Shorefall – Remember To Breathe

Do you like rollercoasters? Do you like feeling the grim reaper’s breath on your neck as you hurtle through time and space at speeds that the human mind wasn’t meant to comprehend? Does being super incredibly stressed for uncomfortably long periods of time turn you on? If you answered yes to any of these questions have I got a book for you! Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it.

If you are just reading The Quill to Live for the first time, welcome to the site! Please know that we collectively love RJB and think he is one of the best contemporary writers of modern fantasy. Shorefall did little to dissuade us of that notion. The book is the sequel to Foundryside (our review of book one can be found here) and while Shorefall picks up the narrative three years later – it only feels like seconds. Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregory have founded their own scriving house with plans to use the technology they invent, steal, and extort to better the world around them and burn the remaining established houses to the ground. However, these plans need to take a major pause when they learn of an otherworldly threat descending on their beloved city. There are some mild spoilers for Foundryside after the cover picture so turn back now if you haven’t read the first book and want to remain completely pure.

51iik4c-6gl

At the end of book one, the Foundrysiders released what seemed to be a god from her entrapment. They had mixed feelings about this, but feel decidedly negative when they learn that a second opposing diety looks poised to also return to wage war on everything. The first hierophant, a man who could wipe cities off the planet with a thought, is coming back. The Foundrysiders begin to scramble to prevent the hierophant’s return, as it could spell the end of reality itself.

Here’s the thing. I thought Shorefall would be a story about our lovable crew from book one working together to figure out how to prevent this clearly unstoppable force of nature from coming back and ruining existence. The book would be a game of tag between the Foundrysiders and the cult ushering the hierophant’s return. At the end of the book, the cult might get successful in bringing him back in some form and we would have an intense set up for book three in this series. That is not what happened, at all. I am sorry for these mild Shorefall spoilers, but the first hierophant makes it back in something like the first 10% of the book. The entirety of Shorefall after this point essentially becomes the story of “what if a team of four talented engineers got into a batshit insane pissing match with Cthulu?” It is one of the most intense and fast-paced stories I have ever read, with the sense of palpable urgency never letting up for a single second. Every second of this novel feels appropriately like a mere mortal standing firm against the will of a cosmic deity and saying “fuck you.” It is a work of art.

The magic continues to be one of the coolest and most imaginative concepts that I have ever read. Bennett refuses to be backed into a corner by his premise and continues to find more and more interesting ways to step outside the box he built for himself. The way the characters use and bend the rules of the world to affect change feels like an inconceivably large puzzle snapping into the correct configuration. The magic is also still visceral and nightmarish. I am haunted by some of the descriptions and deaths from this series. I see them in my mind when I lay down to sleep at night and cannot block the sounds of their imagined cries as they are ripped to pieces. This series is not for the squeamish.

Shorefall is so much more than I expected. On top of giving me enough anxiety to have a stroke, it has truly beautiful character stories. Just like in book one the POV is split between all four of our leads, with a slightly greater focus placed on Sancia and Gregory. Each character is dealing with some heavy stuff that is explored in great detail. To give you a peek into some of their trials: Sancia is trying to understand what to do with her life now that she has stability for the first time ever. Gregory is trying to gain some semblance of control over literally anything to feel like he has a shred of agency in his life. Berenice is struggling with the idea that while she is amazing at many things, in order to do what is needed she has to step outside the comfort zone she has hidden in her entire life. Orso is coping with the profound realization that most of his life’s work isn’t going to amount to anything and trying to find meaning in his existence. This is only a fraction of what these characters are going through and it is wonderful.

However, I will say that while it is truly impressive that Bennett managed to create such a fast-paced story with such memorable character arcs – it feels like these two powerful elements of the story do not compliment each other well. The pacing rips you through the story so fast there is rarely time to sit and digest things. This works well from a plot perspective because it keeps you so off-balance that every new piece of information feels like an amazing twist. But these character stories are beautiful and deserve to be luxuriated in, and there simply doesn’t feel like there is enough time to do so with how fact the pace moves. I just want it all, to be pulled across a lake of imagination at the speed of sound and at the same time sit on the shores and calmly enjoy the view.

Shorefall is not what I expected in the best way possible. It is a lightning strike to the spine, an explosion of ideas and feelings, and a hauntingly beautiful story about good people making hard choices. It is a success as a sequel in every possible way and I can think of and if you are not already reading The Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett you are missing out. Shorefall is not a book to let pass you by like a ship in the night.

Rating: Shorefall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Infernal Battallion – A Devilish Delight

Happy publication day Django Wexler, and congrats on finishing The Shadow Campaigns with your fifth and final installment, The Infernal Battalion. To celebrate I thought I would write a review (possibly thanks to the lovely advanced copy I got from netgalley in exchange for an honest review). The Shadow Campaigns has been a very difficult series for me to holistically rate. It has had both intense highs (with every action scene gripping my heart) and unfortunate lows (I don’t care how realistic it is, the logistics of moving an army through winter is not exciting). It is a series that seems to take two steps forward, one step back, for me and has alternated books I love with books I am neutral on. I wasn’t crazy about the fourth book in the series, The Guns of Empire, but The Infernal Battalion has reignited my love for this series like a demonic manifestation in an oil reservoir. If you are unfamiliar with The Shadow Campaigns, you should go pick up a copy of the first book, The Thousand Names, and come back to this once you have read the first four books. The following will have some mild spoilers, so turn back now.

5199r2bptukl

For those of you still around, let’s talk. I have worried since the end of book one that the finale of this series might be a let down. I feel like almost all protagonists who have a magic power that “cancels other magic” have the same ending – everyone buys time to give them a window to punch the magic villain who is overpowered as all hell. Winter certainly felt like she was going to fall into that category going into The Infernal Battalion, especially given how strong The Beast is. I am happy to say that while there is a little bit of the trope in Battalion, Wexler knew how to make things feel fresh and new. The strength of this series has always been more on its character development and action than its plot, but the ending of the story certainly wasn’t bad.

Speaking of great character development, Battalion completes the character arcs of every character in wonderfully fulfilling ways. The large and colorful cast all get interesting, unexpected, and satisfying endings. I was so worried how Jane’s story was going to end, because I assumed it had to go a certain way, and Wexler subverted my expectations completely and I loved it. Janus’s story is finally revealed in Battalion, and it lived up to my enormous expectations. All the love interests of the various cast panned out in satisfactory ways, and I got to the final pages and just wanted to pull everyone in for a massive team hug.

Additionally, the action in Battalion (something that has always been steller in the series) continues to meet the lofty bar established in The Thousand Names, with some really exciting solo fights as well. Wexler has a real talent for magical combat and one of my major complaints for the series is that there wasn’t more of it because the small snippets had me cheering aloud as I read them. Wexler’s dedication to historical accuracy of large battles is much more fun in a book like Battalion where there are large scale conflicts every few pages, compared to The Guns of Empire – a book that felt like it was mostly about the logistics of not dying to winter. I am super curious to see what Wexler will do next, because with his action scene skills I feel like just writing a story of a giant magical battle tournament would be incredible.

All in all, The Infernal Battalion ends The Shadow Campaigns on a really high note. It is a series with amazing characters and great action that will keep you up at night. While there were occasional pacing problems that really hurt the flow of the series, overall I think it is a fantastic read. Wexler clearly has an incredible talent for writing and historical accuracy, and I cannot wait to see where he goes next.

Rating: The Infernal Battalion – 8.0/10
Rating: The Shadow Campaigns – 7.5/10

-Andrew