Alright full disclosure, I am only writing this review because I was provided a nice free ARC by Netgalley, and I feel bad that I never actually talked about the book. I was hoping to let Ten Arrows of Iron, the second book in The Grave of Empires series by Sam Sykes, quietly sail me by and depart into the sea of memory like a ship in the night. Alas, my guilt over not reviewing the book has sunk that ship like a shark tearing a hole into the hull of a vessel. The only way I could think to patch this boat was to just sit down and talk about the book and come up with some interesting things to say. Like how this new book is about ships, which I subtly eluded to with my crafty analogies that you definitely didn’t notice. So, let’s keep this simple and clean. My thoughts on Ten Arrows boil down to three key discussion points.
Point one: The book is still super fun and if you liked book one (Seven Blades in Black) you will probably like the second one. If you were to click this link it would take you to my review of the first book in this series, explain the majority of the plot to you, and show you that I generally liked Seven Blades in Black. It’s an explosive high-intensity romp with a cool world, likable cast, and interesting premise. The major complaints I had against book one were that it felt bloated (could use some page trimming) and a little convoluted. The good news for book two is that all the things I liked in book one are still there, the fat has been trimmed, and the plot has been streamlined. The bad news for Ten Arrows is that these previous issues have been replaced with more problematic ones.
Point two: This book gave me whiplash. The first issue I had with this book is it feels like it drops all of the previous progress and story we built up from book one on the floor like a giant lego ship that I took hours to assemble. It feels like Sykes wanted to go in a completely new direction with a fresh story for book two, which can work, but the transition between the two narratives is so non-existent it resembles the mega-yacht I tell my friends I have. The entire case of book one, excluding protagonist Sal the Cacophony, just gets up and leaves – and I am not speaking in metaphors here. They are replaced with an equally likable new support cast, but I don’t want the new cast that requires a reinvestment; I want the old cast I was already into. The plot of book two is also so different directionally that it just makes the plot of book one feel even more convoluted in hindsight, which somehow has retroactively made me like book one less. But although almost everything from book one feels like it has been scrapped, at least we got to keep our main lady Sal, am I right? Right?!
Point three: It is becoming increasingly obvious that Sal kinda blows. In Seven Blades in Black, Sal has a mysterious past (which is fairly easy to guess, but still fun) that adds a lot of intrigue and allure to her character. At the end of the book, the mystery gets formally revealed, and we go into Ten Arrows with our eyes wide open and fully aware of the stakes and history of our protagonist. But it turns out that this mystery and allure was doing a very good job of covering up the fact that Sal isn’t a very deep or interesting character. I do think she is more likable in the second installment of the series, which does show some form of growth. But she doesn’t feel like she has any real direction or characterization beyond what she is doing in the exact moment you are reading her, and she has a tendency to be a dick sometimes when asked very normal questions like “could you please not murder me?” Sykes clearly had grand plans for what her story would be and who she would become, but the books are so long, and the deepening of her character so infrequent, that this plan just doesn’t hold water – much like these boat metaphors.
So do I recommend Ten Arrows Of Iron? I do, with great trepidation. If you liked Seven Blades in Black, which I did, then this installment is at its worst another 600+ pages of fun, raucous explosions and adventure. However, the new issues that have appeared on my radar (this is the final ship reference I promise) have sunk (I lied) any hopes I had of this being a ‘great’ series of this time period. There is still fun to be had, like when your ship pulls into port for shore-leave (yeah, I wasn’t even slightly truthful), but there is also the possibility you will realize that your time on the boat sucked and you are team landlubber for life.
I am a latecomer to Welcome to Night Vale, much to my shame. If you are unfamiliar with the famous podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a humor-based series about a small American town replete with supernatural happenings. The character who narrates the series is a small local radio jockey who does his best to report on the happenings and people of Night Vale. His delivery is dry as a desert and as ridiculous as possible.
The podcast has been going on for years, and there are hundreds of episodes, but the team has also put out a few books (the first of which is Mostly Void, Partially Stars) that contain written versions of sets of episodes. I decided to investigate both the first collection (MVPS) and listen to a number of episodes after I finished so that I could both review it as a novel and see if I missed anything by sticking to the written word. I discovered that both forms of the story are phenomenal, definitely worth your time, but have different strengths that will appeal differently depending on your taste.
Mostly Void, Partially Stars’ brilliance comes from two places – the masterful humor and the anally consistent worldbuilding that ties it all together. It makes the story something more than a series of jokes. The situations and scenarios of Night Vale are bizarre and the deadpan delivery is impossible not to laugh at. The first episode of the series talks about a new dog park that was recently installed by the town council that no one is allowed to enter, look at, be near for extended periods of time, and does not contain dogs. The delivery of this information made me laugh out loud while reading, which is quite rare for me.
But the real magic of the story is that there IS a story. While each chapter/episode of Night Vale feels like a standalone joke, there is a very clear through-line to all of them that starts to quite rapidly build a cohesive world, set of characters, and plot. It’s easy to use outlandishness to elicit a laugh, but it’s hard to do it while also being extremely consistent and meticulous in your outlandishness. I was very surprised when I started to get a very strong sense of the town and its inhabitants and started adjusting to the new normal of how they behaved and went about their day. That dog park I mentioned in the previous paragraph felt like a complete throwaway at the start of the series, but it continues to resurface and get updates as the series progresses until you are hoping that the next episode will contain a new hint of what the dog park actually is.
As to the differences between reading the books vs. listening to the podcasts, there are a few things to keep in mind. I ended up liking the books more because I liked the control of the pacing and digestion of the content. There is something about being able to control how I took the story in that made it resonate better with me and upped my enjoyment. However, there are elements of the podcast that you definitely do lose when reading instead of listening. Each episode of the podcast has musical components done by a huge range of artists and they really do add a lot to the ambiance. In addition, the delivery of the narrators in the podcast is masterful, and no voices I made up in my head will top the talented people that were selected to voice the characters. Which of these methods of consuming Night Vale most appeals will vary by individual, but I definitely do recommend you try it no matter which you fancy. You can’t go wrong.
The only hang-up I had with Night Vale was I found it hard to binge, despite wanting to very badly. The standalone nature of the episodes means they are ideal to be consumed here and there or once in a while, not in one 5 hour sitting. Discovering answers to the riddles of the town requires a very long term investment that will see you spending tens to hundreds of hours consuming content. That’s not a bad thing, as the content is very good (and funny) – it just means that if you are looking for quick answers, you are going to be disappointed.
Mostly Void, Partially Stars is fantastic. It was funny, weird, and had a surprising amount of depth. I know most of you have likely already tried, and enjoyed, this cult phenomenon already – but those of you who haven’t should give it a shot. I now have over a hundred podcast episodes in my library waiting to listen too so I suddenly find myself looking forward to car rides in a way I haven’t in a long time.
Look, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. It is currently published by Argyll Productions, a small targeted publisher, so Swordheart is relatively unknown – which is a crime. I found my copy of Swordheart at my public library. There was only a single copy in circulation, I had to wait for ages for it to come off hold, and when I finally got it it was one of the most beat up and well-loved copies of a book I have ever seen. Upon finishing the book I closed the back cover, pulled out my laptop, and ordered Swordheart and the three other currently existing books in the same universe in hardback. I know this is a world and author I am going to enjoy.
Putting aside the hyperbolic love for a second, the plot of Swordheart is rather simple from the outside. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line:
“Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.”
Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. Swordheart is the story of two characters. Our first is Halla, a housekeeper (of sorts) to a wealthy and difficult man who dies and leaves his entire inheritance to her because she was the only person he actually liked. This is a problem for his multiple surviving family members who decide that the best way to get Halla to give up the money is to annoy and badger her to death and collect it from her corpse. When contemplating suicide because she would rather be dead than deal with any more aggressively annoying family members (relatable, and I know my family reads the site but I stand by what I said) she unsheaths a magical sword with a warrior named Sarkis trapped inside. Sarkis, our second protagonist, is an immortal battle-spirit trapped inside a weapon that is forced to serve the will of its wielder. Upon Halla summoning him, he hilariously convinces her not to kill herself and they team up to figure out how to secure Halla’s inheritance. Thus begins an extremely unlikely, and extremely funny, romantic story that kept me enrapt from line one.
Swordheart’sthree key strengths are its unbelievably funny humor, its extremely believable world, and its lovable characters – all of which are intertwined. Kingfisher is one of the funniest authors I have ever read, and I was laughing so hard I was tearing up every few pages. A lot of the humor revolves around both the characters’ personality/chemistry, but an equal part of it has to do with funny observational humor about Kingfisher’s world. This has the added benefit of naturally fleshing out the worldbuilding in a fun and enjoyable way, while also distracting you from the fact that she is just dumping cool lore into your brain in large sections. But the world isn’t just funny. There various cultures, sects, magic, and cities you learn about in Swordheart had me engrossed in this book and clamoring to get my hands on the other ones set in the world. It’s a shame that the book is only around 400 pages long because I would have read a thousand pages of this story. The book is a stand-alone, but Kingfisher mentioned that she hopefully will be writing two more that follow similar characters in a loose trilogy.
The third star of the show is the characters. Halla and Sarkis both have tons of depth and go beyond your very run of the mill protagonists. Halla is a very kind, but very suppressed woman who is clever, but didn’t really have the imagination or ambition to conceive of a present or future where she was happy – just one where she got by and did what needed to be done. Sarkis is an energetic, impatient, protective, and outlandish brute who has a complicated sense of honor. Their chemistry has enough fire to burn down a small village, and they are only the first two characters. There is also an entire supporting cast of antagonists and friends that all feel fully realized and enhance this epic quest of traveling to a records office and filing a case against some annoying people.
I read Swordheart last year (in 2020) and it was one of the few bright warm moments of that entire hellscape of a trip around the sun. This book brought me happiness and joy in a time where I really needed it and was so fun that I immediately purchased another copy for myself to enjoy over and over again for years to come. As a reviewer it is always a rare and wonderful joy when you discover a relatively unknown book (and author) who blows you away with their quality work and you get to go out into the world and shout their praises. This is one of those occasions, and I implore you to find a copy of Swordheart as soon as you can.
Let’s get it out of the way early: Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and likely surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. If you are coming into this paragraph and don’t know what I am talking about, I assume you have been living under a rock. Wells’ Murderbot novellas have repeatedly raked in every award they can qualify for and have been a standout smash genre hit. We reviewed them here (novella 1-2, 3, 4), all extremely positively, and they might be the best novellas I have ever read. However, this year Wells decided to expand the series with a full-blown sequel novel. This was both exciting and a little concerning, as a lot of what made the novellas powerful was their tight character-driven focus and succinct themes. The stories felt perfect for their short page length and just because the novellas were great doesn’t mean the novel would be outstanding. This makes the fact that Network Effect nails the transition so darn exciting.
As this is technically the fifth part in the series, and it would be very easy to spoil entire novellas, I am going to completely skip on the plot of Network Effect. If you are new to the series, check out my review of All Systems Red to get an idea of what you are walking into — but know that I haven’t met a human who didn’t enjoy these books. The purpose of this review isn’t to dissect whether you should buy this book — we unequivocally think that you should. No, the purpose of this review is to pay tribute to the literary triumph that is Wells’ Network Effect.
Network Effect is very different in style from the novellas it follows. The novellas had a tight focus, clear streamlined themes, and eschewed world-building for a narrow cast to highlight the character arc of Murderbot. Network Effect instead pulls the story back and broadens the scope. There is significant world-building, a larger and more ambitious plot, an expanded range of protagonists (though Murderbot is still the star), and in-depth explorations of themes that were only hinted at in the original novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. It is a hell-of-a book.
Network Effect is an unqualified success and is going to be one of the most popular books this year. I foresee it winning a number of awards and accolades, all of which will be rightly deserved. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels makes me wonder what other novellas could shine from a similar treatment. The entire Murderbot series is phenomenal and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out.
The House In The Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune, is a loving book about the wonders of children and learning to live your life in the present. There is so much I like about this book that I don’t know where to start. It will easily grace the top books of 2020 list of anyone who reads it. If Klune’s other books are anything like this one, I have discovered a treasure trove of new reads that I can’t wait to dig into. Don’t wait on this March release; if you are looking for a pick-me-up you should buy it, rent it, or borrow it as soon as you can get your hands on it.
The story of The House In The Cerulean Sea is packed full of heart, humor, and adventure. It tells the story of Linus Baker. A forty-year-old caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, his job is to travel the world to various orphanages for magical children and see if they are being properly cared for. He leads a quiet and solitary life, his only real companion is his temperamental cat. Some may call him stodgy and stiff, but he is good at his job and he has been doing it a long time with almost no change. That is, until an order from upper management sends him on an assignment from Hell, literally. Linus is sent to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears, do his job, and determine both if the children are being well cared for and whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But, to do his job and determine if the children are a threat (to themselves and others), Linus must go through the orphanage’s caretaker: Arthur Parnassus. He sees the children as his own, and he would do anything to keep them from being harmed.
Even in this brief description of Cerulean’s plot, there is a lot to unpack. First, we have Linus. Dear god does he stand out from your typical fantasy protagonist. He is older, overweight, stodgy, big-hearted, organized, observant, and so much more than I expected when I first opened the pages of this story. Which, is kinda the point. Part of Linus’ story is about his hidden depths and his journey of self-discovery to find them. His character arc is frankly beautiful and one of my favorites in recent memory. Linus’ interactions with the children of the orphanage are heart-achingly sweet for a very specific reason – he treats them like adults. One of the major themes of Cerulean is that children have value as people, not just as someone’s child. They have tiny clever minds brimming with creativity and wonderful thoughts. I think it says a lot that I have never wanted to have kids more than after reading Cerulean. The personalities of these tiny individuals, and their relationships with Linus and Arthur, could warm the heart of a corpse.
But, the book is about a lot more than happy feelings and good times. The six children in question are on this special island orphanage because they have been through hard times. Magic is reviled in Klune’s world, and it is easy to see that it is a simple narrative allegory for someone who is even slightly different. Much of the story involves Linus confronting his own initial expectations, predispositions, and biases to see these magical beings for who they actually are. While this isn’t exactly a new idea, Linus’ earnest personality and quiet introverted nature make the theme much more resonant than the average fantasy book I read. Linus doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, so it’s easy to forgive his presumptions, and it’s satisfying when he evolves as a person.
On top of all of this, Cerulean has three hidden elements that up it from great to amazing: humor, romance, and adventure. The book is hilarious in a very Terry Pratchett-Esque manner There are a lot of hyperbolized and hilarious descriptions of the workplace, seaside villages, and beach vacations. The story will have you laughing out loud, or at least smiling, from start to finish. Next, we have the romance – which creeps up on you while you aren’t watching. I was impressed at both how organic, given its short page length, and timeless, given its fantastical nature, the love story in Cerulean felt. It is also a gay romance that feels accessible to anyone of any orientation – which the genre badly needs. Finally, the book is brimming from cover to cover with a palpable sense of adventure. The entire narrative, on some level, revolves around Linus stepping outside his comfort zones, and this is enhanced by a literary ambiance that evokes discovery and the unknown. The prose is good, and the worldbuilding is serviceable. Yet neither of these things feel important given the power of the characters and themes.
The House In The Cerulean Sea will absolutely be one of the best books of 2020. It is a bright, warm, and surprisingly clever book that reflects its wonderfully unassuming protagonist perfectly. It was just what I needed after going through a difficult time the last few months and it put a smile back on its face. To top it all off, the book has well-realized themes and unique stand out elements that distinguish it far and above what else has come out this year so far. The Quill to Live unabashedly recommends The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Go read it the second you can.
Rating: The House In The Cerulean Sea – 10/10
November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.
If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.
Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.
If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.
System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.
Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.
Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots.
Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.
This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.
The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.
Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.
The science fiction and fantasy pantheon overflows with amazing quotes. The intertwined genres offer heart-wrenching quotes about love, inspiring quotes about courage, uncompromising quotes about hardship, and endless others. At their best, these quotes can profoundly touch the reader and leave a lifelong impact on them. Some of the most impactful quotes I’ve encountered share one notable quality: they include the word “but.” These quotes all build the reader up with a crescendo of anticipation, then pull out the metaphorical rug with a “but” and a revelatory flourish. The “but” is versatile, and it can be used to undercut expectations, give readers hints about the future of the narrative, or make you rethink your stance on a particular character. To prove this, I asked the Quill to Live writers to build a list of our favorite “but” quotes, and this is what we came up with. Enjoy!
Rubeus Hagrid’s description of Harry Potter’s first Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher hosts one of the fantasy genre’s most iconic and prescient “buts.” For those who voraciously re-read the series, it’s a darkly playful nod to the tortured Professor Quirrell’s fate at the hands of Voldemort. To the first-years, it’s an indication that something is…off about him. Hagrid, a loyal but not-so-bright fellow, lends the quote a certain gravitas that makes it all the more meaningful. Young Harry trusts Hagrid, and his instincts are sharp enough to know when something’s amiss. This first interaction with Quirrell and the hints Hagrid drops combine to form a literary moment that sets the stage for the remainder of the series–not everyone is trustworthy, and it’s hard work separating the noble from the wicked in the wizarding world.
2) “. . . Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy–of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
One of science fiction’s most profound “buts” appears early in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following Moon-Watcher and his decidedly unevolved band of ape cohorts in the novel’s opening chapters provides a stark contrast from the movie, allowing the ape-community time to breathe and anchoring the novel in pseudo-human history. This “but” signals the ape colony’s ascent to a more elite and less primitive race, laying the groundwork for the millennia-spanning evolutionary space opera to come.
3) “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long passed, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” – The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
This quote opens Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and graces the top of the first page of The Eye in the World. It’s responsible for beckoning an entire generation of readers into the fantasy genre. For many, it is a profound quote that speaks to the nature of the story of The Wheel of Time – a cycle that never ends. It just goes on, and on, and on, and never deviates from its protracted course… until now. The “but” shows the reader that they are witnessing something special, something one of a kind. It begs the reader to demand of the book “show me why this time will be different.”
4) “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” – The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Said by Samwise Gamgee when Frodo loses his hope, this quote speaks to tenacity. The “but” encapsulates the fact that while things might be hard now, the bad times are fleeting. If we just press on and keep placing one foot in front of the other, the dawn will come. This “but” represents rock bottom and a turning point. Although today is a nightmare, tomorrow it will just seem like a dream. This “but” renews the hopes of its readers and shows you that everything is going to be okay. The night is darkest just before the dawn.
5) “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” – The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss is known for his delightful prose, but this quote in particular always stood out to us. The line is about wisdom and how curiosity, not the sheer volume of one’s knowledge, is the foundation of a smart mind. The “but” in this instance encourages you to go deeper and think hard about which of the two qualities is better. At the same time, it helps organize the line to convince the reader that curiosity and the promise of future knowledge can be better than knowledge alone.
This is one of our favorite quotes of all time, and this might just be our favorite “but.” Declared by Kaladin right before he does something incredibly badass, this “but” serves to hype up the reader for an explosive climax that approaches at full speed. This “but” is a harbinger of awesome and a shepherd of excitement, transitioning the reader into an adrenaline fueled spot on the edge of their seat.
7) “The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
We have seen a ton of serious “buts” so far, but the “but” can also be humorous. It can serve as a straight man, as it does in this famous Douglas Adams quote, to the ridiculous. In this quote, the “but” serves as a foil to the outlandish scenario of dolphins being hyper sentient space-faring aliens, and their gratitude for all the fish we have given them in one form or another over the years. The “but” is the gateway from the normal to the absurd, the everyday to the ridiculous.
A spectacular quote from a spectacular book shows that Le Guin knew the power of a well placed “but.” The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things, one of which is growth and change. This quote eloquently states an age-old adage: it isn’t about where you are going, it’s about what you experience on the way. This “but” is a quiet and wise leader that takes the reader’s hand and shows them insight and wisdom into their own lives. It is a “but” that wants you to be happier and live better.
It’s fitting that a fantasy epic so replete with death and destruction can make such a poignant commentary on the joys of life. George R.R. Martin weaves a massive tale brimming with the worst facets of humanity. Torture, murder, deceit, backstabbing, and any number of other wrongdoings fill the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but through it all, in stark (pun intended) contrast to the woeful world surrounding them, the characters trudge forward and keep a firm grip on those small moments that make them feel alive. This “but” is a forceful commentary on the fleeting nature of life, and a call for Jon Snow and his comrades to seize the day. If you live each day fearful of death, are you really living at all? In response to that question, this “but” shouts a resounding, unequivocal “no.”
10) “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” – Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Our final “but” comes to us courtesy of Pratchett and Gaiman and speaks to human nature. In their famous collaborative work, Good Omens, the authors toy with the idea of how circumstance and context sculpt human values and morality. In the book, the authors basically make the case that no one is fundamentally good or evil, but a product of their surroundings and choices. The “but” serves to let you in on the secret of the book and give you insight into humanity. It’s a powerful “but” and one of our favorites.
Well, that’s the full list! We hope you have enjoyed our compilation of the top ten “buts” in fantasy and science fiction. This list was compiled through a combined effort of all of The Quill to Live writers, except for Sean, who badly misunderstood the assignment. His list was undignified, inappropriate, and completely mishandled the subject matter of the piece. I doubt anyone would be interested, but if you want to see his list, you can find an article on the best butts here.
The Story of the Stone is the second book in the much-underappreciated Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series by Barry Hughart. I read (and reviewed here) the first of the series, Bridge of Birds, as part of a book club last year and was very impressed with the novel. Bridge of Birds was a sneaky book, with a number of our members dismissing it early on only to have every single reader fall in love with its subtle humor and themes by the end of the story. However, a huge part of the joy of reading Bridge of Birds was the surprise of discovering how much lay beneath the surface of such an unassuming book. Going into The Story of the Stone a reader will be much more on-guard towards Hughart’s subtlety and does that make it harder to enjoy The Story of the Stone?
For me, the answer was both yes and no. Hughart is still a brilliant writer and his clever ideas, witty scenes, and humorous dialogue still shine through in this second installation. He is one of the few authors I have read that remind me of the great Terry Pratchett, as both of them display a talent for hiding profound messages in silly and fun stories. Unfortunately, the reveals and subtleties of The Story of the Stone didn’t quite have the mind-blowing effect that they did in the first book once you know what to look for. Yet, even though I was much more easily able to guess the direction of the second book’s plot it still didn’t keep me from loving the outcome.
The Story of the Stone picks up shortly after Bridge of Birds ends and shows us a Master Li and Ox who are bored with their daily routine. Everything in their lives is going swimmingly and they are going out of their minds at the plainness of it. So, when Master Li is asked to come investigate the mysterious resurrection of a mad prince, the pair fall over themselves to look into this supposed second coming. The prince was a scientist who performed gruesome medical experiments on his people in the pursuit of immortality. His machinations poisoned the beautiful land he rules, killed and deformed a number of his subjects, and drove their society into ruin. Upon his death, he promised to return – and now a century later there are signs that the promise is coming true. Things such as a mad disembodied voice with the prince’s cackle can be heard in the night. Deformed mummers with the prince’s regalia are appearing and disappearing without a trace. Parts of the kingdom’s wildlife is dying with no explanation. It is up to Li and Ox to determine how to stop the second coming of the prince.
Much like the first book, The Story of the Stone has a fairly linear structure. Li and Ox are showed a handful of seemingly supernatural occurrences and one by one look into, and debunk, how they were achieved. While doing this Hughart masterfully weaves pseudo-Chinese folklore into the worldbuilding and humor into the character interactions. Li and Ox are a memorable pain that remains delightful to follow, and the new support cast rivals them in eccentricities. It would be had to argue that Hughart’s characters are unoriginal. As I mentioned before, the mystery in The Story of the Stone was a lot easier to solve given my experiences with Bridge of Birds, but I still found it intriguing enough to read the book in a single sitting. All of my compliments to the prose, worldbuilding, and pacing in Bridge of Birds equally apply to The Story of the Stone.
Much like Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone is an intriguing and entertaining journey through pseudo-Chinese folklore with a lovable cast. Although I liked Bridge of Birds more, it is only because my expectations were so much higher for Hughart’s second book. Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are one of the great underappreciated gems of the fantasy genre and I implore you to pick these books up when you can. You will not regret discovering what lays below the surface of these seemingly innocent books.
The day I discovered There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck!, a glamorously dressed pirate approached me in the aisles of Chicago’s Wizard World comic convention. He burst full force into a tirade of sexual puns and hilarious phrasing as he declared his own book a can’t-miss gay pirate adventure. I was sold. In fact, I bought the first four books in The Seamen Sexology. After all, it was banned by the Texas Renaissance Festival…who’s to say when it will be banned everywhere and declared a national treasure? Now, two years later, I mustered up the courage to read Francois le Foutre’s debut masterpiece.
This second review paragraph typically hosts a quick plot summary to get you up (to speed), but if I took that route we’d all finish far too early. At 21 pages, There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck is more a short story than a novel (in the literary community, we call this a quickie). In lieu of a plot description, suffice it to say the book is a very short but intensely satisfying read. Give it a chance despite its length and you’re bound to be roused for the entire ride, captivated by le Foutre’s stiff hand and prosaic caresses.
Sure, this is a read that can be rubbed out pretty quickly, but its climax captivates, and the prose is riddled with pirate sex puns that had me screaming. Quickfire spurts of jokes keep this a steady and reliable read, even without any foreplay (aka knowing anything about the book).
Look, is this 21-page story about gay pirate sex a genre-defining literary benchmark? YES. Unequivocally yes. There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck oozes intrigue and wonder. The ocean, sweat and…uh…other things glisten under the shining light of le Foutre’s apt wordsmithery. This line from the first page says it all:
“The last time a man had tried to come on my poop without permission, the other men took it upon themselves to come all over him and beat him off.”
That quote, from the book’s second paragraph, sets the stage for a full-sail journey into a treasure (pleasure?) chest full of puns and wordplay that’s hard to achieve on its own, let alone in a sensible narrative. But, as you’ll find out, Francois does many things. And entering the punderdome to the tune of a delectable sea shanty is one of them.
There are countless other praises I could pour upon le Foutre’s work for you, but–as we all know–sometimes it’s just better if you do it yourself. Do yourself a favor and pick up the Kindle edition for free, or buy the paper copy and keep it on your toilet to spice up visits to your poop deck.
Rating: There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck! – 9.0/10, read it if you dare.