The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It – Besieging Hearts And Minds

We have a Parker review double header today! Be sure to also check out our review of Prosper’s Demon.

49088677Before reading it, I was confused as to whether How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It, by K.J. Parker, was a sequel to Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City. The blurbs I read made it seem like Empire wasn’t a sequel, but they are listed as part of a series. The ending of Sixteen was fairly definitive, but the books also share clearly similar cover art style – so suffice to say I was puzzled. After picking Empire up, I found the answer to the question is just as confusing:

Book one, Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, is the story of an engineer stuck in an endless siege against an enormously overwhelming army camped outside. Throughout the course of the book, the engineer manages to deadlock the army, essentially creating a stalemate and saving the city. The siege is still going on at the end of the book, but for all intents and purposes, the conflict is over. Empire is a pseudo-sequel set eight years later that tells the story of a different set of characters (with some minor carry over) who are still dealing with this endless siege. Parker pretty much washes away the original cast of Sixteen by literally saying “rocks fell and everyone died” – so Empire is more like a strange retelling of Sixteen than an actual sequel. In many ways, Empire is just the same book as Sixteen – so what’s the point in reading it? The answer is Empire’s cast provides a kaleidoscope of new angles and views of a classical fantasy problem and delivers solutions and commentary with the same unyielding drive and wit as the first book.

While Sixteen told the story of an engineer facing off against an army, Empire tells the story of an actor. At the beginning of the second book, a stray catapult shot manages to kill the ruling general of the besieged city. To keep the peace and maintain morale, the general’s seconds kidnap a famous impressionist and force him to assume the general’s identity to maintain appearances. At first, the actor is just trying to save his skin and stay alive. But as time progresses, he begins to realize that no one has any idea what they are doing, and if he doesn’t actively intervene, they are going to end up losing the city. Thus begins the greatest story of faking it until you make it I have ever read.

Empire is an amazing book with a unique narrative identity. As always, Parker seems to be a man of original and clever ideas, and he writes stories to express them beautifully to his readers. The narration is done in the style of a play, with a ton of quirks and nods to this concept woven into the storytelling. The protagonist’s name is Notker, and he positively vibrates with energy and flavor. Parker does a tremendous job of approaching all the problems in the story from the perspective of an actor and finds solutions that feel true to his cast’s way of thinking. It creates this really cool dichotomy between Sixteen and Empire; if the reader is paying attention, you can see the enormous thought and detail that Parker put into both novels. The positive side of this relationship is that both books have a symbiotic relationship that improves the experience of reading both. The bad side of this relationship is it is impossible not to compare the two books directly, and I think it makes it easy to see that Empire is the weaker story.

Don’t get me wrong, Empire is an excellent book, and I absolutely recommend it. But I think Sixteen is better. Empire feels a little emptier than Sixteen, and the extreme emphasis on Notker means that the supporting cast is less developed, and the world feels less lived in. Somehow Sixteen made me feel like the worldbuilding shrunk, and I came out with less information about the setting than I started with. Finally, the pacing in the second book is a bit topsy turvy. The adherence to the play-like style means there are some extreme scene transitions and set changes that can feel jarring.

Overall, I definitely recommend How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It. Parker somehow managed to deconstruct his own book and rebuild it into something new and wholly original, and it is an impressive work of fiction. Like all Parker books I have read, Empire is an interesting experience from start to finish – funny and fresh from page one. If I had to pick one over the other, I think I would still go with Sixteen, but they are both wonderful books that you should read as soon as possible.

Rating: How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Prosper’s Demon – But He’s My Angel

50905325._sx0_sy0_So is it just me, or everyone else getting tired of me writing reviews about books I liked and/or loved? No? Just me then? Well luckily for you, I have another one of those reviews that you can’t get enough of. Fortunately, this one is a short little piece for a perfectly sized book. If you haven’t already guessed, I’ll be talking about Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker, an explosive novella that knows exactly what it’s doing and has a blast doing it. I’ve never read any of Parker’s other books, unless you count some of his works as Tom Holt (which is the real one?), making this novella an extremely pleasant experience.

Prosper’s Demon is told through the eyes of an exorcist that lives in a land reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. However, the main character, whom I’ll just refer to as the Exorcist (he goes unnamed) is fairly brutal and efficient in his exorcisms. He doesn’t really mind a little collateral damage, as long as the demon is forced out and the “greater good” is served. On top of that, he takes special pleasure in knowing that while demons never die, they feel exponentially more pain than a person upon their removal. The problem is his next target is a genius, artist, and scientist named Prosper of Schanz, who also happens to be tutoring the next king.

I apologize in advance for the amount of gushing that this short review will contain; it will honestly feel like an advertisement, but I’m quite okay with it (note I was not paid, but did receive a free copy from the publisher). This is easily my favorite novella, and for good reason. Parker absolutely nails the narration from the exorcist. Two pages in and he knows you hate him as much as he hates himself, but what can you do? Me, I just kept reading, pulled into the exorcist’s head as he regaled me with his tales of demon hunting. His lack of morality matches his wealth of cunning and cruelty. The way he describes his feelings is palpable, tangible and utterly relatable. I feel weird being so enthralled by him, but he’s such a convincing character that you buy into his pathological tendencies. He’s definitely not a good guy and he recognizes it, but he also knows that it’s you who really holds the ability to judge him. I do want to highlight that this is a dark book. Funny, too, but it’s pretty dark. There is a sadism present on every page, and a very casual, almost gleeful, acceptance of it by the exorcist himself. This is just what he does. He’s good at it, really fucking good at it, and I love him for it.

Beyond the main character, Parker does an incredible amount with so little space. I think it helps that he pulls from well known tropes within western enlightenment and renaissance history, but it feels deliberate. You immediately know how the world works, and he’s just peeling back the curtains. It’s an excellent way to fast track the story to focus on this single event, the exorcism of Prosper of Schanz, and holy hell is it an event. The whole novella builds up to it, as if the first page was a match being lit and you’re watching the spark wind through hallways to its ultimate destination. It’s fast and it’s furious, and it’s one heck of a ride. The demons themselves have a character to them as well. I won’t spoil too much, they are too much fun to encounter on your own, but I will say it’s easily my favorite representation of demons in fantasy. There is a weird humanity to them that is twisted by their nature, and twisted further still by the exorcist’s point of view. It’s brilliant.

I could go on about just how effective this book is at selling its incredibly short story. Chatter gleefully about it’s stark and cynical meditations on some of the greatest western enlightenment and renaissance ideas. But really, I just want you to read it. It’s dark, it’s horrible, it’s funny, it’s absolutely messed up, but it’s a great time and an excellent example of how much can be done in one hundred pages. K.J. Parker, this book has possessed me to finally pick up more of your work, you glorious monster.

Rating: Prosper’s Demon 10/10
Alex

The Best Books Of The First Half Of 2020

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this has been a difficult year for most people. Thus, we wanted to get a jumpstart on getting amazing books into your hands in order to find a little joy. Instead of waiting until November to give you all a list of the best books of 2020, we decided to compile a small list of dynamite novels from the first half of 2020. A book charcuterie board, if you will. So, if 2020 has you down and you need a high-quality read – look no further than these books. In no particular order, here are our top six reads from January to June 2020:

51iik4c-6gl1) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Coming in hot on the heels of Foundryside, Shorefall is a perfect second book to The Founders trilogy. The magic system continues to be one of the most innovative and exciting I have read in years, and Bennett’s flair for action, imagination, and horror are on full display. As a bonus, the themes of the book revolve around connecting people from different POV to make the world a better place and finding hope when all looks lost – a perfect book for current events.

81mny8q7oll2) The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – TJ Klune penned one of the most joyful books I’ve ever read. The House in the Cerulean Sea follows by-the-books caseworker Linus Baker, who audits orphanages that house magical youth. When he’s sent on a particularly difficult assignment, Linus finds himself embraced by an unlikely family of talented magical children and their quirky caretaker. To read this book is to smile through every page, laugh along with the witty humor, and shed an occasional tear. Klune crafts perfectly timed, subtle, emotional, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose. Through it, he creates characters that you truly come to love over the course of the novel. The House in the Cerulean Sea is unquestionably one of the year’s top books, and everyone should read this feel-good adventure as soon as possible.

41spd48rbal3) Network Effect by Martha Wells – I just really didn’t think Network Effect was going to be such a success. I am so used to authors cashing in on popular IPs and writing terrible spin-offs that I was jaded, and Network Effect is anything but that. This novel sequel to the popular Murderbot novellas is the perfect transition between the two mediums. Network Effect takes everything good about the short punchy novellas and expands the world, cast, and plot without losing any of the character depth. On top of everything, Network sets the stage for a big and exciting plot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am4) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – Usually one-sentence ideas like “gender-bent Alexander the Great in outer space” sound cool (and this one sounds amazing) but fall flat beyond initial expectations. Elliott, however, runs a marathon with it and at breakneck speed. The amount of world-building, character development, and political intrigue that goes into this first novel of a series is astounding. Elliott also plays very heavily with her narrative style that makes you hooting and hollering for a form of propaganda. It’s a genuinely fun read that blew away my expectations and should definitely be on your list of to-reads for the year.

91xjptkukl5) The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo – I have read so many Asian inspired fantasies about slighted royals getting even in the last six months. Yet somehow, this novella packed more character and spirit into its short hundred pages than any of the other full-sized novels I read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the perfect balance of familiar and original. It’s a short read with great pacing and sets up a world that Nghi will continue to explore in subsequent novellas. I was so impressed with this novella that it managed to edge out a lot of the other full novels from 2020 – but it isn’t the only one.

50905325._sx0_sy0_6) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – We still need to get around to reviewing this one, much to our shame. Prosper’s Demon has a very specific story to tell, and it tells it flawlessly. Parker has an agenda and an argument to be made, and he utilizes this short story to execute both with a flawless flourish. It isn’t the best or most fun story I have ever read, but holy cow does Parker nail his themes and characters. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s only like 80 pages long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you can read it in an hour.

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – Siege Loads Of Fun

97803162708091It is always really exciting when one of our dark horse titles pays off. Today I am talking about Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker, a standalone novel with a mouthful of a title. The book is a relatively short story of an army engineer that needs to Macgyver his way through a siege against a horde of enemies with only some duct tape and some rocks. While the book isn’t particularly deep or well fleshed out, it is definitely a lot of fun to read and will provide a number of hours of great entertainment to anyone who likes seeing witty engineers pull stuff out of their collective asses.

Sixteen’s plot is straightforward and I have almost already summarized it in my opening paragraph. The narrative follows Orhan, an army engineer whose claim to fame is that he is incredibly lazy but intuitive enough at his work to get away with it. The country he works for has had a mass uprising, and the army deserts and joins the enemy. Thus, Orhan is left to defend a city with just a handful of engineers and whatever he can scrape together. The book follows the typical siege story format, with each side continually one-upping each other in a spectacular fashion to either hold or take the city. Orhan is extremely fun to read about and his solutions to the problems facing the siege are imaginative, fun, and captivating. There aren’t a ton of deep themes in the book, but there are a lot of fun and hilarious scenes.

The narrative is focused primarily on Orhan, but there is a wonderful supporting cast as well. There is an undercurrent of racial politics in the book, as Orhan is part of a racially discriminated group within the empire. It leads to complicated feelings on Orhan’s part when it comes to why he is defending the city. It serves to make Orhan more likable, as we get to see him rising above hate and doing the right thing, but it doesn’t feel particularly thought-provoking. Likewise, the worldbuilding is pretty barebones. Most of the things that K. J. Parker fleshes out are immediately relevant to the story and you don’t get a sense of a living or breathing world. In fact, due to the shallow worldbuilding, the story can even feel a little contrived at times, and Parker does not leave a lot of room to build out the story further. However, not every book needs to be a sweeping epic that shows you the minute wonders of the universe – it’s also great to read for pure enjoyment, which this book delivers in droves.

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City is a book I would recommend to most people, particularly if they like engineering or witty/roguish protagonists. The book is not breaking much new ground in fantasy, but it is delivering a fun time in a streamlined package. This book would be a great read for any beach or plane ride, or for when you are looking for something light to break up some of your denser reading. I wish the worldbuilding had been slightly more extensive, but it was a fun ride all the same. Check it out.

Rating: Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Dark Horse Initiative – 2019

Every year the Quill to Live sit down in December to plan our collective reading schedule for the next year. It’s a long process, and it heavily involves combing through release dates of series we are following and, more importantly, digging into the hundreds of upcoming and highly anticipated book lists made by publishers, authors, other reviewers, and general fantasy and sci-fi fans. Through this process, we give our yearly reading schedules a little bit of structure – but one of the other benefits is picking out potential dark horses to keep an eye on. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a dark horse is a competitor who comes out of nowhere against all odds to win. In our case, we use it to refer to books that almost no one has heard of that we want to check out or keep an eye on. Sometimes this results in us reading terrible books that we might or might not review depending on how productive we feel our criticism will be. However, other times it results in us being able to champion new and upcoming authors who deserve more recognition.

Recently, we have been getting a lot of requests to describe the 2019 books we are excited about, in particular, the dark horses we have our eyes on. Thus, going forward we will put out a list of our annual dark horses in case you want to keep an eye on them as well. We will put this list out earlier next year, and while we will do our best to review every book on this list, the inclusion of a book does not guarantee we will be able to get to and review it. Here are the dark horses The Quill to Live is watching in 2019 (in no particular order). Goodreads links are on the pictures:

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  1. For The Killing Of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones: As I mentioned we are a bit late on this list this year, so we have actually already reviewed this one. We loved it, check it out!
  2. Sky Without Stars, by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell
  3. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
  4. The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
  5. Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
  6. The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
  7. Titanshade, by Dan Stout
  8. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
  9. Gods Of Jade And Shadow, by Silva Moreno-Garcia
  10. Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess
  11. Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker
  12. This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone