Soul Of The World – A New Frontier Of Magic

51vgtpwurcl-_sx322_bo1204203200_This week I get to do one of my absolute favorite things, talk about a new dark horse on the 2017 release list. I love magic systems, and today’s book has not one, not two, but three original magical systems to sink your teeth into. Soul of the World is a debut novel by David Mealing that has taken me completely by surprise. I had heard almost nothing about this book until someone handed me an advanced copy, and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it. As such, I am making it my miniature mission to shout to all of you how much fun it is because while you may not have heard of it, it is definitely worth checking out.

They say when you write your first book you should start small, which is apparently a saying that Mealing did not care about. Soul of the World is a huge epic fantasy and just the opening chapter of a complicated and interesting world. The book is set in a semi-alternate history American revolutionary war, except that the English and the French have switched places in the story. The book is initially very confusing with regards as to what is going on, but it is still a blast to read as you try to get your feet on solid ground. Our plot follows three protagonists, each a paragon of one of the three magic systems and a window into three different factions in our story. What is actually happening in the book is a bit of a spoiler, and a mystery I greatly enjoyed unraveling, so instead I am going to focus on the character and magic for this review. Strap in, it’s going to be much longer that usual but I promise you this is worth your time.

First, we have Sarine, a street artist living in the ghettos of the new world using her unique magical talents to survive and scrape out a living. I immediately fell in love with her as a lead and always looked forward to her chapters. Sarine’s magic revolves around a Kaas, a snake/basilisk-like familiar that allows her to manipulate the emotions of those around her. Usually I am not a fan of ‘mind control’ magic as it can make conflict resolution too easy, but Mealing’s take on the concept is much more up my alley. Sarine’s Kaas familiar can influence others, but only by broadcasting things like anger to incite riots, or emanating tranquility to calm a crowd. It is a much less precise form of emotional control than I have seen before – and Mealing uses it to create some interesting situations. Sarine is a solitary, and rather sad, character who spends most of her time talking with her familiar. Her sweet nature and strong moral code won my heart quickly and I enjoyed her story through the entire book.

Second we have Arak’Jur, a tribesman who functions as a Native American surrogate. Originally Arak’Jur was my least favorite lead, but by the end of the book he was easily my favorite. A large part of the book revolves around huge and dangerous magical beasts that roam the continent our characters inhabit. While the English/French live behind a giant magical barrier that keeps the beasts out, the natives have human guardians who protect their tribes by killing the beasts. When a beast is killed, the guardian may beseech the spirit of the animal to give them a boon if the animal was impressed with the guardian’s prowess. These boons allow the guardian to channel some aspect of the beast for a short period of time. I. Love. This. Magic. I cannot begin to express how invested I got in Arak’Jur’s story once I got to see how his magic worked. Mealing is incredibly inventive with his magical beasts, and every time I opened to one of Arak’Jur’s chapters I was bouncing in my chair with excitement to see the next creature that Mealing had made, and what new amazing power that Arak’Jur might get. My original problem with Arak’Jur was he seemed to be a cliche depiction of a Native American and I was going to lambast Mealing for not making him more complex. However, as I spent more time with this stoic and stubborn man I found his personality to be deeper than I originally gave him credit for, and I grew to be more attached to him than anyone else. He can feel like a stick in the mud sometimes, but if you stick with him he will blossom.

The third and final lead is Erris, and I ended up liking her the least despite her having probably the most original of all the magic systems. My problem with Erris was less with her as a character, and more with the fact that she is a high ranking officer in the French military and as a result her chapters highly revolve around military strategy. I am a fan of strategy and tactics, but I felt that a decent number of Erris’s passages could drag as they were bogged down by logistical minutia. However, her magic is called binding and is based on territorial control – which is awesome. Binders are born with access to a few of the many ley lines running throughout the world – and each country in the story has access to a number of leylines equal to the size of their territorial control. This creates this weird and awesome need to keep expanding the size of your country and made conflict constantly feel natural and inevitable. Binders can sense pockets of power around them that gather when the corresponding emotion or aspect is concentrated in that location. The easiest example of this is if a lot of people die someone, Death binders will find a pocket of ‘Death’ to fuel their magic. I am not doing this system enough justice with this paragraph, trust me it is cool.

On top of having just a ridiculous number (3) of magic systems, our characters gain an insane number of powers as the book progresses. In most fantasy novels I have read, you might have a protagonist find one or two new powers in a story and then spend the entire book contemplating how it changes their lives. I kept a counter next to me as I read Soul of the World, and by the halfway mark the protagonists had collectively gained over twenty new powers. If you had asked me what I thought of characters gaining that many new powers before reading this, I would have said I bet the story devolves into an incoherent mess. But, while Soul of the World certainly gets messy, it is a mess that is fun to roll around in that has a clear underlying cohesion that runs through it. Things get really exciting when characters start combining their powers, adding endless freshness to the combat, and when some characters start mixing the different magic systems I was clawing at the pages with unbridled joy.

While I have just given you a truck load of reasons to go out and buy this debut immediately, I would be remiss if I didn’t also do my job and talk about its flaws. The combat is thrilling, but the general prose of the book could definitely use some polish. As I was reading Soul of the World I could definitely tell that this was Mealing’s first book and some of his word choice, phrasing, and dialogue could be improved a little bit. However, this is very typical of a first novel in my experience and I am sure that as he continues to churn out more awesome books his authorial voice will only get better.

Soul of the World is a magical book, almost overflowing with originality. The few problems I had with the narrative were vastly outweighed by the fascinating world, fun characters, and captivating magic that pervade the story. I have no doubt that this book will be considered a hidden gem for the next few months, but I hope that with help from myself and others, enough people will pick this up to give it the attention it deserves. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you give David Mealing, and Soul of the World, a chance.

Rating: Soul of the World – 8.5/10

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Raven Stratagem – Worth Rav(en)ing About

30691976Well we are back to this crazy series this week. For those of you unfamiliar with The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee, it is a ridiculous military science fiction in a confusing and exciting universe. For those who have not read the first book (The NineFox Gambit), I highly recommend you just go read my review instead of lingering around here – nothing is going to make sense otherwise. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the brand new second book in the series, Raven Stratagem.

If I had to distill my experience with The Ninefox Gambit down to one sentence, it would be: I have no idea what is going on – but it is so fast and exciting that I am fine with it. In Raven Stratagem, things are still confusing as all hell – but Yoon Ha Lee spends time making events noticeably more clear than book one. This does, however, come at the cost of some speed and excitement. I think it is a good trade off, especially for a middle book in a series, and in the long run is of service to the story. As a result, Raven Stratagem didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat quite like book one, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of the players in the story and the direction the plot is going. One of the major changes to the story is a narration change from a central POV to multiple POVs. When we had last left our intrepid heroes (Cheris/Jedao) their health was a bit unclear and they fell off the grid. Raven opens with their reemergence onto the scene and the theft of a new fleet of ships in order to wage war. To add mystery and intrigue to their plan, the POV shifts away from them to the displaced general of the stolen fleet, Kel Khiruev, and the hexarch of the Shous, Mikodez. These two POVs allow for a much bigger 360 degree look into Cheris/Jedao’s plans and allowed for a lot more world building that was present in the first novel.

The result is a lot less brilliant strategic executions, though they still litter the book, and a lot more small stories adding depth and emotion to the characters. Both of the new POVs are good, but I really got behind the hexarch. He gives tons of insights into how the hexarchate works, and was just a blast to read about as a character. His hilarious dialogue and strange personality go a long way to adding some levity to this mostly sad story, and he is just a fun person to read about – even if he is trying to inconvinence our protagonists. The other POV, Khiruev, is fine but just didn’t resonate on the same level for me as the hexarch. While I think the trade off of excitement for structure was good, I will say that Raven does occasionally slow down a bit too much for my taste. Cheris and Mikodez both have small quirks that I found to be nice breaks from the action, but Khiruev’s sections could occasionally feel like they were dragging on a little bit. Finally, one thing I loved about Raven was how it fleshed out and spent more time with all of the orders of the hexarchate, and I am hoping that the next POVs might be from one of the four other factions we have not got a detailed look into yet.

Raven Stratagem might not have the speed and excitement of The Ninefox Gambit, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great time. The second book in this series grounded me in the world, introduced new and exciting characters, and still had a good helping of the excitement and twists that made the first novel so powerful. This is shaping up to be one of the best science fiction series in recent memory, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Rating: Raven Stratagem – 8.0/10

The Ninefox Gambit – Take a Chance on Me

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85One of my favorite fiction tropes is the master strategist – the military general who is a super genius and has all the answers. It is always fun (probably because I am projecting) to see someone trounce everyone around them just using their mind and a good plan. Examples of this include the famous Thrawn from Star Wars (who has a new book this month), Artemis Fowl from the series named after him, and of course the popular Ender from Ender’s Game. The Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, brings a new entry to the category with Shuos Jedao. Jedao, and his handler Cheris, need to tackle an impossible military challenge in a fascinating and confusing world. So if you like the idea of a tactical master raised from undeath, and chained to a handler, to be used as a weapon in a galaxy spanning conflict where a person’s spirituality and beliefs bend reality around them – you might want to read on.

Before we get any further, I want it understood that Ninefox Gambit is confusing as all hell (intentionally). If you are uncomfortable not knowing what is going on, or don’t like it when authors don’t explain every detail of their world – you will not like this book. Yoon explains only the barest minimum of his world to the point where you will understand that something important is happening, but you often won’t know what it is or why it’s important. However, in this instance – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The book is exciting, and even when you have no idea what is going on the tone is masterfully manipulated so that you get excited anyway. Yoon uses an immense amount of terminology that you have to work hard to understand – which can be frustrating, in particular at the beginning of the book. As you immerse yourself in the story, you will start to grasp Yoon’s terminology and start to understand the conflict running through the story and what is at stake.

But what is the story? That’s a little complicated. We follow the POV of Kel Cheris, a officer in the Kel army. The empire in Ninefox is separated into six subgroups, each responsible for different parts of running it, and each with different magic granted to them by their membership. The Kels are the army and gain power through battle formations. Saying that last sentence aloud made me feel like it sounds really dumb out of context, but trust me when I say while it’s hard to explain the book it’s really cool when you are in it. The empire has a slight internal problem, one of their impenetrable ‘calendrical’ fortresses has been penetrated. Rebels have taken over what is essentially a religious radio tower that stabilizes and reinforces the empires beliefs to the surrounding areas. This is bad because a rebel set of beliefs in a key node such as this is essentially causing reality, and the empire’s rule, to break down around it – and it’s spreading. To address this issue, the empire picks a group of candidates to come up with solutions to deal with the issue using the weapon of their choice. Cheris, our main character, chooses to resurrect the empire’s best general (who went insane during his final battle) and see if she can use him as a consultant on how to tackle this problem.

As I have said, the plot and world can be confusing. It is hard to comment on the quality of the world building. On the one hand there are so many cool ideas and technologies in Yoon’s book that I was fascinated with my surroundings. On the other hand, the world often feels like Yoon is just throwing out phrases and ideas with little explanation and planning. On the … third ….hand, I will say that I definitely love the characters. Cheris, Jedao, and their support cast bring a lot of life, energy, and excitement to the book. I was heavily invested in their stories and lives, something that helped stay immersed in the book when I had no idea what was going on. The plot starts out confusing, ends with some gained clarity, but remains awesome from beginning to end. In particular the ending of the book did an incredible job setting up the sequel and has left me champing at the bit to find out what I can be confused about next.

The Ninefox Gambit is weird, quirky, and a wild ride that I recommend to almost everyone. If you can let go of the reigns, the book will take you on a wild ride with stunning sites and great characters. In the realm of badass tacticians, Jedao is up there with the best and I cannot wait to see what he and Cheris (who is amazing in her own right) have in store for us next. There is a reason this book made the Hugo ballot this year, and it is much deserved. Go check out the Ninefox Gambit as soon as you can.

Rating: Ninefox Gambit – 9.0/10