Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Best Of Science Fantasy

I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.

So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.

So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:

  • Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
  • Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
  • Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.

Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.

71td5pweetl1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.

81g3gpska-l2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.

gideon-the-ninth-cover3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.

red2bsister2bcover5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.

355205646) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.

threepartsdead_1507) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.

514r1y8fc6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.

51zeepnspsl._sx331_bo1204203200_9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.

812bsf2bbnqul10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).

978057508516911) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.

51oul60c3fl12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.

Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.

-Andrew

Within the Sanctuary of Wings – A Fitting End

As always when I review the end of a series, the review can either go one of two ways: a detailed breakdown of how the author messed up the landing or a confirmation that the last book is still great and an overarching review of the series. I am happy to say that Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennen, falls into the latter category. I have touched on this series a lot here and there in past reviews and other posts, but as it winds to a close I wanted to take a moment to talk about it as a whole and to give it the credit it deserves.

sanctuarywings-fullcover

For those of you unfamiliar with the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the books follow an anthropologist’s memoirs as she tells the tale of her work with dragons as one of the first female scientists of her time. It must be said that they are beautifully illustrated. The series is five books long, each book taking place in a different setting with different research goals in mind. Each book builds upon the discoveries of the last, ending in a society changing discovery (which I of course won’t spoil). With the arrival of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, we finally get to find out what we have been building towards. My reaction to the big reveal was a good summary of my general feelings towards the series: I was genuinely surprised, intrigued by the really cool concept, but not blown away.

One of the key take aways I keep mentioning when I talk about this series is that while I really enjoy it for a number of reasons, it isn’t the most exciting of stories. I have decided that this isn’t a fair criticism of my experience with the book, because it results directly from one of the book’s biggest positives: these books feel like an actual history/science journal. These five novels are the closest I have ever felt to feeling like dragons were real and alive, and reality is not always super exciting. Science is not a field where everything is splitting the atom every month, there is tons of slow painful research leading up to that – and this series reflects that without its storytelling suffering in the name of accuracy. The series finds the perfect balance of accuracy and liberty with scientific process so that it feels correct, but not boring.

Additionally, Brennan did a fantastic job developing the world and cultures of her series. Looking back over the five books, the vast array of locations and people I explored is impressive. Her world is deeply fleshed out and feels like a real ecosystem. The character growth from both the protagonist (Lady Trent) and the support cast was very well handled and it was great to see character’s prejudices, opinions, and scientific understanding grow and evolve as the series progressed. The story takes place at a time of war, and the elevation of the conflict adds a lot to the tension and excitement of the books. Everything in this paragraph essentially sums up to the fact that The Memoirs of Lady Trent succeed not only as books, but as a collective series. The pacing and exploration of the world are masterfully handled, and the characters and story are a joy to progress with.

If I had to change anything about the series, it would likely to spend a little less time at the beginning of each book prepping for the eventual adventure. I understand the importance of setting a stage, but the first third of each book eventually boiled down to “someone shows Lady Trent something awesome, so she goes on an adventure”. However, even this couldn’t dampen my joy with this story. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of dragons, and I can’t say enough that this is the closest I have gotten to feeling they were alive. The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Memoirs of Lady Trent, and suggests you grab a copy of the books and learn about the natural history of dragons.

Rating:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings – 8.0/10
The Memoirs of Lady Trent – 8.5/10

Memoirs of Lady Trent – Because Sometimes I Just Want To Read About Dragons

There are tons of elements in writing that draw me to a book; from great characters, to an exciting plot, to an incredible world, etc. The Memoirs of Lady Trent have two of my favorite ones, an interesting take on writing style and dragons. Marie Bennen has fused two of my favorite things in fantasy to create a book that is more anthropological journal than novel. At the time of writing this I have only read the first two of the books in the series of four (A Natural History of Dragons, and The Tropic of Serpents), but I already feel strongly enough to recommend the entire series and here is why:

Lets start with a discussion of the more simple of the two elements I mentioned, dragons. Dragons are the poster children of fantasy. Like many, my introduction to the fantasy genre was through The Hobbit where I fell in love with Smaug, and have adored dragons ever since. I do not think it is a requirement of a fantasy fan to like dragons, but I feel confident saying that a dislike of dragons is probably rare among fantasy readers. The Memoirs of Lady Trent are in my opinion the best tribute to dragons I have ever read. The books are quite literally about a woman who is obsessed with dragons in the way that many young girls get obsessed with ponies, and they document her life travelling the world as an adventurer and naturalist as studies them. Marie Brennen has created a living and breathing world of dragons, the most alive one I have ever read. From the different breeds, to the habitats they live in, to the cultures surrounding them, every aspect of the world is well developed and given an impressive amount of detail. It is so clear that the author and the protagonist love dragons, that I could not help but have some of my passion for the creatures stoked as well. These books made me want to go out and explore the world, while also sad that nothing as grand as dragons exist in our own.

The second major draw of this for me is a little more complicated. So a lot of my favorite books take on unique storytelling methods that make reading the book into a special kind of experience. Two examples of this are, The Black Company and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The Black Company is the story of a mercenary company from the historian’s perspective, and as such gives you a very limited view of events. The book is told from a first person perspective and does not show you lots of things that are happening behind the scenes. This creates an immersive experience that sucks you into the book and makes it feel like you are actually there. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book is written like a historical text, complete with footnotes and references to fictional magical sources. This gives the sense that you are actually reading the history of a people, not just a novel. In a similar manner, the Memoirs of Lady Trent are styled as part field journal and part autobiography of Lady Trent. But what does that mean?

By now you have hopefully gotten slightly curious about the sketches throughout this post. These sketches litter the books and help illustrate the findings and travels of Lady Trent as she explores other lands and documents her findings. I found them to add a surprisingly large amount of story telling as almost always when Lady Trent stops to observe something significant, there is a stylized sketch to accompany it. In addition, the story is told from both the first person perspective and with side narration of important background information by Lady Trent. It gives the real sense that someone is telling you the story of her life, and that life was awesome. The narration is less smooth than other books I have read, but gives the very real feeling that these are the scientific journals and lifestory of a real person. I have yet to read fantasy books that gave me a similar experience, and it would be worth checking them out just to see if this style appeals to you.

While I think it should be obvious that I am going to recommend this book by now, there were a few things I did not love about the books. There is a heavy gender role element to the story (primarily a woman breaking the mold of what society deems proper for her) that felt a bit heavy handed to me at first. I will say that it decreases significantly as the books go on, but is always present. In addition, I am doubly thankful for the book sketches because sometimes the descriptive detail is overwhelmingly dense and can overload the mind trying to picture written scenes. However, as I continued the books I found that I grew used to these elements and took them as they came, reducing any significant impact they had on my reading enjoyment.

In sum, if you love dragons or are looking for a different kind of book, I highly recommend the Memoirs of Lady Trent. I would have picked up these books for their gorgeous cover art alone, but found their insides to be as grand as the outside.

Rating: A Natural History of Dragons – 7.0/10

Rating: The Tropic of Serpents – 8.0/10