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

This Is How You Lose The Time War – Long Title For A Short (Great) Book

71uzngwnyelI didn’t want to write this review. Strong start, right? I want to clarify that my reluctance to write critically about This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is not out of laziness or a lack of motivation. I loathe having to review writing I find profound in some way, through its message or its romance or a myriad of other sweet words to describe mostly indescribable experiences. I think mainly it’s a concern that I won’t do the piece justice. That my halting and insecure attempts to explain to others why it was that I was touched by a book won’t sufficiently get across the magic of the story. I’m so glad I didn’t have to review the Divine Cities series or The Night Circus for this specific reason. What else is there to say, really, when a text brings you to tears and rekindles a neglected but essential part of yourself? The fact that This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of these special stories was not super great for the part of me that is a reviewer. However, part of me that screams out for something bright and hot and dangerous to warm the essence of myself by, the part of me that fell in love with reading in the first place? That part of me needed this book.

To give you a brief rundown, there is a time war going on in the book This Is How You Lose the Time War. Yes, I was shocked as well. Our main characters, Red and Blue, are time traveling super agents from two separate futures. In one, a hyper-technological race of humans who have augmented themselves to be nearly wholly made up of machine have won and dictate the future. In the other, a hyper-advanced race of humans that has used biotech to augment themselves and their universe with what would be called “nature” if it weren’t used so unnaturally have won and dictate their future. The bulk of the story takes place as correspondence between these two agents at various points in the past and future as their paths overlap. What starts as a taunting letter to a respected foe eventually leads to a surprisingly touching and meaningful romance between the two. Sounds like a spoiler, right? Nope, literally laid out on the back of book blurb. That’s normally the kind of thing that would spoil my enjoyment of a story somewhat, but the fact that love is inevitable, that the future is inevitable is a huge part of why the story works as well as it does.

So my “boss” here at QTL, Andrew, who I have spoken of in reviews with both great love and great annoyance, has a large number of things that he loves in books (magic schools as an example), as well as things he tends to strongly dislike. One of these latter things is time travel. I understand and agree with him in most cases, as it’s generally done poorly, lazily, or merely competently which tends to gum up the workings of a book and mess with pacing enough to take the reader out of the flow of the story. I recently found a book I thought did it well in Middlegame, but after reading TIHYLTTW I have to compare stories involving time travel to a new standard. I love the way it’s handled in this book, and the ways in which we are exposed to the various eras that our characters play their futuristic-and-incredibly-dated-at-the-same-time- exactly game of phone tag in are beautifully described without lingering. I loved the idea of one of our agents, having lived as a north atlantic fisherman for the last ten years in an individual strand of time, seeing a pattern in the spots on a seal and interpreting that for the letter it was. I loved the future strand where an agent commits genocide by uploading a computer virus to the wrong place at the right time. I cannot think of an individual vignette in the story that wasn’t both useful and beautiful. This is a book with no fat on its bones and an exquisite skeleton.

I do want to take a moment to gush about the prose in this book. I thought, in the first chapter or two, that it was a little overwrought, a little too self-assured in its prettiness to the point that it almost came across as cocky. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to describe it, but that was the first impression I got. Something akin to “don’t you just think you’re so clever?” But that’s the thing, it really is that clever. Each word is important, each description is purposeful, and the way unimaginable worlds are described varied from beautiful to horrifying and back within sentences. For those readers who go outside, and have been to the Badlands in South Dakota, this book has the same foreboding and otherworldly beauty that the terrain in that national park does. I’ve never gotten that particular feeling from a story before. I felt like an alien while I was within its pages, eyes wide open and toiling to comprehend the vistas being laid out before me. Oh, and for those of you who know me from my cosmic horror reviews, the description of the Garden made me want an entire horror series taking place there, not being there for longer within the story is the most acutely painful thing about this book to me.

You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed our characters yet. I’m not going to as I worry I’ll spoil something, some of their development or a line from one of their letters might be that one important jenga piece to the whole tower. I can’t begin to pick apart what’s the really important stuff and what’s the stuff that’s just gorgeous and luxuriant. While you “meet” another one or two sentient creatures in the story, we really only have the two main characters, Red and Blue, and as such we are given a surprising amount of space to stretch out and learn about them even within a novella. Their growth was superb and believable, their tit-for-tat taunting and one-upsmanship was fun, and parts of their stories broke my heart despite the fact that I guessed the twist. I love them and truly, truly hope we get more of them in a series or a short or really anything in the future (whichever one it ends up as).

Well I loved it. That part is obvious if you’ve gotten this far. I could not imagine this story being made better by being longer or shorter than it was. Each individual vignette was poignant and beautiful. Each letter Red and Blue exchange buoyed my heart and broke it once more. I was blown away by each world visited, each timeline changed, and each trivial fact about their respective childhoods. What’s more, everything I just mentioned that I loved meant something. It was all important to the conclusion of the story and it was wrapped up in a way that literally had me audibly “wow”-ing on an airplane, earning me several suspicious looks from the man in the seat next to me. I will be reading this multiple more times in the future, and this may end up being one of my few “yearly rereads”. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: This Is How You Lose the Time War – 10/10
-Will

The Dark Horse Initiative – 2019

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

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

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

Ruin of Angels – At The Edge Of Imagination And Fantasy

ruin_of_angels_authortop4Max Gladstone’s sixth Craft Sequence book, Ruin of Angels, is out and Will and I finally got a chance to finish it up over the weekend. If you are following this blog, you will know we are very partial to the Craft series around here and think everyone should pick it up. Ruin of Angels marked a new chapter in the world’s story as we (hopefully) move to a more linear chronological storytelling style. Has Gladstone found a way to keep things fresh and interesting, or has…actually I will just give you the answer now, Ruin is incredible.

Ruin follows Kai this time, our protagonist from Full Fathom Five. While not my top craft protagonist, she is an interesting character with a lot of depth that champions the idea of “we are who we decide to be, not what other people tell us we are”. Kai is in the city of Agdel Lex for work, and like all of Gladstone’s cities, it is weird and awesome. The city is home to Kai’s sister, Ley, and a large part of the plot revolves around Ley coming to Kai for help while she is in the city and their complicated family relationship. In addition, Agdel Lex exists on the site of one of the major cataclysms of the god wars, the city of Alikand, and as a result the city was turned basically into an explosion trapped in time. To deal with this, the Iskari (squid priests we have heard of in previous novels) altered reality and built a second city (Agdel Lex) on the site – sealing in the dying city (Alikand) under layers of reality. It sounds more confusing in brief than it is in the novel. Now the second city exists on top of Alikand, but it is possible to “fall’ into Alikand which is extremely dangerous due to the fact that it’s basically continuously exploding all the time. In direct defiance of this, Agdel Lex is home to many illegal “delvers” or people who dive into the old city for extremely short periods of time and try to bring artifacts back for profit. The reason this is illegal, aside from it being potentially lethal, is that the two cities are constantly in competition for existence. The more people who believe/acknowledge one of the cities, the stronger its grasp on reality is. This leads to some literal Iskari thought police who need to make sure believers don’t pull the exploding city back into existence and kill everyone. Sounds like a great place to live right?

As with many reviews of incredible books, let’s start with the bad and get it out of the way. The beginning of this book is slow. Kai was a bit frustrating when we last read about her, as she is prone to a lot of introspection which can feel like it hurts pacing and she made some questionable choices that made it harder to like her. While the Kai of Ruin still has her introspective nature, and doesn’t have her life completely together, she is a lot more fun and her story is better paced than previously. On the other hand, her sister Ley constantly tries to be a mysterious figure who projects an air of control, but often instead comes across as selfish and childish. I found Ley difficult to root for at the start of the book, but I did eventually come around. The start of the book as a whole suffers a little from pacing as Gladstone has to flesh out his worldbuilding a lot more than usual at the start of Ruin. This pays off in spades though, as the second half of Ruin is truly one of the most wondrous things I have read in a long time.

Max Gladstone entered the writing scene as a debut author with a lot of spirit, great ideas, and a modern look at fantasy that I loved every moment of. However, while his imagination has always been a powerhouse, I would not have pegged him as a master of prose or pacing back at Three Parts Dead. Since the first craft book, Max’s skill as an author has only risen and his books keep showing that he is only getting better. The prose in Ruin of Angels is absolutely phenomenal, with several passages leaving me emotionally moved, breathless, and fully immersed in his world. For example this line from Ruin is now one of my favorite love quotes ever: “I do not understand you. But neither do I understand fire, or starlight, or storms, and I love them” – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

On top of all of this, Gladstone’s greatest strength – his imagination – has only grown as well. I have rewritten this paragraph seven times trying to convey into words what I experienced reading the back half of Ruin of Angels. The events in the climax of the book truly pulled me out of this world and into his. I found myself walking outside just to look up at the sky, clear my mind, and think on what I had just experienced and relive it. It was a one-of-a-kind experience that I recommend to everyone. I apologize for being so vague, but to tell you more is a major spoiler and I would not want to take this from you. In addition, Max Gladstone found the edge of what I would consider fantasy and stepped over it. I found myself thinking of the explorer, scientist, and philosophers throughout history as his book gave me rush of seeing something completely new and having no idea what it was – but wanting to learn more.

The start of Ruin of Angels is a bit slow, but builds into one of the most revolutionary fantasy books I have ever read. Max Gladstone’s skill as a writer is only growing and I suspect he has a long and extremely successful career ahead of him. I can’t wait to find out where craft will go next because I have no idea, and love it.

Rating: Ruin of Angels – 10/10

-Andrew and Will

An Interview With Max Gladstone

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Max Gladstone is one of the big up and comers in fantasy these days. His Craft Sequence was just nominated for a Hugo for best series, and he has started multiple other group writing projects such as Bookburners. I am increasingly becoming a huge fan of his as he puts out more work, and he graciously agreed to let me ask him questions about his books and his life as an author. If you haven’t checked out any of his work yet you can find reviews for the first two Craft books here and here, and one for Bookburners here. Otherwise please enjoy our conversation below!

First off, some questions about you as an author as a whole:

You have a really interesting writing style that makes me feel like I know you as a person after reading your work. It makes me feel like we are already friends even though we have never met. Do you do this intentionally, do you just write yourself, or am i just insane and projecting because I am lonely?

Hah! I don’t think you’re making it up—I also don’t think I hide in my work too much. Many of my storytelling rhythms come from the gaming table, and when I sit down to write these days I am often just thinking about telling a story to my friends, and including little references and tips of the hat I’m sure they’ll catch. Different sorts of storytelling have their own idiosyncrasies, of course, but that common thread remains.
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Do you have a plan for your career as an author? I know you are sorta wrapping up the first part of The Craft Sequence now (or so I thought until I saw the announcement for Ruin of Angels), and have started up the BookBurner project. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

I have big dreams, and I’m working to see them come true. The tactical maneuvering is a lot more complicated—how do I get from there to here—and contingent on developments. I’m sorry if that sounds vague, but it’s hard to be more specific! In the near term, I’m focusing on writing a few excellent standalone novels, and on filling out the next phase of the Craft Sequence.

What do you like to read? Do you read fantasy and if so do you have favorite books and/or inspiration?

Everything! I read nonfiction, mysteries, plays, poetry, and, of course, fantasy and science fiction. I take joy and inspiration from my favorite authors—there’s a long list, but at the core we have Dorothy Dunnett, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, and Robin McKinley; other major influences include Sam Keith’s The Maxx, The Sandman, Terry Pratchett, and Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West. And I’m always finding new inspiration, in history and literature.

If you could work on a new collaborative piece with any other author, who would you choose?

I don’t know! There are lots of people I’d love to collaborate with—and I’ve started to work with some of them already! Amal El-Mohtar and I are right now putting the finishing touches on an excellent novella that I’m excited to share with people, for example.

Are you doing a book tour anytime soon?

I’m often traveling to conventions—I don’t know about any plans for a book tour for Ruin of Angels, but those don’t generally finalize until later.

Then some questions about your work with your Craft Sequence:

When we read Three Parts Dead for our book club, one of the major things that a group of people loved was its great workplace wish fulfillment. The Craft Sequence feels like one of the most adult fantasy series we have read because of all the professional issues it tackles. Was this intentional or a byproduct of the general ideas you had for your book?

Responses to my books tend to fall into two rough categories: the people for whom it feels like an office power fantasy, and the people for whom it precisely captures the enormity (and enormousness) of their daily work. I think it speaks to the peculiar (and often unhealthy) culture of work these days, that we lionize jobs with this level of intensity. I wrote the Craft Sequence in part because the more I tried to understand my world, the more I found myself relying on the language of fantasy fiction, and I think that, yes, as a result, it is a pretty adult series—in that it’s about things that adults, and people trying to become adults, spend a lot of time worrying about.

I remember hearing that the next Craft Book was going to be Six Feet Over, but that seems to have changed to The Ruin of Angels while I wasn’t looking. Can you talk about what this change means or at least inform me if I am hallucinating new craft books?

No, you aren’t hallucinating! My editor and I decided that Six Feet Over, while an excellent title, wouldn’t be enough of a marker that we were starting a new phase of the Sequence. And since I plan the future books to tick forward in time, rather than jumping around the timeline, dropping numbers from the titles would be a good signal. We’ll see how well that works!

Were there any particular jobs or job stories that you drew from in your personal experience for any of the books?

Nothing I can talk about in an open channel! But in general, the books were informed by my experiences in the non-profit sector, in research firms, and by my friends’ experiences in finance, law, academia, and engineering.

Of all the occupations you have invented in the Craft Sequence, which would you want to do if you lived in the world?

Honestly, I’m not sure! People have a hard time of it in the Craft world, as they do in ours; every cool opportunity brings costs with it. I really like the machine-monks in Dresediel Lex, though. I love the notion of maintenance as a sacrament. I really think it is!

What was the inspiration for the setting of Dresediel Lex? Mesoamerican culture and faith is so rarely touched on (and even more rarely touched on in a meaningful way), that I really sat up and took notice.

I wanted to expand the world of the books and highlight different sorts of cultures existed in this world—and since I wanted the cultures to feel less like a planet of hats, where you have, like, the Warrior culture and the Peaceful Hippy culture and whatever, and more like a through-the-looking-glass version of our own, where complex belief systems produce a whole lot of complex people, I decided to draw heavily on existing analogues. The desert setting suggested Los Angeles and Mexico City; I did a lot of reading on Mesoamerican religion and anthropology, and the dynamics of colonization, and spent a lot of time talking to friends, in hope of getting things right.

There are some seriously metaphysical and strange scenes in the Craft Sequence. Was there any scene that was particularly hard to write?

Not really. My brain’s just pretty weird, I guess.

Would you consider doing a Craft graphic novel?

Certainly! Watch my site for further news….

Finally, some question about the wonderful Bookburners:

Was Bookburners was inspired by Buffy, and/or anything else? What made you want to sit down and write a story about kickass archivists?

I’ve never seen Buffy, but many of our writers have, and Julian, the co-founder of Serial Box, has as well, so we have a lot of Buffy fans on the creative team! As for why we wanted to write about kickass archivists—why wouldn’t you want to write about kickass archivists? There’s all the ass-kicking! And the archiving!

You have successfully completed your first season of Bookburners. What would you say is the most important thing that you have learned while writing the book and collaborating with other authors?

Notecards. Over the course of writing Bookburners S1, I got my notecard game on point, and learned how to outline by basically doing everything Margaret Dunlap does—and it’s changed how I write practically everything. On the one hand, I spend a lot more time planning now, but that time working on the front end makes the writing far smoother, and allows me to focus more on my line-by-line prose work.

What is the process involved in working on something like Bookburners compared to one of your Craft novels?

Now that I’m outlining my novels more, it’s quite similar. With Bookburners, though, there are always more stages, because everyone has to be on the same stage—so we write, and test, and talk to one another about what we’ve written, and go back in for another pass.

It is a strange experience reading a book episodically as opposed to the traditional chapters. I thought you guys did a great job making Bookburners feel like watching TV show episodes, but occasionally it felt like chapters ended rather abruptly. How did you approach making episodes instead of the usual chapters?

Thanks! We try to think of each episode as a story in its own right, with its own beginning, middle, and end, as well as considering its place in the season overall. it requires a little more structural thought out front, but in the end, the greater structure allows us to create a more compelling, propulsive fiction—if we land the beats correctly, of course.

Bookburners – You Will Burn Through It

29238781I haven’t had a lot of experience with books written in groups, but what little experience I have had has been good. When I think of the staggering amount of work that went into a group paper in college, I can only imagine that it is even harder to organize a group of people to write a 600 page novel. However, I am always impressed with how smooth the group books I have read come out, and Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery, is no exception.

Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self contained story that plays out like a TV episode. This is my first time reading a story of this nature, and I found I really liked the experience. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. The group of authors did a great job unifying their voice, and while I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. But what is this show about?

Bookburners follows the story of a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. Our protagonist is an American cop whose brother is possessed by a book in the opening chapter. Once her brother’s situation is “dealt with” (avoiding spoilers) she ends up joining Team Three of the Vatican special forces. Team Three’s job is the study and retrieval of artifacts, Team Two are essentially PR, and Team One are the big guns that move in when a book/artifact gets out of control. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Team Three is made up of five members, Sal (our POV), Menchu, Grace, Asanti, and Liam. Each of them has an interesting, and of course tragic, backstory that got them into this line of work and I loved them all. The characters in this story are all fun, from the protagonists to the villains, but if I had to pick a favorite it would have to be Grace. She is a small Asian woman, and the team’s heavy muscle, and her backstory is one of the most unique and interesting things I have read recently.

One thing I will say is that while I love the world, I think the series could use a little more world building. When reading Bookburners I constantly felt like I did not have enough information about the world they work in. It often felt like we did not get information about their work until moments before we needed it, and this can occasionally make the book’s world feel a little shallow. However, to be fair I think this is something that was bound to happen due to the style of episodic writing. While the world in Bookburners felt a little thin compared to other books in the genre, it still felt much deeper than your traditional TV show. In addition, the moments where we do get worldbuilding really shine. My favorite chapter/episode was one in which the team goes to a supernatural black market and you get to meet all the major players in the magical world.

Overall I really liked Bookburners and I am definitely going to continue following the series. I purchased the first season in the omnibus, and then tried following some of season two as it was published episodically. I have found that I much prefer bingeing the story in one sitting to reading a chapter every so often, so I will be waiting for the seasons to finish to read them all at once. The book is a really fun take on fantasy writing, and if you are looking for something new to keep your reading experience fresh it does quite nicely. I really hope that the team can keep it going for many seasons to come and I can’t wait to see what is in store for Team Three next.

Rating: Bookburners: Season 1 – 8.0/10

Two Serpents Rise – This Sequence Gets Craftier

2sr-coverMy father was 60 years old when I was born. Kind of an odd thing to start a book review off with, but those of you who are the guessing sort are probably guessing that this will be tied into the review later on. Bonus points for you. As for the rest of you, just bear with me. 60 years is a long time, and when you think about how much of a generational gap there is between those of us born on the cusp of the millennium and those born as recently as the early 80s, one can imagine just how different my father and I were. I loved him dearly, but we had what some would call a tempestuous relationship. It’s something that I regret, but am unable to change since he passed.

I touch on this because the story in Two Serpents Rise, the second book in The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, is a departure from what was the main theme of book one, Three Parts Dead. The first book in the series, as you can read in Andrew’s review here, was an exciting and satisfying look at difficult workplace dynamics. Two Serpents Rise, on the other hand, examines how we can deal with the family we’re born into, and how important it is to build another family for ourselves through our friends and loved ones.

Caleb Altemoc, the protagonist of this book, is a risk manager and avid card player working for Red King Consolidated. For those of you new to the world of The Craft Sequence, the gods fought a battle with some powerful sorcerers known as the Deathless Kings…and lost. As you can probably guess from the name, RKC is run by the Red King, a skeletal sorcerer of immense power. After an infestation of some frankly horrific water demons (they take the form of arachnids, imagine drinking some water infested with them and having them form inside your stomach…shudder), Caleb is embroiled in a variety of plots as he tries to keep the city of Dresediel Lex, and the company he works for … afloat (I had to).Caleb interacts with his boss frequently, and The King in Red is an absolutely fantastic character. We are given some incredible insight into what could drive someone to become something so inhuman, and how underneath all that…bone…is something that was human once and may be human still. I think the scenes where we learn about the Red King’s past and his history with the city of Dresediel Lex are some of the strongest in the book.

The city of Dresediel Lex and its history is as large a character as any of the human/skeleton/whatever(s) in the book. Drawing heavily from mesoamerican history and mythology, Gladstone has created an incredibly unique city, at least in terms of fiction I have experienced. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been exposed to cities in fantasy that were influenced by Aztec culture, and even fewer of those that weren’t simply relegated to “BLOODTHIRSTY GODS WANT BLOOD”. While human sacrifice is definitely something that is explored, the conflict of what constitutes true sacrifice and how those sacrifices are offered is a huge aspect of the book and I thought it was handled very well. I also want to really quickly touch on how unsettling the bug taxis are. They’re giant dragonfly-type things that suck your soul out as taxi fare. I am so uncomfortable thinking about that, just the description gave me shudders every time.

The conflict between Caleb and his father, Temoc, is one of the main driving forces of the book. His father is an Eagle Priest, a powerful and uncompromising worshipper of the old gods of Dresediel Lex. He is very much of the old guard and his belief that human sacrifice is an absolute necessity to appease the gods is in direct conflict with Caleb’s views of it as murder by another name. The descriptions of the arguments they’ve had playing out for the thousandth time reminded me a great deal of my relationship with my dad, and I was left upset and shaking my head when I saw myself in Caleb’s shoes, unable to understand his father and unable to make his father understand.

My only real complaints with the book come from the pacing and the climax. In terms of the pacing I was left feeling like more time had passed in the world than made sense for the story, though that could be a personal gripe. In addition, I felt the climax was rather abrupt. While the end of the book was exciting and certainly not short of spectacle, the actual final showdown with the ultimate enemy of the book was over very quickly and felt almost glossed over. I was expecting more going into it than I received, and while this is an issue, I think it’s a minor one when considering the story as a whole.

Two Serpents Rise is most definitely not the book I was expecting when I started it. After the funny and quirky romp that was Three Parts Dead, the introspective nature of this story really surprised me. I think, though, that the mileage of this story may vary for readers that aren’t in my shoes. In our book club discussion of Three Parts Dead, the ratings varied along the lines of those who enjoy their work and those who don’t. I Imagine that ratings would vary similarly in readings of Two Serpents Rise for those who have difficulties dealing with parts of their family and those who don’t. Regardless of that fact, though, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the world of The Craft Sequence and wants to delve further into this land of gods and the people who live with them.

Rating: Two Serpents Rise – 9.0/10

-Will