Written In Fire – Going Out In A Blaze Of Glory

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Back in 2013 I was walking through a bookstore and the cover of Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey, caught my eye. I was lured in by its stand out art and the blurb on the back of the book promising a different take on mutants. The book focused around mutations that improved a person’s abilities like pattern analysis, strategic insight, or computer programming instead of superpowers. It primarily followed the relationships of mutants and normals in a world where the normals were becoming increasingly obsolete thanks to a very small number of gifted brilliants. While I think the book faltered a little in execution, I ended up really enjoying the premise and story to the point where I was excited for the sequel, A Better World. The sequel continued to hone and improve the ideas of the first book while expanding the scope and story. It was a stand out book, but not quite enough for me to stand on the rooftops shouting its praise. However, the final installment, Written In Fire, has stepped up and achieved brilliance.

Written In Fire continues the climactic story from A Better World, in which the world starts to essentially burn down. Relations between brilliants and normals have continued to deteriorate even further and the world is falling into chaos. The book manages to increase the stakes and danger slowly throughout the novel, culminating in a fiery showdown that nicely fits the series as a whole. The pacing is much better than in previous novels, with Cooper, the main protagonist, problem solving on the fly as he tries to hold the world together by the seams. Sakey does an impressive job of immersing you in in Cooper’s dilemma and I found myself frantically trying to ferret out the antagonist’s designs. The book is easily the most exciting of the three, and kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Part of the reason the book is so exciting is the slight departure in style Sakey made from his earlier two novels. In many ways, Brilliance and A Better World feel like a well written set up for the execution of Written In Fire. The first two books focus on world building and exploration of mutations; showing you the potential many of the brilliants have for disaster. As I think a finale should, Written In Fire focuses much less on this world building and much more on the promise of disaster made real. All the dangers hinted at in the previous books were well executed and made for a book that I could not put down. The book also tied up the series nicely, while leaving Sakey definite room to make more and continue the series.

All that being said, the book was not perfect. I felt that Sakey still tended to go a little too hard on the loving parent angle, and delved a little too much into Cooper’s personal life at inappropriate times. While I certainly enjoy and appreciate the value of progressing a protagonist’s love life, it is really hard to take a character seriously when he is monologuing about which girl to choose instead of focusing on dealing with the fact that an entire continent is on fire. A little less time spent on the subject and a little more focus on Cooper’s personal life would have made me care about it a lot more. In addition, while this might seem like a minor gripe I am extremely disappointed that the cover art style changed from its incredible minimalist style on Brilliance and A Better World to its more generic version for Written In Fire. It may not seem important, but Brilliance had one of my all time favorite covers and I was really looking forward to seeing what they did with Written In Fire.

However, these are fairly minor gripes to an otherwise very enjoyable series. The series flows much better as a whole than as individual books, and upon finishing Written In Fire I found myself reassessing and improving the scores of the first two novels. With a standout finale, The Brilliance Saga is a very original take on the realm of mutants and is a take I recommend highly.

Written In Fire – 8.5/10

The Brilliance Saga – 7.5/10

*Note, netgalley provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Perception – Judging A Book By Its Cover

First impressions are important. Unfortunately, we often judge people in the first 3 seconds we meet them. While many of our initial impressions are wrong, it does not change the fact that our first moments with a person can color how we see all subsequent interactions. I find that the same idea can be applied to books. In my mind, there are three major categories that color our initial impressions of books: the title, the cover art, and the blurb. Each has their own pitfalls and nuances, but at the end of the day their goal is to get potential readers to pick up and open the book.

Book Titles – Books are frequently either dismissed or picked up  based on their title. There has been a great deal of research (here, here, and here and good examples) about the redundancy of fantasy titles, and, as you can see, there are a group of words that appear frequently in fantasy titles. These words often seem to be picked because they are both descriptive of the book and because they seem “cool”. Unfortunately, lots of people have similar ideas of what sounds cool and it often results in situations like I found myself in last year where I was reading Promise of Blood, Blood Song, and A King’s Blood around the same time. In addition to making it hard to keep books straight, sometimes names sound so cliche that I am naturally inclined to avoid them. While it is important to pick evocative titles that represent the story well, authors should be careful to choose a title that doesn’t make people internally groan or roll their eyes when they read it.

Cover Art – The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because that is exactly what people do. I find books to read in a plethora of ways, but one of my favorites is to go to bookstores and look at the various book jackets  on display and pick up ones that look intriguing. I have read some truly terrible books (which will go un-named) because the author was smart enough to hire a great cover artist. Conversely, I held out on reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan for forever because of how ugly I found the covers to be (a mistake). Different art appeals to different people, but the most popular covers tend to make strong artistic statements. Some great examples of fantastic cover art are: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, The Expanse by James Corey and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The First Law books are both incredible to look at and to touch with their textured covers that look like damaged parchment. The Expanse series is one of the few books I have seen to go with bold neon colors in their titles (on the spine) with beautiful sci-fi backdrops. Brilliance stands out with it unconventional minimalist design that just stands out among all the other titles on a shelf. The books do an incredible job of getting noticed and that goes a long way towards getting picked up and opened.

Descriptive Blurbs (scientific name) – It is interesting to me to see the various strategies authors undertake when describing their book. I find that a surprising number of books fail to talk about their unique hooks and angles in the small space provided. Learning that a book can offer me an experience unlike I have ever had is almost a surefire way to get me to pick it up (for example, see my post about Daniel Abraham’s books). However, when providing this information it is all about the showing and not the telling. Many books boldly claim to be one of a kind on their backside, but in practice that rarely holds true. On the other hand, authors like Daniel Abraham, who talk about how their books are about godlike poets, spark imagination and wonder. If you can show me something new, it goes a long way to picking up your book.

I will leave you with a story. I recently finished A Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington (an author I was unfamiliar with). The title, cover, and blurb did not impress me, but I got it for free from Amazon Prime so I picked it up anyway. After sitting on the book for a long time, I felt obligated to read it, no matter how bad it was. After drudging through a painful start I started to actually enjoy it. By the end of the book I was really loving it and ended the story thrilled and excited for the next installment. Upon finishing, I went back and re read the beginning hoping to figure out what was wrong with it. Doing so, I realized that the beginning was fine but my expectations that the book would be bad greatly colored my initial read through of the book. With more confidence in the author and a better mindset going it, I enjoyed the book a lot more.

Brilliance and Shadow Ops – The Search For The Perfect Mutation

When I was a kid I loved the X-Men. They were my favorite superheroes and I watched all the cartoons and read all the comics. Now many years later, that love has in no way diminished. In fact it has likely grown. So when I discovered multiple books about mutants I was very excited. The book series I discovered are Shadow Ops by Mike Cole and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The books focus on very different elements of mutations and society, and both come away with different flavors of story.

Lets start with Shadow Ops. The book is about a world where when mutations start occurring, all of the mutants are either co-opted into the military or killed in order to protect the normal population. Mutations come in two groups, acceptable and forbidden. The acceptable mutations are elemental magic (fire, earth, air, water) and the unacceptable tend to deal with some weirder things such as necromancy, and making portals. Our protagonist is a military mutant hunter who manifests one of the forbidden mutations, and to deal with going from hunter to hunted. These books jump head first into the human vs. mutant theme with a military flavor. It is very clear from the onset that Mike Cole has some familiarity with armed services and the book blends mutation and military fiction very well. I have no experience with any armed forces, but I still found the book very accessible and interesting. I have found there is a tendency in military books for authors to get bogged down in very minute detail of army procedure, which I felt this book avoided for the most part. The real pull of Shadow Ops is that Myke Cole made a world that blends military and mutation really well. The army and the mutants both feel like they are equal forces to be respected in the books and gives them both equal time in the spotlight. Each book in the trilogy follows a different protagonist as you get to see both different mutations and jobs within the army structure. While I had a few problems with pacing, the books left me very satisfied and I definitely recommend.

The second mutant series I looked into is a bit weirder. Brilliance, on top of having a gorgeous cover, is another story about mutants: but not your standard variety. In the world of Brilliance, mutations don’t give you superpowers. Instead they make you really good at things like accounting. Now if you are like me you are thinking “What? That sounds super boring.”, but bare with me. Brilliance is a different kind of story than Shadow Ops. Mutants in Brilliance gain powers like being able to think in computer code, making them the best programmers in the world, or being able to intuitively understand cause and effect in human actions, making some people super detectives. Marcus Sakey created a world where 1% of the population is making 99% of the rest of the world obsolete in a non-violent manner and it leads to some truly fascinating scenarios. One example is one of the mutants is able to understand the patterns of stocks and bonds and as a result amasses hundreds of billions of dollars on the stock market; essentially crashing the economy. All of these mutants change the world around them in thought provoking ways, while unintentionally ruining the lives of 99 people around them. This inevitably leads to conflict between mutants and humans and the book follows the conflict as it grows. For someone who is looking for an interesting take on superpowers or mutations I highly recommend.

While I enjoy both of these mutant series a lot, I find myself still desiring something more. Both of the stories focus on the human vs. mutant element which is the standard go to in mutant stories. I would love to see a series in the future that focused more on the intense mutant on mutant rivalries that occur in the X-Men between Magneto and Prof X. The fact that these two series have come out recently, and done so well, gives me hope that new authors might come up with ideas for mutants I haven’t even thought of. Regardless, I recommend both of these series and encourage anyone looking for a good time to pick them up.

Shadow Ops: 7.0/10

Brilliance: 7.0/10

P.S. As a bonus, another good mutant/superpower book that I have already written about is Vicious by V. E. Schwab. If you are looking for even more mutant/superpower action you can find it here.