The Riyria Revelations – Classic Fantasy At Its Best

I am wildly behind on books to review due to two hulking 1000 page behemoths (To Green Angel Tower and Oathbringer), so I have decided to talk a little bit about a series I love: The Riyria Revelations by Michael J Sullivan. This self-published marvel came out in 2008 with the first of six books, The Crown Conspiracy. The books were so well received that Orbit picked Sullivan up as an author and created three compilation books, each containing two of the previously self-published novels. Since then, Sullivan has gone on to make four spin off books and two novels of a prequel series.

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What makes Sullivan’s work stand out so much is a dedication to older fantasy tropes with incredible execution. Riyria follows the story of Hadrian and Royce, a human swordsman and half-elf rogue who are trying to steal a sword when they are framed for the murder of a king. It’s a classic fantasy plot and the story is built around a world where elves and humans don’t like each other, in particular because the elves are a superior race in most ways. After the framed murder is resolved, the duo need to go on a quest to find a powerful wizard, journey to ancient cities to locate powerful artifacts, and find a chosen one to lead the humans in a coming conflict against the elves. All of these themes you have likely heard before, they have been around in fantasy since Tolkien.

However, Riyria doesn’t feel at all like books that are just trying to rip off older classics to sell a copy. The book is incredibly original, but uses popular classic tropes in its story, which results in a book that evokes all sorts of warm and positive feelings about it that remind me of how I felt reading fantasy when I was younger. Riyria came out during a period where fantasy was trying to find the next best thing. Grimdark and parodies were both getting really big and no one wanted to tell a classic quest tale in order to stand out from the pack. As a result, Riyria really does stand out to me as one of the most wholesome things published in the last decade that everyone will enjoy.

On top of being fun, the series is really funny. The first book opens with Hadrian and Royce being ambushed by bandits while they argue like an old married couple. In the middle of their domestic spat, they also make time to critique the robbers technique and give some helpful pointers for future robberies so that the bandits might have a little more success. You can read the first pages on the amazon link on the book picture, I guarantee you will not be able to do it without smiling. The entire series is that funny, constantly having fun contextual humor and witty one liners. It is a very easy read, especially in our current landscape of dark and depressing books.

Despite all the great things I have said so far about the books, their true strengths are their characters: in particular Hadrian and Royce. While the side cast is also excellent (in particular Esrahaddon who might be the best wizard since Gandalf), the two leads steal the show and have anchored themselves in my top character list forever. They are deep, interesting, grow as the series progresses, and I never get tired of their witty banter and clashing ideals.

If you are looking for a classic fantasy with good deal of humor and a lot of heart, I recommend you check out Riyria. The delinquent duo of Hadrian and Royce still continue to sit in my top character lists to this day and I can’t imagine anyone not laughing at some of the scenes in the story. You will have a good time.

-Andrew

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Atomic Robo – Stop And Smell The Ions

51z7tnnthel-_sx325_bo1204203200_New York Comic con happened a short while ago, and as always I went to go meet up with all the various publishers and meet some of my favorite authors. As I have said in previous years, and will keep saying, Comic cons are meet ups for every fandom on the planet, and I firmly believe that it is difficult to not have a good time at one. If you haven’t been, you should check your local con out. You never know what you are going to see or who you are going to meet. For example, while I was wandering around NYCC I happen to bump into the author and artist of one of my favorite comics, reminding me of its existence and how much I love it.

I am not a huge comic fan myself (mostly because I could never afford them as a child) but I have really enjoyed a few over the years, In particular, I have one science fiction comic I absolutely adore: Atomic Robo. Robo tells the story of a conscious robot build by Tesla in the 1920s as he works as a sort of weird science ghost buster. He assembles a team of marines/scientists around him and travels the world solving various scientific and magical issues that crop up. The first thing you should know about Atomic Robo, is it is all online for free because it was so popular that the physical copies (which are out of print) are hard to find. I feel that sentence is telling both on how good the comic is and how great its creators, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, are.

Atomic Robo’s story is told mostly in vignettes and monster-of-the-week style encounters. The comic is hilarious, which is honestly a stand out quality in a sea of comics that are trying to be funny and failing. The humor revolves around scientific jokes (like a team of scientists arguing that giant ants are a physical impossibility and can’t exist while almost getting killed by giant ants), really bad puns, and Robo’s snarky and sarcastic attitude:

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This kind of humor might not be for everyone, but I am willing to bet that a ton of you will love it. On top of being funny, Atomic Robo has that rare balance of juxtaposing humor and heartache that makes both stronger. Stories tackle things like how Robo doesn’t age and slowly has to watch his friends and colleagues grow old. These sections are very well written and really pull you into the comic.

However, while some of the vignettes can be very touching I do think that the comic can lack a little bit of depth. There is a somewhat central plot that runs through the various comics, but it doesn’t quite have enough substance to keep me anchored and invested in the comic at all times. One of the cool things about running into the creators of Atomic Robo was that I was reminded of its existence. While I adore the comic in the moment, I often forget about it once I finish the most recent issue. The lack of a continuous plot can leave me without a sense of urgency to keep up with it, which is a shame for all the reasons I listed above.

I really enjoy Atomic Robo, and I think you might as well. You should give it a look. If it did a better job of creating a sense of urgency it would be my top recommended comic – but second place is not bad. If you are looking for a lovable sarcastic crew who have a penchant for dad jokes and science, give Atomic Robo a whirl.

Rating: Atomic Robo – 8.0/10

-Andrew

John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will

Shadowblack – Same Great Writing, New Darker Color

34913716When I was a kid, I didn’t have very much money for comics. As such I decided that I should stick with the one comic franchise I was really enjoying, the X-Men, and get as deep into their story as I could. While reading the X-Men, I fell in love with one of their classic friends/foes: Gambit. Gambit is a smooth talking mutant from New Orleans who was the coolest because he threw playing cards as a weapon and could make things explode. So when Sebastien de Castell’s newest protagonist, Kellen, developed a penchant for throwing playing cards and making things explode, describing me as ‘thrilled’ would be an understatement. Shadowblack is the second title in de Castell’s new YA Spellslinger series and is the third of his books to come out this year – a very impressive feat. I reviewed the first novel in this series, also titled Spellslinger, earlier this year and really enjoyed it – but does the sequel continue de Castell’s stellar publishing record?

Unsurprisingly, yes it does. Avoiding spoilers as best as I can for book one, when we last left Kellen he was setting out on the road with his Argosi guardian, Ferius, to learn the ways of the world. The Argosi are wandering annalists who find and record great events in the world by remaining neutral. However, their tendency to stalk world events mean that they often find themselves embroiled in conflicts due simply to their proximity to arguing parties. In Shadowblack our protagonists soon meet a plague victim suffering from the famous ‘shadowblack’ – a magical malady that kills quickly. Sensing that the plague might not have occurred naturally, Kellen and Ferius head to The Land of Seven Sands to investigate the mystery of the plague’s occurrence.

The mystery of the plague created an exciting page turner that resulted in me burning through Shadowblack in a weekend. The plot of the series continues to get more complicated and exciting and though I have read two books in this series this year – I already can’t wait to find out what happens next. Kellen’s constant ineptitude with magic and learning Argosi skills has continued to endear him to me immensely – which is surprising given that inept characters tend to drive me insane. As I mentioned in my review for Spellslinger, de Castell has gone in a very different direction with the personalities of his characters compared to his first series The Greatcoats. However, the earnestness and vulnerability that sucked me into his first cast can still be found in his writing, and the more you get to know Kellen and Ferius the more you will adore them.

On a different note, worldbuilding always has been, and likely always will be, one of de Castell’s greatest talents. The world of Spellslinger continues to get bigger and better as we get to meet a number of cultures that were only alluded to in the first novel. The Land of Seven Sands sits in a borderless dead zone that lies in the center of the four major countries in the Spellslinger world. As such, it is used as a dumping ground by all four countries and gives de Castell a great way to show us the various cultures he has created and how they interplay. The political machinations of the book are particularly impressive for a YA book and should keep any adult reader interested and invested in the story. Given how short these books are and the fact that I want to spend more time in this world, I hope de Castell makes a boat load more installments in this series.

Shadowblack only had one major problem in my opinion, and that is that the first few chapters of the book feel fairly awkward. It seems to me that de Castell had some difficulty transitioning his characters from the previous plot line into his new one for book two, and as a result the hand-off feels jarring. Kellen and Ferius have a plague victim walk straight up to them and lay out the start of their quest for the rest of the book in the first few pages and it felt a little unnatural to me. However, once over this initial hump, the book smooths out completely and nothing felt out of place for the rest of the book.

Sebastien de Castell proves that you can accomplish both quantity and quality with his third book this year. Shadowblack’s story continues to develop Kellen’s character, builds out the world around the cast, and has convinced me I want to be an Argosi. The Spellslinger series is a fun and heartwarming adventure for all ages that teaches you that all you need to be successful is hard work and a little of sleight of hand.

Rating: Shadowblack – 8.5/10

-Andrew

False Idols – Restoring Faith

51wy42bxtkvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Earlier this year I read a fun book called Dragon Lords: Fools Gold, by Jon Hollins. I thought it was a comedic romp with a little bit of substance that was dragged down slightly by character relatability and depth. While I was a little late to the party with Fool’s Gold, I decided to jump on Jon’s sequel, False Idols, thanks to the lovely people at Orbit sending me a review copy in return for my honest opinion. This year I have seen a multitude of authors improving on their past books and learning from their mistakes; the question is did Jon follow this trend?

What is False Idols about? – In the wake of liberating their small country from dragons, our five person crew from Fool’s Gold all went on their way to live happily ever after. This, unfortunately, didn’t work for everyone. Three of our crew find themselves unsatisfied with their new wealth and life, and the other two soon find themselves forced out of their ever after. On top of this, a new set of dragons have set themselves to conquering, not just the tiny country we visited before – but the entire continent. However, the oversize iguanas have decided for a change of tactics. Instead of brutal oppression, the dragons have decided to oust the gods and ascend to the pantheon in their stead – and then go back to brutal oppression. Unsurprisingly, our crew soon finds themselves united and once again plotting the deaths of dragons.

Did he fix the issues? – In short, yes. I am elated to see so many writers I like getting better and better this year, and am happy to add Jon’s name to that list. My major problems with Fool’s Gold were that some of the characters were unlikable (primarily Quirk) and that the plot of the book was a tad repetitive. First, not only did Jon revamp Quirk into a much more enjoyable character to read about, he also maintained her character identity from book one to have the best of both worlds. Quirk still has a stick up her ass the size of a redwood, but Jon has toned down the condescending tone that drove me insane in the first book and has raised the awareness of her character flaws amongst his cast making her a lot more fun to read. On top of this, Jon has developed and improved every member of the cast to make them more relatable. He still tells the story of deeply flawed, and sometimes unlikable people, but I no longer found that these character elements imposed on my reading experience.

The first book was broken up into three similar arcs of: locate dragon, plan to murder dragon, watch the plan fall apart and wing it. It was a fun idea but it started to feel a little repetitive by the end. In contrast to this, False Idols has a much deeper plot that pulled me in. The humor in these books is enough to carry them by itself, but paired with a plot that got me invested in the story made the entire book feel like it stepped up. In addition, I thought that the prose of book two was simply better than it was in the first book.

Does it still have what made Fool’s Gold good? – As I mentioned above, False Idols is still hilarious. The contextual humor of the situations our cast finds themselves in continued to make me laugh out loud, though I will say that because this book takes on a more serious and dark identity that meant I probably laughed a little less. The chapter titles still made me chuckle every time saw one, and character reactions and dialogue had me in stitches.

In Fool’s Gold we got a nice glimpse of Jon’s worldbuilding and I was excited to see it fleshed out more. False Idols shows us a variety of countries and cultures as the crew travels around trying to stop draconic oppression. I won’t spoil their various quirks, but just know that I don’t think you will be disappointed with Hollins’ imagination.

Is it perfect? – Books rarely are, but I think False Idols is a lot closer than book one. I only had one minor annoyance this time around and that was the relationship between Lette and Will, two of the protagonists. At the beginning of book two they have just broken up, and I felt that the book spent a tad too much time with them thinking of each other. However, this was only a very small bother and I otherwise thought that False Idols was fantastic.

On top of all of this, False Idols ends with a massive cliffhanger that has me on the edge of my seat for the sequel. The book addressed all my issues with its predecessor, is still hilarious, and has developed a plot that has completely pulled me in. Jon Hollins has done wonders to improve his already great series and I highly recommend you check these books out as soon as you can.

Rating: Dragon Lords: False Idols – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Communication Failure – A More Clear Message

51iumd8kwyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_One of the hidden gems I read last year was a satirical science fiction called Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja. It was the story of a disillusioned and incompetent military vet, Rogers, being forced back into service on a warship where everything seems just a little off. The plot follows Rogers attempts to uncover what’s causing the weirdness and results in a larger conspiracy being revealed. The book only loosely relied on its plot, with the meat of the appeal being the book’s humor that had me laughing out loud constantly. So when I got my hands on a early copy of Zieja’s sequel, Communication Failure, I was very curious to see if the series could keep its appeal in a second novel.

I was concerned that the plot, which was neither outstanding nor bad in Mechanical Failure, might drag Communication Failure down. However, the exact opposite was true as Comm sees an enormous increase in plot complexity and world building. I was incredibly impressed with the level of detail that Zieja added to his world in this second novel. Our story picks up with Rogers somehow in charge of a derelict fleet. Comm follows his attempts to learn to be a leader, deal with a foreign fleet attempting to destroy him, and continue to unravel a tapestry worth of conspiratorial threads around him. There was a lot more character development than I was expecting as the book progressed and I found myself very invested in the characters by the end. I found myself groaning aloud as I finished Comm because I am dying to know what happens next.

While Comm vastly increased my investment in the plot, it didn’t lose a single step on the humor front. Communication Failure is just as funny as Mechanical Failure was and I found myself once again laughing like a mad man in public as I read Comm on the subway. What is particularly impressive about Comm is what I would describe as a diversification of humor. Zieja does not just rely on a single joke or type of humor, keeping the books constantly fresh and funny. There is situational and contextual humor, science fiction parody and satire (his take on sci-fi fighter pilots is amazing), wordplay and puns, and terrible unfunny jokes that Zieja repeats until I angrily laughed at them. My favorite example of the last in that list was Zieja’s Thelicosan captain who roundhouse kicks something or someone every two seconds. When she initially made her introduction and started kicking people I loudly thought “well this book is hilarious so far, but I think you missed with that one Zieja”. About 100 pages and 30 kicks later I found myself angrily trying not to laugh, and failing, as she continued to kick her way through existence. As I have been writing this review I have just been sitting at my desk laughing as I think about various scenes, so it is safe to say Communication Failure is one of the funniest books I have read… well since Mechanical Failure.

With vast improvement to the world and characters, and continued top notch humor, Communication Failure is a sequel that surpasses its previous debut. The story now has me hooked and I am dreading the long wait to find out what happens in the next book. With this successful second entry, my hope is that Zieja will keep churning out an endless number of Failures as I don’t think I will ever get tired of reading them.

Rating: Communication Failure – 9.0/10

-Andrew

Spellslinger – Real Magic

spellslinger_frontalSeries transitions can be rough. This year Sebastien de Castell stuck the landing as he wrapped up his astounding Greatcoats quartet and sealed it as one of my favorite series. Simultaneously he has launched the first book in his second series, Spellslinger. It is always interesting to see the direction that authors go post-series completion. Some authors love to stick with that they know and make spin offs (which there is nothing wrong with). Others like to try something new and start from a blank slate. Spellslinger falls into the second category and I was curious to see if de Castell could recreate the magic of Traitor’s Blade or if it would fall flat. I am impressed to say that Sebastian did neither of those things; instead creating something with a different voice than his other work but just as wonderful.

The concept behind Spellslinger is one of my favorite in recent memory: a boy who is failing at being a mage instead becomes a magician. Our lead, Kellen, is a young mage who is currently trying to pass his mage trials to become a Jan’Tep. He has until his sixteenth birthday to complete a series of texts to be recognized as one of his tribe’s magic wielding upper class. If he fails to pass these texts before his rapidly approaching bday he will instead be relegated to the almost slavelike underclass of his tribe who are forced into servitude of the Jan’Tep. Kellen’s magic is pretty terrible, but he has a sharp wit and keen mind and supplements his weak spells with the skills of a traditional real world stage magician (sleight of hand, illusions, misdirection etc.). Using all these skills and his keen mind he might just be able to escape being forced into a life of servitude.

Spellslinger is a young adult book, but I think that the only place it is noticeable is the subject matter it focuses on: a young boy trying to pass tests and find his place in the world. Sebastien treats his readers as adults and I think this book will be loved by people of every age. As I mentioned before, when I went into Spellslinger I expected a similar narrative structure to The Greatcoats: funny and charismatic characters that run around solving all the world’s problems with their upstanding morals – but with magic this time. Instead Kellen is a more subdued character than de Castell’s others, but that is likely because he grows and changes as a person as the book progresses in a wonderful way. The book is still funny, fun, and an adventure to read, but Spellslinger places more emphasis on worldbuilding and the protagonist’s personal story than The Greatcoats did.

Speaking of which, the worldbuilding is incredible. Spellslinger is not a very long book but Sebastien establishes a deep and enrapturing world in an impressively short amount of time. In addition, the cast of characters in the book is great. The cast feels fresh and new, both from his other series and the genre as a whole. There is a sub-theme running through the book surrounding turning fantasy tropes on their head, and I love it. One example is that instead of getting a magical animal familiar like his fellow mages, Kellen gets a business partner. It adds absurdity and humor that I love to the story, and makes it one of the most memorable I have read in years. There are so many books out there about the ‘Chosen One’ rising up to save the world, that Kellen (who reads like budget Harry Potter, and I mean that with the highest level of praise, I promise) really stands out and instantly found a place in my heart. On top of all of this, the plot of the book is fantastic and had me on the edge of my seat from page one, and I read it in a single sitting. Much like the late and wonderful Terry Pratchett, de Castell is a masterful author who weaves deep and poetic ideas and points into his humor and this trend continues in this novel. His comments on family and friends hit hard for me and the book managed to make me both laugh out loud and cry within a few pages.

de Castell is one of the best authors of our generation and it is wonderful to see that his enormous talent is not restrained to a single series. Spellslinger is a tremendous success in its own right that I encourage you to pick up as soon as possible, but it also shows that de Castell will be an author I follow for the rest of his career. I ecstatically recommend Spellslinger to everyone and I eagerly await the sequel, Shadowblack, later this year,

Rating: Spellslinger – 9.5/10