe for page-turning greatness.

(Read the) Rest in Peace

Pet Sematary expanded my literary horizons into the realm of horror, and I have King’s skilled craftsmanship to thank for it. Reading one of the lauded author’s titles has me amped up for more, seeking that next rush of adrenaline, thought-provoking concept, and layered prose. If you’re somehow on the fence about Stephen King, do yourself a favor and jump down to the “I’ll give him a try” side.

-Cole

Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

Umbrella

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole