Memoirs don’t typically fall within The Quill To Live’s purview. But Ben Folds, in a move reflective of his genre-bending career as a musician, has broken the mold and crafted a decidedly whimsical and punk autobiography that hooked me, a near-exclusive SFF reader, from start to finish. Ben Folds fans will likely flock to the artist’s book, which shines with the same exuberance and flair that he so often pours into his music.
Ben Folds, in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, weaves tales that cover an impressive range of emotions and topics, reflecting his songwriting. Sadness, anger, hardship, and moments of success color the book, boosted by Folds’ signature voice. That voice, stripped from its usual sonic medium, hops off the page and makes Fold’s unique brand of celebrity feel accessible to readers, even without his expertly crafted melodies setting the stage for the prose. Like his album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” A Dream About Lightning Bugs makes its creator intensely relatable, even as he tells stories of performing on stage for thousands.
The book succeeds because it is unabashedly Ben Folds. I usually steer clear of memoirs for fear of ghostwriters diluting the subject’s personality. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, though deftly edited and polished, bears no signs of outside influence. It reads like a Ben Folds song sounds, and his tales mirror the music he produced during the time in which those stories took place.
A welcome wave of relief rushed over me when I discovered that Ben Folds’ life is actually interesting. Too often authors, in their autobiographies, try to make something out of nothing. Folds has a way of packaging the seemingly mundane in evergreen life lessons. When he explores his later work, he calls back to the earlier struggles that influenced it. This is all to say that Folds knows the story he wants to tell, the message he wants to share, and he does it well by carefully choosing the right anecdotes to grace the page.
Certain moments stand out to me personally because I’ve always imagined Ben Folds a certain way through the lens of his music. Folds is Dad-like, unafraid of controversy, and willing to be himself without hesitation. Moments in the book showcase that he is that person (and much more) while also highlighting the moments that shaped his confidence as a musician and a person. He’s honest about his shortcomings. He accepts responsibility for his wrongdoings, including events that led to his multiple marriages and subsequent divorces. He describes throwing his shitty drum set into a lake as a rage-addled end to his time in college. He considers the good and the bad equally, and his memoir feels utterly balanced and satisfying as a result. This isn’t the story of a man justifying the things he’s done wrong. It’s the story of Folds coming to terms with his hardships, self-inflicted or otherwise, and understanding their role in his eventual (and continuing) success.
After finishing A Dream About Lightning Bugs, I felt a new appreciation for Ben Folds. Reading his story in his own words lent me a new perspective on his music, which I’ve listened to voraciously for years. On the heels of this memoir, I’m more excited than ever to see what he does next.
If Noumenon felt like the detached and cool but ultimately understanding older cousin, Noumenon: Infinity is your loving aunt who also happens to be a trained therapist. The first book took a more removed and neutral approach to its narrative style as well as the questions it posed about the nature of purpose and drive, but Noumenon: Infinity seemed to move towards an increasingly active narration that sought the answer to the first book’s questions. I enjoyed the first book’s presentation, but, I also appreciate the tack taken in Infinity, because it invites the reader to join in dissecting the answers to these complicated questions. Infinity has some pacing issues but ultimately carried the torch lit by Noumenon to a brighter future.
Infinity follows two separate storylines, one in line with the vignettes from the previous book, and the other a more linear story following a parallel project that launched after the original Noumenon fleet left for the stars. The vignettes follow the crew of the Noumenon as they set back out into space, hoping to determine once and for all the nature of the Nest, the structure they had found in Noumenon. The crew begins their return journey to the Nest, but along the way they separate. A small group of volunteers decides to follow the trail of a presumed extinct alien race while the bulk of the fleet attempts to finish construction of the Nest. The parallel story follows another team that is investigating more efficient ways to harness subspace dimensional travel when their experiment goes awry and sends the team to an unknown part of the galaxy.
At first, the separate timelines were a little jarring. The linear story about the experimental dimensional travel has chapters which are chronologically closer together, heightening the immediate character tension. The vignettes operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, nodding to the first book by employing large time jumps in order to smoothly process the grander story. Lostetter, refreshingly, relates very little of the first book, relying on the reader to have read Noumenon in order to fully experience the story. Her choice forces the reader to expend some effort, in the beginning, to keep the timelines straight and process the new cast of characters, but it feels worth. As the book proceeds, the separate storylines feel stronger, and the chapters begin to complement each other. I rarely felt frustrated that I was leaving one storyline for the other as Lostetter managed to balance the tension in two very different conflicts. Survival felt very real as the struggles within each narrative gradually became more threatening as each chapter ended.
One of my favorite things about the first Noumenon was how human the characters felt. I was engaged in the first story, but Lostetter made me feel deeply involved with the characters in Infinity. The original story of the clones, grasping towards the stars with their own imbued purpose, was still as riveting as ever. However, the author dialed it in so much more with the second storyline. She focused on people whose experiment was not to leave the solar system, but rather people with families on Earth who get flung across the universe in a seemingly freak accident. Lost, confused, and dealing with circumstances beyond their control or understanding, they eventually make the first contact with an alien species. Operating with no protocol for how to handle this event, as well as a dwindling amount of supplies, the crew had to desperately reach into the unknown hoping for a helping hand. The crew had to make real and immediate decisions that ultimately forced them to deal with the aliens or die alone in the dark.
One of the more interesting things Lostetter did with her parallel story structure highlighted the dualism of purpose and feeling of aimlessness. Often, events would occur that were out of the characters’ control and lead to bouts of horror and depression. A sense of direction needed to be reapplied after deliberation, as rash actions created a blindness to the future. Both stories produced this effect by examining this human tendency on different scales. This dynamic was shaky at first, but gradually a harmony was realized with the ramping tension. It is a nice thing looking back, and something I did not realize while I was reading. It gives me a sense of hope that someone like Lostetter can make her own writing feel it has a past of its own, which also forces the reader to question humanity’s own history as a species. This intricate dance of purposefulness and aimlessness within the story, as well as the melding of the two narratives, is a clever way to examine and present this idea.
As I mentioned earlier, I liked the slight tonal shift away from the feeling of a distant, neutral eye watching wayward children to the more active narration. It may have just been my reading experience, but Lostetter seemed to write with higher expectations of herself and her characters. The stakes felt higher than in the first book, all while feeling even more attached to the characters’ decisions. There was a sense that humanity could do better, and that individuals in or out of power, had a responsibility to do right. Accepting the way things are is not enough, despite what may have been the status quo for generations. It felt as if Lostetter was saying that purpose and the pursuit of it are both important and the examination of both is required. Lostetter has a gift for recognizing the beauty in people, or even a people, who are realizing their mistakes. Whether it was unleashing some horrible monstrosity or losing control of one’s own emotions in front of a close friend, pain, horror and regret were all handled with poise and renewed empathy.
All in all, Infinity is a tight sequel that expands on the themes from the first book. It is longer, but it also has more to say and more substantive material. Lostetter manages to heighten the terror of exploring the unknown while offering even brighter sparks of hope. The characters’ choices made are not made lightly, and the consequences are heavy enough to stick with the reader long after closing the book. Several scenes will probably stay with me until I die. But if there is one thing that Lostetter wants you to know, it is that though the universe might be a dark and scary place, full of monsters we might embody or encounter, we do still have each other. In fact, it might be all we ever really have, now and in the future. In a weird way, she makes it feel like hope if we are only willing to accept it.
When an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&EarthVolume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.
Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.
Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.
Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.
Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.
All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.
Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.
Last year Nicholas Eames had a breakout success with his book Kings of the Wyld. The story of an older fantasy party getting back together for one last tour, the book told a touching story of five characters finding the strength to set aside their differences and save the world. It was one of our top books of the year and you can read more about it here, here, and here. Not content to just write one amazing book, Eames is back with a sequel, Bloody Rose, that takes place in the aftermath of book one but follows an entirely new cast. It is a big task to write a sequel from the ground up, so the question is: did Eames mess up his encore?
No, no he did not. I am deeply impressed Bloody Rose is such a solid book, especially as it forgoes a lot of what made Kings amazing. Our new POV is Tam, the daughter of two famous mercenaries looking to strike out on her own. She quickly falls in as the new bard for the top band in the world, Fable. The five (if I include Tam) person band includes Brune (a shapeshifting druid), Cura (a summoner who uses ink and flesh for her creations), Lastleaf (a druid swordsman you might remember from book one), and the aforementioned Rose – daughter to one of our characters from book one, Golden Gabe. In the wake of vanquishing the horde of monsters in Kings of the Wyld, bands have begun to stick to touring arenas where they can slaughter monsters brought in from the Wylds in front of huge audiences. However, it doesn’t take long for the remnants of the monster army to regroup under a new leader for one last push into human lands. When this new horde starts making its invasion, most bands head towards it to put it down a second time. The notable outlier to this is Fable, who finds themselves heading in the opposite direction to fulfil a mysterious contract – much to the ire of the other bands around them.
Much like with Saga in book one, Fable is a band with a lot of issues. Each band member is dealing with their own personal crisis that is slowly pulling the band apart. The major theme this time around is parent relationships. Each band member has a problem with their parents that they are trying to work through throughout the course of the book to varying degrees of success. I won’t go into all of them to avoid spoilers, but I think I can touch on the more obvious two – Tam, our POV, and Rose. Tam’s mother was killed while touring with her band and her father has never gotten over her death. Tam essentially runs away from her father to join Fable after he expressly forbids it and spends the majority of the book trying to find her own identity and come to terms with who she is vs. who her father wanted her to be. Rose, on the other hand, is the daughter of one of the most famous mercenaries alive and has found herself unable to leave his shadow. Driven to take on increasingly more dangerous contracts, Rose is determined to eclipse her father or die trying.
Bloody Rose’s characters are fantastic. Tam is an absolute delight (and is a lesbian for those of you who are looking for lgbt protagonists). I think Eames made a really good choice in telling the story from Tam’s eyes. As we progress through the book, Tam’s opinion of Fable’s other members goes from ‘starstruck awe’ to ‘deep personal understanding of their strengths and flaws’, and riding along with her for that trip was wonderful. The cast as a whole is fantastic, including many of the smaller side characters like Tam’s uncle Bram and Fables bookie Rodrick. The only character that I honestly wasn’t in love with was the titular Rose. She felt a little shallow, only living to outshine her father, and the other characters were so interesting that, while I liked Rose, she never quite connected with me like the rest of Fable did.
Bloody Rose has a more somber and serious voice than its predecessor, though it still has a good sense of humor. Kings of the Wyld focused a lot on laughs and emotional connections, whereas Bloody Rose focuses more on its plot, worldbuilding, and narrative themes. In line with this, one of the biggest themes of Rose is evaluating people for their own merits, not the merits of their parents, and as such I think comparing the two books does both injustice. Bloody Rose’s plot is fantastic. Eames does a great job building out the world a lot more this time around and getting you much more invested in the bigger picture. The pacing for the first 60% of the book is phenomenal, but I think it does struggle a little bit around roughly the 80% mark. This was only a minor problem in an overall fantastic book though and I do not think anyone who is looking forward to Bloody Rose is going to be disappointed.
The success of Bloody Rose shows that Nicholas Eames is here to stay. It is a heartfelt read, with a beautiful world, and a cast I deeply connected with. Eames’ narrative voice is one of the best in this generation of fantasy authors, and I cannot wait to read everything else he puts out. Bloody Rose is one of the strongest fantasy books this year, and everyone should pick it up as soon as they can.
This year has been absolutely packed with fantastic sequels, and new series from authors I love. However, in the midst of all the literary titans releasing their work it is important to not overlook the new players entering the game. Every year I have a couple of dark horses on my release tracker that are new books from debut authors that have drawn my attention based on their description. This year one such book is The Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames. The premise of the book immediately hooked me: in a world where fantasy adventuring parties function like modern day rock bands, a famous band must do a reunion tour to save the leader’s daughter. The only problem is that the members are all old tired men, and they haven’t spoken to each other in a long time. As far as premises go, this is the most intriguing I have seen in awhile, but does it live up to its potential or fall flat?
For me the main draw of this book was the characters. For starters, a large part of the cast is made up of old men and women, something that I wish more authors would do. The band is made up of five characters, each of whom are deeply fleshed out and wonderful to read about. The first half of the book is about getting the band back together. It consists of the group slowly traveling to new locations, fleshing out the world, and re-recruiting the band. The mini-arcs do a great job bringing each band member to life and endearing them to you. All of them are old-timers with a lot of regrets, each not having quite gotten what they wanted out of life. The support cast is also just as good with several recurring characters I was always excited to see show up. The cast is so diverse and imaginative that I can’t picture a reader picking up Kings of the Wyld and not finding someone that they identify with.
On top of all of this the world and plot are nothing to scoff at. As I mentioned earlier the plot is about the band reuniting to save the daughter of their frontman, Gabe. However, the band did not leave on the best of terms (particularly Gabe) and they have a lot of issues to work through. While they work out their personal problems, the group must also deal with the fact that Gabe’s daughter is trapped on the other side of a siege by a huge army; An army that is comprised of classic fantasy monsters and myths. See, in Kings of the Wyld creatures and humans do not get along, competing for space and resources. To deal with this conflict, bands go out and make a name for themselves killing monsters and defending humans. The monsters have been losing ground for ages and have tired of the arrangement, forming a horde to sweep over humanity. While the horde continues to rout opposition, human nations cannot get past their differences and grievances to organize a response. This backdrop, combined with the personal struggles of our band, make for a read that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The book is a lot of fun. It has an emphasis on humor that makes it a great and upbeat read, while also taking itself pretty seriously so that it has a lot of immersion. The band theme worked out a lot better than I thought it would with various members of the party filling out roles in a traditional band from bass player to booking agent. The world was also designed very well to the point where the existence of bands of adventurers felt natural. The book also has a soundscape that Eames put up on his site that I am a huge fan of. I have to say I have always felt lukewarm about Led Zeppelin, but thanks to the soundscape I have had them on repeat for a month. As I mentioned, the book is very funny and feels like it was written with the goal of entertaining. Despite this, I found the book to be surprisingly impactful in many instances. There is a particular scene in which two lifelong friends find out that one has been hiding essentially that he has cancer from the other, and the reactions and writing broke my heart. Eames feels like he is trying to put a smile on your face, but never goes for the cheap laugh and never sacrifices the story for the sake of humor.
No review is complete without me assessing a book’s flaws, but Kings of the Wyld does not have many. My main complaint would likely be that the book felt a little less tight and polished towards the end. While the narrative during the first half of the story felt focused and smooth, I thought that the last quarter of the book felt a little hectic and didn’t quite have the level of emotional impact that the first three quarters did. That being said, the ending is still fantastic and I am just complaining about some loose stitching on an otherwise beautiful narrative tapestry.
I am excited to announce that we have a new player on the fantasy scene with a lot of potential. The best debut I have read in awhile, Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld has everything I love in the fantasy genre with some original twists and angles. Thanks to this book I can’t stop listening to classic rock and I am counting the days until we get a sequel. The Quill to Live estatically recommends Kings of the Wyld, it will put music in your heart.