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

The Girl and the Stars – Not Exactly a Light in the Dark

I haven’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s work since Emperor of Thorns back in 2014. I was particularly put off by the final book in that trilogy, and I could not bother to pick up any of his later books, despite hearing reliable appraisals for them. It was just one of those rare instances where I gave up on following the conversation. So when Lawrence announced a new trilogy, I saw the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse with The Girl and the Stars

The book follows a teenage girl named Yaz. A member of the Ictha tribe, she’s reached an age where she has to pass the test that would solidify her within the tribe. The Ictha, along with other tribes, live within the northern icy regions of a planet called Abeth. There is not a lot of food, and no shelter as these tribes wander the frozen wastes, and only the fittest can survive. You couldn’t be too big, lest you eat too much food, and if you were too weak, you were a waste of energy to carry. So, children were tested, and those found wanting are tossed into a large pit within the ice. Yaz feels she will fail the test and be tossed into the hole. However, she passes, but her brother does not. As he is pushed down, she jumps without hesitation. At the bottom Yaz finds the Broken, a society made up of survivors of the fall. Unfortunately, they also have their own problems.

I’m going to rip the band-aid off right now. I had trouble with this book. Don’t get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff in here, but ultimately my experience was akin to Michael Bluth opening the famed paper bag in the freezer labeled “Dead dove do not eat:” “I don’t know what I expected.” I wouldn’t say Girl and the Stars is a bad book, but I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the world Lawrence built an incredible amount. Abeth is a really fantastic example of a new and interesting world. It’s a planet at the end of its ability to support human life, with undertones that the folks who live there are descendants of a space-faring human civilization, who have also forgotten that very fact. It’s such a satisfying and tasty seed from which to grow, and it scratches an itch and inflames a curiosity I haven’t had in a science fiction world for a while. 

However, while I enjoyed the end product and the horizons it presents, I did not like the actual worldbuilding in and of itself. Many reviews I read led me to believe that if I had not read Book of the Ancestor, I would miss nothing here. Now in some ways, this lack of context was interesting. The characters felt within their world, no need to explain the types of people that inhabited the wastes of Abeth. But with that also came a very distinct feeling that I should know, and therein lies the problem. Rarely do I reread paragraphs in books, but with Girl and the Stars, I found myself rereading whole chapters as if I missed something only to discover I was not missing anything from the text I had been given. Which leads me to my next gripe, Lawrence’s writing style. 

In this book, Lawrence writes from an informed third-person perspective, tied to Yaz. For half the book, this did not present problems. I often felt like I knew how Yaz was feeling and her immediate reactions to events. Unfortunately, Lawrence felt that this was occasionally limiting to describing what you might consider “cool events”. There are moments where, without warning, I was pulled out of Yaz into an out of body experience to witness something outside her senses, with narration to match. A paragraph later, I’m back with Yaz, my brain scrambled and without any greater context. This happened frequently enough to disrupt the whole experience, but not enough to build a pattern wherein I could expect it. It also felt as if sometimes this was used to hide information, moving the action forward without time to think about the implications of how something was said. It was incredibly jarring, especially when Lawrence eschewed all sense of place in an underground network of ice caverns by providing the barest minimum of descriptions. There was no sense of scale or understanding of where the characters were relative to anyone else. In some ways it can work, highlighting the labyrinth that is the underground, but Yaz doesn’t even mention it. Not even a single sentence of how confusing it would be to wander on her own without the help of the Broken. I just never got a sense of place or any sort of grounding, so the whole place just ran together.

Speaking of Yaz and the Broken, there was not a single character I could really get into – including Yaz herself. She seemed to fill the fairly typical YA female lead character role. She was indecisive, brash, and ended up finding a leadership role among an incredibly small group of folks to achieve her one goal – find her brother and leave, regardless of the harm caused to those around her. All the other characters could be defined using their name and a single sentence; and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t remember most of their names. I don’t want to skip over the fact that Yaz also seems to be entangled in a love square, but I also don’t have time or energy to get into that whole thing beyond the mere mention of it. I found the society of the Broken to be a cool concept, but we don’t get to see their lives. We don’t get to hear about how hard it is to scrape a living together at the bottom of the world. The reader is barely even given a hint to their struggles beyond “this guy wants war, and this lady doesn’t and it makes them mad at each other.” When characters died, the only thought in my head was “well that’s one less name to remember,” and that’s never a good thought to have. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate, I have not read Lawrence since 2014. I walked in with reservations, regardless of how open I was to the idea. I may have been led astray by other reviews in what to expect in terms of accessibility. You could even blame my fellow reviewers, people who know my opinions, and say “why would you do this?” All of those are very real points, and I think satisfying enough that if you like Lawrence, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl and the Stars. This was my experience as someone who has moved away from his work long enough to feel refreshed and ready to look at it with new eyes. So if you’ve had similar experiences in the past, the paper bag is best left unopened. If you’re newer and still curious, I would suggest starting somewhere else. 

Rating: The Girl and the Stars 5.0/10
-Alex 

Holy Sister – Just Short Of Sacrosanct

91zzfwkuijl._ac_ul436_An interesting book to close out an interesting series. That’s the general gist of this review of Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence, the final installment in The Book of the Ancestor trilogy. For all of you who are waiting with bated breath for what is likely to be one of the most popular books this year, don’t worry. Holy Sister continues in the tradition of its predecessors and manages to tell a fast-paced, highly imaginative, and captivating story. You can find reviews of both of the previous books here and here. At the same time, it almost feels like Holy Sister is successful in spite of Lawrence, with him making a number of choices I find questionable (despite the book still landing on its feet).

Holy Sister tells two stories, each separated by a short time gap. The first storyline picks up where Grey left off: Nona and her friends are on the run from the powerful Noi-Guin and must escape to the ice if they want to live. The second timeline is a few weeks in advance where Nona is back at the convent and completing her final trials to become an official sister. The two timelines meet right as the much foreshadowed invasion of Scithrowl begins and the Sisters of the Ancestor must take the field to repel the invading forces. The split narrative works well, and Lawrence manages the dissemination of information in a skilled and clever manner so that the storylines remain interesting in tandem without stepping on each other’s toes. In addition, the third act where the two narratives meet is extremely climactic and has a lot of great pay off for plot lines that Lawrence has been building since book one. The action was still exciting enough to have me gripping the book in fear, and Lawrence continues his worldbuilding until the last page, potentially setting the world up for a sequel or spin-off series. Overall, the book brings about almost everything I could have wanted from the series… is what I would have said if it wasn’t for a few narrative choices that Lawrence made.

The first, and most problematic for me, is that there is a MAJOR character death off-screen between books two and three. This death murdered the forward momentum of the plot for me and caused me to struggle to care in the first third of the book. Holy Sister eventually recaptured my attention but by the end, I could not a) understand why the death needed to happen at all as it seemed to add little and take away a ton and b) understand why on Earth (or whatever planet they are on) the death needed to happen off-screen. There was so much potential for a pivotal and emotional moment surrounding this characters death that was just tossed out the window. Far be it from me to assign reasoning to Lawrence, but it frankly just felt lazy – like he didn’t want to write about this plotline anymore.

This feeling was mirrored in my other major problem with the book – the pacing surrounding Nona’s trials. I have a hard time in my mind envisioning what a traditional education at the nunnery looks like. Books one and two established a slow and luxurious pacing of how things are supposed to progress with classes and book three throws that pacing out the window in favor of going supersonic. Now, in Lawrence’s defense, he does provide a large amount of in book reasoning for why that happens: the country is invaded by a hostile nation and the end times are upon us. However, to me, it felt more like Lawrence was tired of writing this story and was hurrying me out the door. I was massively less invested in the fate of the world compared to Nona’s time at the convent, so this narrative choice did not sit well with me. On the other hand, while I wasn’t initially as interested in the invasion plot line it did surpass all my expectations so I was not too upset.

At the end of the day, Holy Sister is a strong finish to a strong series. This is easily Mark Lawrence’s best trilogy (in my opinion), and while I disagreed with some of his choices surrounding the last book in the series I can’t argue with his results. For those of you who are waiting to get your hands on the climatic finale, know that your patience will be rewarded. For those of you who haven’t read the series yet, I recommend you check it out as soon as possible now that it has stuck the landing (with only a small wobble).

Rating: Holy Sister – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Grey Sister – A Younger Sibling With A Bag Of New Tricks

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.inddI managed to get my hands on one of the most anticipated releases this year, Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence, and thanks to Mark for an early review copy. The book is a sequel to his incredibly powerful Red Sister, a book that placed in my top 3 favorites of 2017. Since most of you are going to be reading this book no matter what I say let me ease your worries and stoke your excitement, Grey Sister is excellent and something to be very pumped for. On the other hand, I don’t think it quite lived up to the success of Red Sister (which is fine as it was an incredibly high bar to reach).

The plot picks up right where Red Sister left off and ties up a few small loose ends and cliffhangers from book one. The story then immediately jumps forward two years as Nona finishes grey class and moves into mystic – ahead of most of her friends (except Darla who is her only ally in her new class). This works as a nice reset for the social dynamic, allowing Nona to still have a great group of friends to interact with, but she is also forced into a new group of people that present new challenges. Nona’s new antagonist classmate is delightful to hate. I found myself constantly hoping she got punched in the face and I felt much more satisfaction when the antagonist experienced small humiliations compared to when they happened to Zole/Ara in Red Sister. The plot mostly follows around a number of characters working to return the Sister Mercy’s shipheart and to ferret out Sherzal’s plans.

One thing I truly like about Mark as an author, and why I will always read his books, is that you can constantly see him growing and evolving as an author. Each book he writes, he tries to improve and iterate on past ideas and techniques. While it can occasionally make it feel like some sequels don’t live up to their predecessors, his books always feel fresh and exciting. Grey Sister still has a ton of strengths that Red had: a lovable cast, intense action, an engrossing setting, and a plot that hooks you and doesn’t let go. It also has a number of new things that improve upon Red Sister, such as the better antagonist I mentioned before. For me, the biggest improvement between Red and Grey Sister is that Abbess Glass is a POV with a large amount of page time. I really, really, like Abbess Glass and getting to spend time in her head did not disappoint at all. In addition, while Red Sister spent a lot of time meandering and exploring the world without direction – Grey Sister is much more laser focused in its pursuit of the shipheart/Sherzal plot established in book one.

I think some will see the more focused approach of Grey Sister as a good thing, but for me it kept me from reaching the highest highs I got in Red. There isn’t a ton of time spent in class or learning things in Grey Sister, instead the book focuses more on the times between class where Nona and her crew can plot and scheme. As a result, there were a lot less moments of delightful discovery as Nona learned a new skill or lesson, one of the biggest draws of Red Sister. They are definitely not absent, Nona’s grey trial was endlessly fun, but they are just noticeably less frequent than in Red Sister and it makes Grey feel like a thinner book.

Despite my few less than positive comments, I read Grey Sister in two days, so I obviously enjoyed it immensely. Grey Sister delivers on most of what Red did with a number of new delightful tricks that help distinguish it from its sister novel. I know that Mark wrote this series as a trilogy all at once, but I find myself hoping that he somehow keeps writing books in the setting. I don’t think I will be ready to leave this world after one more book and I don’t feel like I have gotten nearly enough time with any of these characters.

Rating: Grey Sister – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Red Sister – An Interview With Mark Lawrence

red2bsister2bcoverThis is shaping up to be a very strong year for fantasy, with books I am highly anticipating like City of Miracles, Oathbringer, and Tyrant’s Throne coming out. One such book that I have been incredibly impressed with is Mark Lawrence’s debut of a new series, Red Sister. A take on my favorite trope, magic schools, it was a amazing read from start to finish and I can’t wait for the sequel. While I wait patiently for the next book, I got a chance to talk with Lawrence a little bit about his newest work. While he is infuriatingly, and understandably, tight lipped about the second book – he answered a number of my questions about his writing process and Red Sister. Enjoy!

Why nuns? Not that there is anything wrong with nuns, but they were never a fantasy character I thought of much before Red Sister – something that the book has definitely changed about me.

I’m no good with “why?” questions. Because! I guess at some point I decided it would feature a “school” of some sort, then that it would be an all-girls institution. I’ve know people who were taught by nuns at girls’ schools. So nuns.

Something I would love to know more of is what determines if someone is full blooded or not? I initially thought it had to do with being a “pure” blooded hunska or marjal, but that doesn’t seem to be the case as there are people who are multi blooded. Can you elaborate on this?

I tend only to offer what’s in the books in answer to questions. It’s noted in the text that it’s possible to be more than a half-blood in two or more of the races, so clearly it’s not a description of the percentage of whatever blood you carry as >0.5 + >0.5 = >1. It’s simply a description of how much of the power/ability/potential of that race you have. And I guess if it were easy to know what determines that then they wouldn’t need child-takers testing random peasants, they would know from the parents, heritage etc. In our own genetics many regressive traits such as ginger hair will crop up seemingly at random.

What inspired you to make this new world instead of continuing with your Prince of Thorn’s and Fools universe? What made you choose to start something new instead of build out more of that world?

I grow bored. Not easily, but after a while. I very rarely get to the end of any long series I read. I don’t want to write one. It can be commercially sensible to stick to a winning formula, but I don’t have the heart for it. And any series is always an exercise in diminishing returns, if not creatively then in terms of readers. Book 9 will always have fewer readers than book 8.

What have you learned from your previous two trilogies that you applied to Red Sister?

Nothing? With the exception of some basic elements learned long before I wrote any of my published work I’ve never experienced writing as the kind of thing where you learn new skills. When I ice skated I used to go forward, and then I learned to skate backwards and I had a demonstrable new trick. Writing doesn’t feel like that to me. I can’t cite a single writing-thing that I have learned in the last decade.

One area I really felt you stepped up your writing in Red Sister was in the combat. Was there anything you did differently to write, or prepare to write, these sequences?

I never prepare to write. I just write. And no. To me the only difference is that most of the combat described is weaponless, and much of it involves one or more people who can move with extraordinary speed. The physics remains constant and so fights, from the point of view of someone who can move and think much faster than we’re used to seeing, have their own flavour. There are a number of what I call slow-mo descriptions which were fun to write.

Red Sister has a unique take on the emotion of anger. In so many fantasy books, it is always regarded as something that will get you killed. What made you decide to take rage in a different direction in this book?

I don’t think the book has a particular take on it, but certainly Nona is at odds with the idea that fighting is most effective when you are serene and in total control. I guess that just came out of her character. And it’s anger that starts most fights … you’d think it would at least be useful during them.

I know you are a big proponent of Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, (we have it coming up in our workflow thanks to your recommendation). Are there any other books, recent or past, that you would recommend?

I really liked The Girl With All The Gifts, but it hardly needs my patronage with huge sales and a film out. The Vagrant by Peter Newman has a lot of originality and I really liked it. It may break rather too many conventions for some readers, but it’s certainly worth a look.

How do we get you to do a signing tour in the US? Do you have any recommendations for bribes or should we just start mailing you miscellaneous things until you come to NYC?

I don’t travel. It wouldn’t take any bribes, just the opportunity. I was asked to an event in London with Robin Hobb this month. I would have loved to go. But I have a very disabled child to look after and carers are incredibly hard to arrange.

http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/i- dont-travel.html

Red Sister – The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

red2bsister2bcoverSo I read an ARC of Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence, back in December but I have been holding off talking about it because I wanted to review it closer to publication date, and because I needed to calm down a little so that this review wasn’t the word vomit equivalent of “go buy it now”. I like to think that Mark and I have a fairly interesting relationship in that I have moved from one of his loudest detractors to one of his larger fans. The Thorns trilogy was really not my thing, but I found The Red Queen’s War charming, fun, exciting, and very well written. When Mark announced that he had a new series coming out, in a completely new setting, I was excited. I looked forward to seeing if my enjoyment of Mark’s work would continue to grow, and maybe his new book would be his best yet. I was not ready for Red Sister.

Red Sister is of a fairly different style than Mark’s earlier books, but is still completely him. The book feels like the spiritual sibling to Name of the Wind and Blood Song, but might surpass them both for me.  The book tells the story of Nona, an orphan of sorts who enters into the Sisterhood – an order of battle nuns that specialize in training girls to be Sisters. Sisters are trained to be warriors, scholars, tacticians, and magic users all in the service of a well rounded education in being awesome. The book’s plot is character driven, revolving solely around Nona’s life and various challenges and events that confront her and how she handles them. Mark has always been an excellent character writer, and a focus on this as the driving force of the book was an excellent choice – as he has only gotten better. The cast is fantastic, and the book places a large emphasis on friendship and the development of relationships that really struck home for me. Red Sister takes place in a magic school of sorts, and the teachers are some of the best since Harry Potter. Their charismatic classes, weird personalities, and clear love of their students nailed my guilty pleasure of magical schools when it comes to fantasy.

The characters are phenomenal, but the world is no slouch either. In traditional Lawrence style, there are some interesting things going on in the world that I won’t spoil, but the magic system might be one of my favorite of all time. The world of Red Sister has four ‘schools of magic/powers,’ each based on bloodlines. People of the world are descended from four distinct groups, each with their own powerful traits. While most individuals have had so much mixing they do not have the powers of any, a small collection are still able to access the powers, abilities, and traits of their ancestors. Some of these people can even access to more than one. Gerants are gigantic, hunskas can move at extreme speeds, marjals have small unique magic powers that remind me of the x-men, and quantals can manipulate energy around them to powerful effects. Nona is a hunska – but we see action from all four and the interplay between these groups is some of the most exciting reading I have done in a long time.

Speaking of Nona and her hunska abilities, the combat in this book is astoundingly good. Red Sister would do Joe Abercrombie proud and has some of, if not the, best fighting I have ever read. As mentioned, hunskas can move at extreme speeds but they also can perceive time more slowly allowing them to assess their fighting as it happens. Nona’s ability to have an inner monologue of analysis while she is fighting for her life enhance the thrill and adrenaline of fights greatly. In one particular scene involving a test, I got so immersed in what was happening my significant other started shaking me because I had started screaming aloud without realizing it. The combat is that good.

Red Sister also feels like a kinder and more mature book than Mark’s earlier work. While it is not as grim or dark as his first two trilogies, it is certainly not a bastion of sunshine. In the past I have had minor difficulty following the plot of some of Mark’s books, but Red Sister strikes the perfect balance of keeping you in the know and letting mystery build. The book grounds you in the world, establishes the status quo quickly, but then centers you on Nona’s life as a focus. This allows for a great structure, but also leaves tons of room for Mark to improvise to keep things interesting (which he does in spades). In line with this, Red Sister tells a very full and satisfying story but it only feels like the tip of the iceberg. On finishing the last page I got the sense that he is just getting started and it is only going to get better from here.

I don’t actually have any criticisms for Red Sister. It is always possible for a book to be better, but I personally can’t think of a way I would improve Mark’s newest creation. It is definitely going to be a contender for my number one spot of 2017 and I suspect it is going to sweep the awards this year. 2017, the gauntlet has been thrown and the challenge has been sounded. Red Sister has set the bar high for fantasy this year and we shall have to see if anyone can meet it. The Quill to Live unequivocally recommends Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, go buy it now.

Rating: Red Sister – 10/10

The Wheel of Osheim – A Different Kind Of Hero

27154427Mark Lawrence and I have an interesting relationship. As I talked about in my review of Prince of Fools, when I finished his first trilogy, The Broken Empire, I was immensely disappointed with how he chose to close out the story. The final book, Emperor of Thorns, put him on my blacklist and it was only when I decided to check out Prince of Fools on a whim that my opinion of him went through another shift. With my faith in him renewed, and my memories of Emperor lurking in my thoughts, I was extremely nervous to start The Wheel of Osheim. The final installment of The Red Queen’s War trilogy, I was concerned that I might have another unpleasant ending or that the finale might not live up to the quality of writing Lawrence demonstrated in Prince of Fools, and The Liar’s Key. However, Lawrence proved my fears to be unfounded. While I think The Wheel of Osheim is the weakest book in the trilogy, it is still one of the best books I have read this year.

For once I am going to start with my problems with the book, of which I had three. The following has spoilers for The Liar’s Key, you have been warned. When we left Jalan and Snorri at the end of book two, they had both entered into the door to death and their fates were unknown. The Wheel of Osheim picks up a short time later as Jalan is vomited out of a portal in the sky into the Sahara desert and begins to make his way home to The Red March. Jalan and Snorri’s time inside the realm of death is not immediately explained, but instead told in snippets throughout the entirety of the book. While this did make the book more suspenseful, it can also make The Wheel of Osheim’s pacing and narration a bit jarring at times and I would have preferred to just experience the events as they happened. The second problem I had with the narration is that I feel as Lawrence did not do enough back end work to establish some of Jalan’s skills on occasion. We are told he has received extensive training in a variety of pursuits throughout the book giving him some skill, but we only find out what that training was when the skill in question is used. This can occasionally lead to a deus ex machina where Jalan seemingly has the exact skill he needs to survive at pivotal moments. Finally, my last problem is that I feel the book needed a longer epilogue, or simply another chapter or two so that I could see the effects character’s action had on the world at the end of the book. The book felt like it ended too soon and I was left wanting more.

However, I say the best criticism a book can get is that I wish there was more of it. Despite the small problems I listed above, The Wheel of Osheim has a lot going for it. Most central to my praise is the growth and development of the protagonist Jalan. When I was introduced to the selfish, cowardly, and reprehensible Jalan in Prince of Fools I was really curious to see where Lawrence would go with him. Jalan was unlikable, but he was not so unlikable that I had trouble immersing myself in his character and relating to him. On top of this, he was consistently funny which made it fun to be along for the ride. I expected Lawrence to take Jalan on a path of improvement as the books went on, but what Lawrence achieved was actually much more impressive. Lots of authors like to have protagonists who are filled with self loathing, but often just feel like they are fishing for compliments as they lament how awful they are while saving a burning orphanage from mecha-Hitler. Jalan instead almost feels brutally honest with himself all the time, and it makes him much more likable, relatable, and made me more forgiving of his flaws. On top of this, Lawrence manages to have Jalan grow and become a better person while also not changing his core identity, which I found thrilling to read. Jalan continues to see himself as this awful person and doesn’t realize when he is slowly edging into benevolent or selfless acts, and it has this profound effect of making me love him all the harder.

While I had some small problems with the order events were told in, the pacing of the book felt extremely fast and exhilarating. Lawrence continues to impress as he sculpts new and creative nightmares for his protagonists to encounter, and I really feel like he was getting the most out of his setting in this trilogy compared to The Broken Empire. The action takes a large step up in the third installment, and Lawrence has shown some noticeable improvement in how he writes his action scenes. The ending was also quite enjoyable, and I left the series wanting more of Jalan and excited to see what the future entails for him and Jorg.

With some minor hiccups, The Wheel of Osheim provided a great end to a great trilogy. Jalan is one of the most memorable and enjoyable protagonists I have read in a while, and I want to see more of him. As I was once a Mark Lawrence detractor, you can trust me when I say that this is a book series worth picking up and will have you laughing, crying, and on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The Quill to Live recommends both The Wheel of Osheim, and The Red Queen’s War as a whole.

Rating: The Wheel of Osheim – 8.5/10
The Red Queen’s War – 9.0/10

This book was provided as an advanced copy for an honest review from Netgalley.

Mark Lawrence And The Importance Of Never Writing Off An Author

So, I have been buried under work recently and have had almost no time to make a post, or even read a book. However, this month I read a book that I felt I had to take time to write about. Many of you know who Mark Lawrence is. For those of you who don’t, he is the author of two very popular series that some would describe as some of the ‘darkest’ and ‘edgiest’ fantasy out there.

His first series, The Broken Empire Trilogy, follows an absolutely terrible human being named Jorg as he murders his way to success in a bubble of self absorption. Now I am sure you can sense from the tone that I did not enjoy The Broken Empire Trilogy. I am not saying the books were bad, I am simply saying I did not like them. But, something weird happened while I was reading the trilogy. I found the first book, Prince of Thorns, completely forgettable and the third book, Emperor of Thorns, completely unenjoyable. However, the second book, King of Thorns, I really enjoyed. The structure, character development, and plot all hit a really good place for me and I ended up rating King of Thorns as one of my favorite books for the year I read it. That being said, the third book left a very bad taste in my mouth. While I can see why many like it, it was just truly not my kind of story. Many of my close friends (who share similar tastes) agreed with me and they all swore off Mark Lawrence as a talentless hack. I was not convinced.

It is always important to try and understand why you didn’t like a book. Sometimes it is because you thought the book was poorly written, sometimes it is that the style is off, and sometimes it is simply that you do not like the plot or subject matter. As many of my companions wrote off Mark Lawrence, I continued to think about King of Thorns. So after Prince of Fools, the first book of his second trilogy, came out I considered it. I did not immediately grab the book, but I picked it up a few months ago on the cheap thinking it might be worth consideration. Multiple people told me I was wasting my time and money and that I would regret picking it up. They were all wrong.

While The Broken Empire follows Jorg as he murders his way to the top of a food chain, The Red Queens War (of which Prince of Fools is the first book) follows Jal and he tries to avoid all responsibility and enjoy life. This soon proves to be impossible as he is unwillingly set on a hero’s quest, something he is extremely unhappy about and looks for every opportunity to back out. With him is a viking companion named Snorri who is driven by noble virtues and motives on the same quest. These two characters have an incredible juxtaposition and Mark’s manipulation of both their emotions is masterfully done. While Jal is still not a good person, I found him infinitely more relatable and enjoyable to read than Jorg and his thorns.

My problem with Mark’s original trilogy is that I simply did not enjoy reading about the main character and that there were many elements of the plot I was not a fan of. On the other hand, I felt that he is an amazing world builder, is great at character development, and has a real talent for dialogue and pacing. It turns out that removing Jorg (and in fact making him a side character) cut the heart out of all my problems with the work. Prince of Fools continues Mark’s tradition of an incredibly well built world, clever dialogue, and character growth; but this time I love both the characters and plot. As a result, the book turned out to be one my the most enjoyable reads I have had in a while and will be picking up a copy of the sequel, The Liar’s Key, soon.

Authors wear many hats and it’s important to remember that a single book is hopefully not a good representation of their entire work. My experience with these books has inspired me to consider other authors I have written off over the years and think about why I stopped reading them. To Mark, I know you read almost everything on fantasy sites and that you are a great force in the fantasy genre, and I want to thank you for writing a book for me.

Rating: Prince of Fools – 9.0/10