Senlin Ascends – Climbing To The Top Of The Favorite List

17554595Ever since Mark Lawrence gave a vote of confidence for Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, you can’t swing a dead cat (which is a weird saying might I add) without hitting a positive review of it. As such I figured I ought to check it out, because while you probably don’t need yet another review about this increasingly popular book, I was curious to see if Senlin could live up to all the hype. The short answer is yes, this is a great book. For the long answer you will just have to read yet another review of this great book.

Senlin Ascends is a new take on the Tower of Babel, an endlessly tall tower from the Bible filled with incomprehensible wonders and mystery. There have been a number of Babel stories I have read over the years, from Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower to the manga Get Backers, and it is a subject matter I never get tired of. The running thread through all the stories is that the Tower of Babel is an infinitely tall structure, with something of incalculable worth (usually the means to ascend to godhood or ultimate power) at the top. To get to the top one must navigate through the endless labyrinthian floors of the tower, each with their own unique identity and themes – each floor getting harder to pass through as you ascend. The great thing about The Tower of Babel is that while the stories share this same skeleton, there is an unlimited amount of white space that authors can work with when they design the floors of the tower, and the people who climb them. It means that while there are a lot of tower stories, almost none of them reuse the same tower and the stories always feel fresh and fun. In this particular story, we follow Thomas Senlin, a dour school teacher who has recently married. Senlin and his new wife Marya have wanted to see the wonders of the tower their entire life, and saved up enough money to travel to it and explore the first few floors. Upon arriving at the tower, the two are immediately separated and Senlin soon realizes he must climb the tower to save Marya who has disappeared into the tower’s depths.

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Senlin Ascends hits everything I want in a good Tower of Babel story. First off, Josiah’s tower is impressive. He has managed to intertwine the feeling that the tower is a selfish machine that crushes the lives of those who enter with the wonder and mystery that pervade the entire structure. Each floor has its own unique feel and theme, exhibiting crazy ideas and concepts that run from awe inducing to horrifying, and each present unique obstacles for our protagonist to overcome. Senlin is a different and enjoyable lead from most fantasy. He is a quiet, dour, and naive school teacher who stands out in the tower like a signal flare. His personality means that his trip up is not easy, as he is constantly betrayed, swindled, and stabbed in the back as he moves from floor to floor. He has a pervasive feeling of helplessness that makes him seem a lot weaker and unimpressive that most protagonists of a story like this, but it resulted in me adoring him as I got to watch him grow and evolve through his trial in the tower. One of the central themes to the book is the battle of Senlin’s faith in humanity and the tower’s power to turn every person who enters into a selfish bastard. It means that most of the conflict in the book becomes emotional, and large parts of the story revolve around Senlin figuring out whom he can trust, and whom he can make a better person. It adds a lot of tension to conversations and relationships and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder if Senlin has made a mistake trusting someone, or if he has finally found a friend amidst the bandits that fill the tower to overflowing.

Senlin is a great character, and I would read about him in almost any context. However, while I certainly don’t dislike Marya, I found her a noticeably weaker character than Senlin. I found myself willing her passages to end faster so I could get back to Senlin, which is not a fun feeling. Josiah did a good job putting life into his damsel in distress, but I am not enamored by the idea of Senlin being so driven by his wife of all of a few days. The story quickly grows bigger than simply Senlin trying to find his wife (which is awesome and I can’t wait to find out what is happening in the tower), but I would occasionally find Senlin’s motivations uncompelling.

Senlin Ascends is a fresh new take on The Tower of Babel, and is just as mesmerizing, exciting, and fun as all the reviewers say it is. Based on the quality of this first installment, I’m excited to see where Bancroft can take this concept. What starts as a simple rescue, quickly becomes one of the most captivating mysteries I have ever read and a beautiful journey of self discovery. I highly recommend you check out this new entrant into the fantasy scene, and I don’t see the buzz surrounding it dying down anytime soon.

Rating: Senlin Ascends – 9.0/10

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The Legion Of Flame – A Battalion Of Hotness

Let me save you some time. The Legion of Flame, by Anthony Ryan, is great. You should absolutely go pick it up and read it (preferably after reading the initial installment The Waking Fire). Great, now we can get into the actual review.

61u8borhpml-_sx329_bo1204203200_Competition has been harsh this summer. As we pass through June and July, I have seen so many strong releases that it is getting increasingly hard to stand out from the pack. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Anthony Ryan’s next installment of The Draconis Memoria, The Legion of Flame. Continuing the story of Lizanne Lethridge, Clayton Torcreek, and Captain Corrick Hilemore as they attempt to stave off a reptilian apocalypse, Legion picks up almost exactly where The Waking Fire, book one in the series, left off. The White has awoken and is gathering an army of dragons and Spoiled, and doom is coming. Cue our heroes rushing around to a variety of places to try to save the world. The cast has been expanded again, but telling you about the new POV and characters are direct spoilers, so you will have to settle with trusting me that they are excellent additions to an already great group of people.

One of my few complaints with the first book in the series was that while the story and world were inventive and fun, it felt like a lot of the finer details were glossed over in favor of the action. Why do the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Protectorate hate each other so much? Who even is the Blood Cadre? Why didn’t Hilemore get more screen time? Luckily for us, The Legion of Flame explores more of the world and politics, giving us a much better understanding of why these conflicts exist and who the major players involved in them are. Liz is given a mission to go to the Corvantine Empire to attempt to negotiate a treaty between the Empire and the Ironship Protectorate in the face of the impending attack from the White and his legion of flame (see what I did there?). While we don’t spend a lot of time in Corvus proper, the time we do spend there is rich in detail and gives a much better understanding of the empire and its ruling class. While this is going on, Clay and Hilemore begin a voyage to the South Pole, in an attempt to fulfill the vision Clay saw when he got some white dragon blood in his mouth (gross).

Here we come upon another complaint of mine from book one that is remedied. Hilemore felt like an awesome, but unnecessary, addition in The Waking Fire, with Clay and Liz given a significantly larger portion of screen time. While he still has less chapters than the two of them, he is greatly expanded upon in a way that I felt was beneficial and added a measure of naval fun to a story that had mostly revolved around “Magic Indiana Jones” and “Magic Girl James Bond”.

Speaking of “Magic Girl James Bond”, Liz’s mission takes her to Scorazin, a prison city in the Corvantine Empire that “no one ever escapes from”. I loved this. While it did expand upon the unfortunate and unnecessary (in my opinion) romance between Arberus and Liz, the time she spends within its walls was fast-paced, full of intrigue, and action packed. There were twists aplenty and I was constantly waiting for her next chapter so I could continue the excitement. Liz continues to claw her way up the ranks of my favorite characters with her brilliant competence, interesting mix of cold secret agent mentality and strong moral compass, and asskicking prowess. Character growth is something that I have given Ryan a hard time for in the past, but watching Liz change as she is put through trial after trial is one of my favorite parts of this series.

Touching back on the romance, it seemed like it was a little forced, and only existed to add some unnecessary tension to Lizanne’s story line. Additionally, Liz’s motivations and drives become a little cloudy and hard to understand around the two thirds point in the book and I had a bit of trouble following the logic of her actions for a few chapters. However, this lack of clarity only lasts a short while and soon the book returns to the streamlined and exciting plot that pervades this entire series.

While it continues the overall story, and sets up book three with an absolutely tantalizing cliffhanger (the suspense is actually killing me), The Legion of Flame contains a remarkably tight story arc of its own, expanding many of the existing plotlines and spinning a whole tapestry of new ones that captivated and astounded me. I spent a ridiculous amount of my time reading this book having absolutely no idea where it was going. The characters are grasping at straws as they try to come up with ways to combat the White, and the narrative structure mimics this beautifully. I was worried that the reveals and twists at the end of the book would not live up to the build up and I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. I am barely able to contain my excitement for the next installment in the series, and continue to be impressed by Ryan’s growth as an author with each of his novels.

If you’re looking for an end of the world driven by dragons, great characters, and a fast-paced but intricate story look no farther than The Legion of Flame. The Quill to Live heartily recommends this book and series.

Rating: The Legion of Flame – 9.0/10

With Blood Upon The Sand – Sandsational

with-blood-upon-the-sand-coverThe Song of the Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu, is a series I probably don’t talk about enough (maybe because every time I do I have to google the series name and Bradley’s name to make sure I get the spelling right). One of the primary issues with it is there is just so much to talk about that I never feel like I have enough time. The first book in the series was Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, a book I felt had a slow start but reached fantastic heights. Bradley just put out the second book in the series, With Blood Upon the Sand, and it’s even better than its predecessor. When I originally reviewed book one I was new to the review game, but with my added experience doing these for two years I can hopefully better give Bradley and his story the props they rightly deserve.

Avoiding spoilers for book one, The Song of the Shattered Sand follows the story of a land of desert. It is a harsh land with limited resources, home to tons of roaming nomads who brave the sands. Long ago, a group of these nomads banded together to build a city at the center of the desert hoping to create stability and wealth. This city was Sharakhai. Twelve tribes with twelve kings came together to make the city, and it was incredibly successful. However, the city started to drain the resources of the desert, and its surrounding countries, in its quest to build an opulent metropolis in the sands. The remaining nomads of the sands resented this, rose up and threatened to overrun and raze the city. In the cities direst hour, the gods of the land joined together, blessed the city and its twelve kings, and helped repel the hordes of nomads. Through these desert gods the kings have been granted the divine right to rule, and govern their paradise with a just and even hand… or so they would have you think. Our story follows the POV of Ceda, a gutter wren in the city of Sharakhai and one of many who chafe under the kings’ absolute rule. The first book in the series focuses on Ceda, and her quest to overthrow the kings from the outside. With Blood Upon the Sand sees Ceda entering the service of the kings to try and take them down from within.

This new book is similar to a magical school story, with Ceda entering the elite personal army of the kings. As I have said before, I love magical schools and this is one of the best. In addition, while the first book focused primarily on Ceda, the second breaks out to a larger cast with more POVs. All the wonderful things about book one are still here in the sequel: the expansive and beautiful world, the deep characters, an exciting plot, the poetic prose, and the frankly beautiful physical book that is just fun to hold. However, the longer I spend with Bradley’s epic fantasy the more I am realizing he’s making something more impressive and complex than I initially realized. First there is Ceda. Ceda is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have read. I constantly change how i feel about her personality and her actions in the book, but that is not because Bradley is inconsistent in his writing. Ceda is just a character who I don’t know how I feel about. As mentioned before, Ceda wants to end the rule of the kings, a quest that her late mother left her. However, unlike most other fantasy quests out there, Ceda is in many ways completely on her own. Ceda doesn’t have a prophecy to work off of, she doesn’t have a kindly mentor standing behind her giving her guidance, she just has a goal and a general direction she wants to move in. It makes her mistakes feel more reasonable and forgivable than other protagonists because it is so easy to place yourself in her ignorant shoes. What this means is that unlike most other epic fantasies, The Song of the Shattered Sand is as much about figuring out what to do as how to do it. This adds a layer of mystery and unpredictability to the books that pervades every chapter.

Furthermore, I am captivated by the land of Sharakhai. Bradley builds in lore, settings, culture, and details of his setting so that I feel like I am learning something new on every page. The story doesn’t have a lot of setup (hence my original comment of a slow start) but as it pushes forward it builds this incredible momentum that makes reading it an experience. He intricately plans the lore, power, and mysteries of the kings and city, while also making it feel organic and random. One of the major pillars of the story is that the kings all have unique powers, and weaknesses, granted to them by the gods. However, unlike many other series the powers (or weaknesses) aren’t know to anyone but the kings. The only information outside their heads on the subject is a series of 12 poems that were lost to time. These poems each tell: the identity of the king, their power, and how to kill them – but they are all in riddle form and the riddles are hard. A lot of the time when you get poems and prophecies in fantasy, it is painfully obvious who they point to – but Bradley’s are both eloquent and maddening as they often feel like they refer to multiple kings and that their powers and weaknesses could be anything, It is a refreshing take on prophecy and every time Ceda identifies a poem to its owner you get this satisfying rush of “it all makes sense now”. The story and world are a mystery wrapped in an enigma and I love peeling back each layer.

On top of beginning wonderfully complex, the entire story is in a grey area. There are more sides of this story than a cube, and I have no idea whose I am on. The more you learn about the kings, the more you can see that “evil tyrants” is an oversimplification. In addition, the noble rebels seeking to overthrow them have multiple subgroups whose goals align a lot less than they initially think. The book has political intrigue oozing out of every pore and shifting through the various players and characters is very satisfying. Finally, the magic and culture of the book is just fun to read. I have never been huge on Middle Eastern fantasy, but Bradley’s adaptation of the setting feels original and like it doesn’t fetishize the culture to a western audience (at least to me). I would love to spend some time talking with Bradley about his inspiration for the work, and what ideas he adapted from existing mythology and what he built for himself.

Despite my glowing praise, the books are not without flaws. Bradley if you are reading this you need a damn appendix, I cannot keep all your characters straight on my own. The pacing of the series is much slower than I am used to, but I am not entirely sure it is a flaw. With Blood Upon the Sand rarely kept me on the edge of my seat, preferring to slip grand reveals unexpectedly into the middle of chapters with little build up. On the other hand, I was never bored. The book might not be the most exciting ever, but it is definitely captivating in a slow and methodical way. The books are incredibly long, and felt it, but I had a really hard time thinking of anything that I would cut. Every scene clearly had a reason, and while the book might have been slimmed slightly, I actually think it was fine the way it was.

The Song of the Shattered Sand is an incredible series running under the radar of most people I know. Despite its slow pacing and quiet personality, it has an enormous amount of substance. I hope this review has gotten you intrigued enough to take a look and brave the sands. If you are looking for a wonderful world, a complex cast, mystery around every corner, and an unforgettable trip into the desert, I recommend you check out Bradley P. Beaulieu’s latest work.

Rating: With Blood Upon the Sand – 9.0/10