The Helm Of Midnight – A Steep Hike With A View

The Helm of Midnight, by Marina J. Lostetter, is a book with a lot of ideas. The first entry in The Five Penalties series, I find myself at a loss as to whether to recommend it or not. On the one hand, Lostetter has built a world just brimming with interesting rules and magic. On the other hand, getting into that world felt akin to wading through concrete. While I ended up wanting to continue the series by the time I finished Helm, there were a ton of instances where I almost quit the book and relegated it to my DNF pile. Yet, through clever writing, compelling mystery, and plot lines that I just had to see come together, Helm managed to keep its grip on me to the last page.

The back of the book will tell you that Helm is a story about chasing a killer who has donned a mask of one of the world’s most infamous mass murderers in order to gain his powers of destruction. Once I got into the book and started digging around I found this preview to be laughably oversimplified. Helm is a world of rules. The first page you will read shows the dictates of the five gods who rule over reality and what they expect of you. Violating any of their decrees will result in a horrific penalty, which is where the series gets its name. Existence in the world of The Helm of Midnight is more malleable than our own. The magic of the world allows people to store abstract concepts and emotions in physical objects. For example, emotions like joy and despair can be imprisoned in gems and then worn to evoke the desired feeling. When a person dies, their skills and abilities can be captured in a death mask that allows a wearer to recall their abilities. Oh, and the entire world exists in a giant bubble dome that keeps out apocalyptic flora and fauna that would obliterate humanity in a heartbeat if it got in. The only thing the barrier doesn’t keep out are the vargs – which are sort of like werewolves with special abilities depending on their breed. Some can teleport, others can read your mind, others can turn invisible. Vargs represent the largest threat to the world as they can’t be killed, only reduced to a mist that is then captured in bottles and stored in vaults. All of this just scratches the surface of the minute detail and whimsically grim nature of Lostetter’s world, and on top of all of this we have an intricate plot.

The story is split into three POV’s in three different time periods. We have Krona in the present, a cop who is trying to track down a lost mask of a serial killer and stop whoever is wearing it from killing more people. We have Melanie in the near past, a young girl who is trying to save her mother by wearing the masks of healers. Finally, we have Charbon in the distant past, the aforementioned serial killer who is living his life as a successful doctor.

The three timelines act as set up, catalyst, and execution of the mystery of the book. In Charbon’s period, we see a talented and kind doctor trying to save everyone and we wonder how this man became the mass murderer we know him to have been in the present. In Melanie’s period, we see new elements and rules introduced that start to change how we perceive the world to work and open up new possibilities. In Krona’s period, we get to see the payoff of all of the setup, but mostly we get to see her talk to her CI about nothing for a whole lot of pages. Maybe I just don’t like cops, but I struggled to be invested in Krona’s story – which is a bummer because her POV is easily the one with the most page space. I felt like nothing ever happened in her segments, while with Charbon and Melanie I was constantly learning more about the mystery that permeates the story and about the world that it takes place in. All three plot lines eventually do all come together, and I felt the book picked up massively at this point. However, this nexus is deep within the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if people dropped out halfway through.

Part of the problem is that while Lostetter’s worldbuilding and themes are fantastic, the prose can feel lackluster. She excels at grim imagery and violence but somehow seems to struggle with imbuing her worlds with excitement and feeling. Many scenes were objectively horrifying in their nature but had little resonance with me as I struggled to empathize with multiple members of the cast. The characters are wonderfully complex with a ton of potential, but it can feel like a lot of that potential is left on the table thanks to the language.

The Helm of Midnight is certainly a unique read with a lot of new imaginative ideas. If you feel bored by the current sea of fantasy offerings and want something off the beaten path, this book will definitely scratch the itch. But, beware of the slow ramp-up speed. The series is definitely going somewhere, it just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The first book provides an interesting blueprint, but I mostly see the potential of something to come instead of something concrete I can hold onto.

Rating: The Helm of Midnight – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Hidden Gems Of Science Fiction That You Should Be Reading

Welcome back to another curated special list of hidden finds that will dazzle and delight. This piece is a follow-up to the hidden gems of fantasy which you can read about here. If you find yourself tired of reading the great and famous minds of science fiction and are looking for something a little more on the DL and with some fresh takes, I have some books for you. Below is a list of science fiction series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. These books are criminally underrated and have a ton of great ideas and stories that deserve to see the light of day. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big. 

The Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – I don’t usually go in for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one stands out among the pack. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Puzzlers are people with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like caches of technology that are scattered across the world. These boxes are hidden away in dangerous mazes and dungeons and contain treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. Diving into dungeons for lost technology became one of the major forms of progress in the new world, which made puzzlers extremely important as they are the only ones who can unlock the nodes. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube, and I liked that a lot. The book is grim and dark without being depressing and it knows how to keep you coming back to puzzle out its many questions.

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – If you are looking for an irreverent laugh, this might be the entry for you. The plot of Mechanical Failure revolves around a disgraced engineer being continually placed in fish-out-of-water scenarios. The book reminded me strongly of a whole slew of post-apocalypse/tragedy games where you try to figure out what happened to create the huge mess you are presented with; except instead of horror, Mechanical Failure reaches for humor. The book is quite funny, with a sense of humor along the lines of the classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The characters are constantly being placed in humorous paradoxes with terrible outcomes. In addition, the book has no problem making fun of several sci-fi tropes and can be refreshingly original in many places. While the mystery of what is happening in the book is fairly obvious, the real power of the comedy comes from the hilarious detective work the characters produce as they discover it for themselves. The characters are all original, relatable, and interesting, and the prose was simple and clean. The book is very easy to read and I found myself losing track of time as I flew through it. 

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon, and a genre that is often overlooked. It’s about a fairy princess that eschews being rescued in order to save her family’s galactic empire. Thorne leans more towards science fiction, with the fantasy sprinkled in for some magic realism…in space. The formula works well for the book as the magic always feels like a subtle catalyst that keeps the plot moving and keeps things interesting without overstaying its welcome or stifling character achievement. Its pacing, storytelling, tone, and genre-blending are all uneven, but they serve to enhance the power of the narrative instead of detracting from it. Rory is a relatable and endearing protagonist that you would need a heart of stone not to like.

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – If I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly meets Fast and Furious meets National Treasure. Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic spaceship crew with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. They are searching for a lost ship worth more money than a person can spend. The book just radiates energy and action. It feels like being locked into a cocaine-fueled nitro boost in a drag race. It has this blockbuster energy that paints the story set-pieces as these vivid events you can picture with perfect clarity and I cannot wait for it to be picked up for a visual medium. Grab yourself a copy if you want to be able to say you read it before it got big.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman The Half-Made World is a book that is fundamentally about order and chaos. Taking place in a world reminiscent of the American West that is quite literally only half-finished, we are introduced to a conflict between the Line and the Gun – representatives of order and chaos. These two forces are embodied by demonic spirits who use human emotions to enslave operatives to their service. The Line are housed in great Engines that push forward the ideas of industry and progress. They build monumental rail lines that cover the West, flattening anything in their path in order to build orderly stations and factories. The Guns prefer a more personal anarchy-driven approach and like to inhabit the weapons (guns) of their bearers, whispering into their ears like a warlock’s patron. They shape their operatives into killing machines, with both regenerative powers and speeds faster than the eye can follow. Between these two awful sides are the innocent people of the world that get caught in the crossfire as the two sides fight for dominance. The Half-Made World is a bombastic ride from start to finish that uses hyperbole and intensity to add new life into an age-old conflict. If you are looking for something loud and gritty, look no further. 

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter – German philosopher Immanuel Kant explains the “noumenon” as a thing in itself or something that exists beyond the realm of human experience, whereas a phenomenon is something that can be explored and related to through our senses and emotions. Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is a novel as intricate and thought-provoking as the idea from which it draws its title. From the very first chapter, she plays with the reader’s sense of right and wrong. The characters especially help to sell the ideas at play in the book. They feel incredibly human. Their lamentations and inner thoughts felt relatable as they opened up to themselves or others around them. Every character feels imbued with the author’s own experiences of sadness, shock, anger, ambition, hopelessness, and ultimately with her curiosity. It’s a deeply moving book that more people should give the time of day, and it’s a definite hidden gem.

Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe – Reading Velocity Weapon is joy synthesized with breakneck thrills, and it’s a drug that does not lose its potency upon repeated use. The story takes place in the far future of humanity, centered on a single star system (called Ada) that seems to reside on the borders of a greater human civilization. It has a single jump gate that leads to a wider universe populated by humanity, and two planets that are competing for control of the gate. Our narrative revolves around two siblings that are central to the conflict but are separated in time by thousands of years due to an accident. The story is about how the past informs the present, and how these two individuals can find a way to change the timeline to make a better future for everyone. The book is a non-stop roller coaster that just never ends. O’Keefe slams the throttle to ludicrous speed from the opening chapter and does not let up. I found myself constantly amazed with O’Keefe’s ability to weave back and forth between the two stories and hanging on the edge of my seat to see how they came together. I am confident that this book has what it takes to pull you in and never let you go, check it out.

QTL – The Most Anticipated Books Of 2021

This week 2020 is finally rolling to a close and we have been spending some time resting, recuperating, and catching up on a number of books from this year. Yet, the show must go on and we have been furiously planning a site refresh and scheduling all of our content for 2021. In the midst of doing all of this we built a pretty comprehensive calendar of all the fantasy, sci-fi, and other books we want to keep an eye on – and discovered that 2021 is shaping up to be a very strong year for books. This is nice, given how difficult 2020 has been. While we were making this list, we figured it might be fun to highlight some of our most anticipated books for those of you who don’t want to spend a week digging through every single publisher release schedule. We have listed them in release order, not in order of excitement. We have provided cover art where available.

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-11) Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick – release date 1/19/2021 by Orbit: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future. But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

51nihz4w52l2) The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers – release date 2/16/2021 by Harper Voyager: With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop. At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through. When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

51ucj27xfcl3) A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine – release date 3/2/2021 by Tor Books: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity. Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

97812507570504) The Helm of Midnight by Marina J Lostetter – release date 4/13/2021 by Tor Books: In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders. Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question. It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

61bym0xuusl5) Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer – released on 6/1/2021 by Tor Books: The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end. Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location. The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held. The Hives’ facade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away. Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone, Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints scramble to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.

42291958._uy1550_ss1550_6) Play of Shadows by Sebastian de Castell – released on 6/24/2021 by Jo Fletcher Books: Damelas Shademantaigne picked a poor night to flee a judicial duel. He has precious little hope of escaping the wrath of the Vixen, the most feared duellist in the entire city, until he stumbles through the stage doors of the magnificent Operato Belleza and tricks his way into the company of actors. An archaic law provides a temporary respite from his troubles – until one night a ghostly voice in his head causes Damelas to fumble his lines, inadvertently blurting out a dreadful truth: the city’s most legendary hero may actually be a traitor and a brutal murderer. With only the help of his boisterous and lusty friend Bereto, a beautiful assassin whose target may well be Damelas himself, and a company of misfit actors who’d just as soon see him dead, this failed son of two Greatcoats must somehow find within himself the courage to dig up long-buried truths before a ruthless band of bravos known as the Iron Orchids come for his head.

813aula04fl7) The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – released on 7/6/2021 by Del Rey Books: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules. The next installment of last years incredibly popular deadly education.

desert-torn-asunder-final-lg-768x1159-18) A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley Beaulieu – released on 7/13/2021 by DAW: The final book in The Song of the Shattered Sands series closing an epic fantasy saga for the ages, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action. The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city’s invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.

9) The Pariah by Anthony Ryan – released on 8/24/2021 by Orbit: Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army. Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?

10) The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie – released on 9/16/2021 by Gollancz: Chaos. Fury. Destruction. The Great Change is upon us. Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds.

978125021734911) Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune – released on 9/21/2021 by Tor Books: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over. But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life. When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

And here are some additional books that we are super hyped about that don’t have details out yet:

  • Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler
  • Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund
  • Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott
  • Leviathan Falls by James SA Corey
  • Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft