The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Throne Of The Five Winds – A Brick Of Intrigue

51p1u2rziylThe Throne of the Five Winds, by S.C. Emmett, is a huge, meaty, historical fantasy/fiction that really likes to go into detail. It is a political drama, written like a historical textbook (so many footnotes) that anyone looking for a light fun read will bounce off of like they’ve run into a brick wall. Yet, for those who like their dramas complex and their politics convoluted but extensively planned out on the back end, this tome has a lot to offer. As the first book in The Hostage of Empire series, The Throne of the Five Winds is a book that will reward those with the patience to push through its glacial pacing and upset those who didn’t realize they were signing up to read something that occasionally reads like a census analysis.

Let’s start with the bad for once: this book is difficult, and sometimes straight-up unpleasant, to read. In particular, the first 100 pages read like the world’s dryest translator notes from an obscure language. You are thrown into complicated and confusing political intrigue from page one, and it is going to take a while before you even have a basic understanding of what is happening and who is doing it to whom. That being said, if you put the work in – and that is a big “if” – the book will reward you handsomely in the long run with beautifully written prose, strong characters, and political drama to rival anything to be found in the most popular fantasy series in the genre.

Our story revolves around a Khir princess hostage, given to the emperor’s firstborn son in marriage to smooth over and cement the end of a war between the empire and Khir. The main POV in the story is from a lady-in-waiting to the princess, but there are a ton of POVs scattered throughout the narrative. The court the princess is sent to is a hellscape of political espionage. The emperor is a weak-willed man whose selfish inattention to the effect his power has on those around him has built a tinderbox in the court. With two queens, two royal concubines, six princes, and a number of favored generals and magisters, the court is a free-for-all of backstabbings, subtle maneuvering, and not so subtle attacks.

The princess and her maiden are the heart of the story and have a beautiful and intricate relationship. They both feel very real, and as the eyepiece by which you are introduced to the courts, they make very likable characters you will find yourself emotionally invested in. The supporting cast of royals and important court fixtures are also fantastic. Emmett does an amazing job giving you these tiny snippets into every key player’s mind so that the conflict begins to feel very personal to the reader. I definitely had favorite characters I found myself rooting for and as the book progresses you only find yourself invested more and more in the happenings at court.

In the end, I don’t know if I can recommend The Throne of the Five Winds with a clear conscience. Although it is a heavy character/relationship-focused story with excellent political intrigue, the book has one of the slowest starts I have experienced in years and it is a little light on substantive plot. Then again, while the book wasn’t the most enjoyable it was definitely a work of impressive literary skill and many people will like it just for all its tiny details and interesting characters. You will have to decide for yourself if The Throne of the Five Winds calls to your inner reader.

Rating: The Throne of the Five Winds – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Queenslayer – Captivating But Showing Wear

51kfgvjszblI am running out of inventive and original ways to say I really like almost anything that Sebastien de Castell puts out. This is something like the eighth book of his that I have reviewed and the worst thing I have had to say about any of his works is that you should go read it as soon as possible. However, let it be said that I do my due diligence and review everything of his that I come across. Queenslayer is one such book, the fifth and penultimate installment in de Castell’s YA Spellslinger series. Although I wouldn’t categorize these books as heavy intellectual reading, they have been a welcome romp every time I have read one and I was really looking forward to the fifth installment. Is this the book that finally breaks de Castell’s streak of excellence? No, but I do think that the Spellslinger series is starting to show some signs of strain.

For those of you not familiar with the series, you can find my review of book one here, and the other installments here and here. A gross oversimplification of the plot would be that Spellslinger follows the story of Kellen, a mage with a demonic curse that will eventually kill him and has restricted his ability to use magic. Thanks to his curse, he is exiled from his tribe and hunted like a criminal. Thus Kellen must make use of his wiles, tricks, and friends to survive in a harsh world where magic is worth everything. The books in the series all take a similar structure, and Queenslayer is no exception: Kellen travels to a new location and is confronted with a strange new magical threat and must use the skills and tools he has acquired thus far to figure out what is going on. In Queenslayer, Kellen finds himself in the court of one of the larger kingdoms in de Castell’s world. Through an unfortunate series of events, Kellen is forced into the role of tutor to a young, yet deceptively smart, monarch. Kellen must survive the machinations of the court, discover who is plotting the downfall of his new charge, and survive the usual amounts of death one encounters while being wanted in exile.

I really like Queenslayer’s premise. Court intrigue has always been a favorite book subject of mine and it’s a space that de Castell naturally excels in with his powerful character writing and fun dialogue. The new characters are fun and memorable, and the developments at court captivated my curiosity and kept me invested to the point where I finished the book in a single sitting. In addition, de Castell’s worldbuilding continues the series trend of fleshing out his magical world and gives you a strong and consistent sense of the political landscape both within this new country, and other locations we have visited in the series before. The pace is unsurprisingly excellent, and while it is definitely aimed at a YA audience it is a book that almost any age can enjoy.

Unfortunately, while the positives of Queenslayer are massive, I had a negative thought that I couldn’t banish for a large section of my reading: I have seen a lot of this before. Although de Castell has done an admirable job of giving each book its own unique identity, there is a pattern of sameness that has started to become a little more apparent at book five. Some of the events in Queenslayer seem a little more unlikely than usual. When this is paired with some recurring villains and machinations showing up yet again for the fifth book in a row, Queenslayer started feeling like a weak installment that was showing signs of wear. The book was still a delight to read, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the first four installments did. I am surprised to say this, but it feels like this series is about ready to wrap up and I am excited for what will surely be an exciting conclusion in the sixth and final book.

If you are already reading the Spellslinger series, Queenslayer should be an obvious pickup. Sebastian de Castell’s work has a warmth and a joy that is contagious and ever present in everything he makes. Queenslayer has all the great things its four older siblings have, although it is starting to show a few signs of age. Queenslayer feels like an excellent set up for the final installment of the Spellslinger series and I look forward to closing out this saga with very positive memories.

Rating: Queenslayer – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Goblin Emperor – A Short Reign

51n8zxqxzclIf you are engaged in the fantasy genre, chances are that you have heard of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor before. This stand-alone novel about court intrigue is a popular recommendation from a number of respectable reviewers and is considered by many to be a modern classic. However, I don’t trust anything I haven’t read myself, so I set aside some time this week to dive into this relatively short novel to see if my feelings match those of the general reviewer populace. Turns out that The Goblin Emperor is indeed a good book, but I also found myself noticing a lot of problems under the hood that kept it from achieving true greatness.

First, let’s discuss the plot quickly. The Goblin Emperor follows the story of Maia, an 18-year-old half-goblin/half-elf prince who is living in exile imposed by his father, the emperor. An airship carrying his dad and three older brothers goes down, killing all of them, and suddenly making Maia the man in charge. He is retrieved from exile, forced into a court with no training that he knows nothing about, and is expected to rule a land that is anything but calm. Amidst all the swirling court intrigue, Maia also learns that the accident that killed his father and brothers was no accident, and launches a murder investigation to discover the source of the treachery.

Other than these basics, which can almost completely be found on the back of the book, The Goblin Emperor follows a fairly predictable plotline. Each day Maia wakes up, is confronted with some new political problem, and must bumble his way through it. The book is court politics at its finest, and if you are into aristocrats having heated debates while groping for power, this book does an incredible job of distilling that feeling into its purest form. On top of this, the characters are mostly delightful – Maia, in particular, is both adorable and lovable. He is a kind and loving soul and a large part of the book surrounds his tendency to break with imperial tradition in favor of showing empathy and sympathy. This leads to a number of truly heartwarming moments as Maia ambles through the book like a giant regal teddy bear. The supporting characters are all well-developed, and I got a very good sense of the court and its history through the careful worldbuilding that Addison weaves into her story. Addison’s prose is also above average, and I found myself reaching for a dictionary to look up new words (that were used to excellent effect) on more than one occasion. However, while I really enjoyed all these positive aspects of the book, there were also a handful of negative ones that severely weighed the reading experience down.

For example, while the setup and execution of the political intrigue in the book were fantastic – the follow through often left a lot to be desired. By this, I mean that a lot of the machinations of the story often felt like they had very little bite. To give a better illustration of this, there are multiple attempts on Maia’s life throughout the course of the novel. These moments are thrilling when they are happening but in the aftermath, Maia still clings to his aforementioned kindness and empathy by suggesting that a timeout will hopefully be enough to prevent future regicide attempts. His staff, as usual, convince him that this is not a possibility but by this point, I was starting to worry that Maia was not showing a lot of character growth and that the book wasn’t taking me seriously. While I understand that a major theme in the book is Maia’s uncompromising empathy, Addison did not do a strong enough job showing how Maia works through complicated situations to find a empathetic solution, which painted Maia as childish and naive. On a similar vein, Maia did not feel like he had enough agency in the story in general. Almost half of the book is him reacting to the actions of other characters or telling his staff to accomplish the results he desires without putting in any of the work. While I like Maia a lot for his warm heart, he did not come across as a particularly strong character – even by the end of the book.

The book as a whole also felt a little rushed and shallow at times. A major theme of the story is bridge building, both literally and metaphorical. Maia’s goal from the start of the book is to make friends, build a family, and bridge a river to connect two dissonant factions of his empire. The novel does an incredible job laying the foundation of these goals – showing a very clear “before” picture of the uphill battle Maia must make. By the time the book is finished, we have just seen a number of these bridges tentatively built, which is great, but we get absolutely no time to enjoy seeing the friendships that Maia establishes. The book ends with the characters saying “sure, we can be friends,” which is all well and good but I wanted to revel in seeing these characters’ friendships in action.

In addition, while the world building as a whole was very good, it was also weirdly patchy in certain areas of the novel. One example of this was in the implied racial tension. I think it is safe to assume that if you tell an average fantasy reader that you are reading about a half-goblin in an elvish society, that the reader is going to expect some racial tension. While there is a tiny amount, it was not present in nearly the same amount I was expecting. Addison only partially explains the racial politics between the two groups, but I think I am inferring correctly that elves see goblins more as distant strange relatives as opposed to a race of inferior useless sub people (which is what I expected). The names of the characters in the book are also needlessly confusing. God help anyone who tries to read this book on an e-reader because I essentially had to flip to the name appendix at the back every other page. Even then, I still had a very hard time keeping a number of characters straight.

Finally, the descriptions in the book could sometimes feel like they were glossed over. I think the best example of this was when Maia receives an incredible “emperor clock” from the clockmakers guild for his birthday. Or at least I was told it was incredible, I don’t know myself as I have no idea what it looks like. After being told by four separate characters how incredible it was, Maia finally gets to see it and just says “They were right, it was both incredible and surprising”. That’s it. Moments like these really broke my immersion in the world, which is a shame because Addison’s creation seemed like something in which I could lose myself.

Overall, I don’t want you to think The Goblin Emperor is a bad book. Addison has an eye for political intrigue and does an incredible job distilling it down to a single engrossing book. There was the potential for this to be one of my all-time favorite novels, but it missed the mark due to the list of grievances I outlined above. Overall, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Goblin Emperor, I just also suggest that you temper your expectations somewhat.

Rating: The Goblin Emperor – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Monster Baru Cormorant – The New Face Of War

91mf49yikmlThe Monster Baru Cormorant, which I will call Monster for short henceforth, is the kind of book that damages friendships. The reason I say it will damage friendships is Monster is a book that some people will love and others will despise. It is a book that one friend will read, think it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened, and recommend to a second, who will think it’s highly overrated. This is not to say I have mixed feelings about the novel – I feel the book is most definitely excellent. As the second book in The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the book is one of the most anticipated books of the year and a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. However, I can just look at this book, look at the taste of some of my friends, and know that they will not enjoy it.

This review would be easier if I had reviewed the first book (which I didn’t like an idiot). The plot of these books have had so many twists and turns that it is impossible to talk about what happens in book two without ruining it – so let’s talk about the plot of book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Our story follows the prodigy Baru Cormorant, hence the mouthful of a title. She is a young girl from the island nation of Taranoke, and the plot follows the slow fall and incorporation of the Taranoke into The Empire of Masks – a huge empire that is slowly absorbing all the smaller countries around it through cultural warfare. This is particularly distasteful as Taranoke is a society that openly embraces homosexuality (Baru has gay fathers, and is herself a lesbian) and The Empire of Masks sees homosexuality as a deviance that must be rooted out. Thus, Baru is pulled away from her home and taken to a re-education school, where she is taught both how to be a model citizen and to control her “flaws”. This leads to her rising up the ranks of the empire as an imperial accountant – until she eventually begins a rebellion against them.

This is the general structure of the plot, but the focus is on Baru’s journey through a political minefield and the effectiveness of cultural warfare. There is a boatload of political intrigue, scheming, economic manipulations, conflict of ideas, and spycraft in these two books that are a blast to follow. Baru keeps you on the edge of your seat, giving you enough insight into her mind to grow attached to her, but not so much that you can predict her next move. They are chaoticly fun, messy, books that move at a whirlwind pace. In addition, the prose is also fantastic, with Dickinson being excellent at both lavish descriptions and powerful analogies. I found myself laughing out loud fairly regularly at some of the analogies in Monster. The characters are also phenomenal, even though they can be a bit confusing. All the cast feel like deep three dimensional characters you can sink your teeth into, but they can be a bit confusing due to their sheer number and the lack of textual reminders to their identities.

On top of all of this, the world that Dickinson has developed is one of the best in recent years. In order to sell the idea of cultural warfare, he had to do a great job developing the cultural identity of the players in the book – and at this, he succeeded in spades. Each of the various nations have clear identities that feel unique and original and you will find yourself burning to unlock the secrets of each location. The agents of the various countries do their best to ruin each others economy, annex colonies, introduce problematic ideas or fads, start civil wars, and create a slew of other fun disasters for each other that are just fantastic to watch. The conflicts, especially in Monster, make the series stand out in the fantasy landscape as a breath of fresh air.

So why did I say some people will hate it at the start. Well, for better or worse the book is pretty self-involved. In order to sell you on the various cultures, Dickinson goes full ham on his prose and descriptions. Everything is overly dramatic, poetic, and ostentatious. It creates a really nice aesthetic feel to the book if the reader is into it, but there is also a chance a different reader might reject it as being up its own ass. Someone out there is going to read this book, think it is the pinnacle of original excellent fantasy, and hand it to a friend who thinks it is pretentious garbage.

So where do I stand? Definitely more with the former reader. Seth Dickinson started something brilliant with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that he only improved and expanded on with The Monster Baru Cormorant. The level of attention to detail, execution of original ideas, and emotional arcs of the characters make Monster one of the better books I read this year – and one I would recommend to anyone. Although there is a small chance you may hate it, there is a much, much larger chance that it is one of the best books you have read in recent years.

Rating: The Monster Baru Cormorant – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Jade City – An Interesting Place I Don’t Belong

jade-city-final-cover-e1495648519644Jade City, by Fonda Lee, was a book I originally was not going to pick up. Then, a serendipitous amazon sale happened and I managed to pick up a copy for a dollar. You have probably at least heard of this book by now, as it has been nominated for a number of awards and received a ton of positive reviews. So I decided to crack it open and decide for myself it if lived up to all the good press it was getting. My general consensus: yes it is a pretty good book, but not really my kind of read.

Jade City follows the story of a trio of siblings in the Kaul family; Lan, Hilo, and Shae. The family business, which is somewhere between being a feudal lord and a mobster, has recently passed from a well revered grandfather to the oldest grandson. The trio must take over a failing family business, navigate a complicated political landscape, work through their personal struggles, and answer some mysteries plaguing their clan. Recently, Lan has become the head of the clan, Hilo has become the warleader, and Shae has returned from a self-imposed exile to reconnect with the clan. Each has some unique issues that they are dealing with, as well as some overlapping problems that they work together to solve.

Initially, I was pretty sold on Jade City. The plot is intriguing, the characters are likable, and the world is cool. Jade in particular is an interesting magic. Essentially, being in contact with the aforementioned stone can give you a number of powers: super strength, an iron body, and the ability to project energy like a weapon to name a few. However, handling the stone is difficult and requires rigorous training or it causes madness. It was a unique magic system I was excited to read more about.

My problems with Jade City started popping up about half-way through: the characters never felt like they were getting anywhere. While I was initially into the full cast of Jade City, the characters started to feel like they were just rehashing the same inner monologues over and over – never making any progress. It took characters that felt like they could be deep and nuanced and instead made them feel one dimensional. After about 50% of the book I don’t know what I could say more about Shae than she was smart and had mixed feelings about returning to her clan.

Jade City doesn’t do anything wrong, but I found it just wasn’t holding my attention as much as I would have liked in the back half of the book. I finished, and enjoyed, the first installment – but I don’t feel particularly driven to continue the series. However, if you are looking for some Asian inspired fantasy with a great premise, this might be right up your alley. I certainly seem to be in the minority with my issues with the series, so if it sounded cool you might want to give it a chance.

Rating: Jade City – 6.5/10
-Andrew

The Will To Battle – As Tense As The Last Round Of Musical Chairs

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_We are back again with another review for a Terra Ignota book by Ada Palmer. This time it is for the third book in the series, The Will to Battle. As usual you can find the reviews of the previous books here and here, and if you don’t want some mild spoilers for the first books you should probably turn around now. Then again, I am not your boss so you do you.

We have arrived at the third book in the Terra Ignota series, and I am excited. These books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. When we last left our group, the historical narration of the story had ended and we moved from the past tense into the present. The Will to Battle sees a dramatic shift in story telling style, as the previous two books were told from a historian’s perspective (with their knowledge of what happens in the future coloring how they describe events in the past). The last two books of the quartet are told in the present tense, creating a much more tense and exciting atmosphere. At the end of book two, Seven Surrenders, the hives were all poised for a giant clash. Tensions were high and war was looking potential for humanity for the first time in centuries. The Will to Battle is a book about the moments and tensions before a war, and dear god did it stress me the hell out. The book paints a picture of several groups ready to slaughter one another, each of which is just waiting for an excuse. The is the first thing I have ever read that feels like it paints a vivid picture of pre WWI tensions, where each party is eyeing the other distrustfully. As a result, every single thing in this book feels like it could be a world ending disaster and every decision and choice characters make feel important.

I had to put The Will to Battle down several times while I was reading it, simply because of how much it was stressing me out. The characters all feel like they are having match lighting competitions in a room waist deep in gunpowder, and waiting to see which match kills them all was a weird nightmare of fun. Of the team that read it, one person compared it to the feeling of walking a burning tightrope between skyscrapers and I myself thought it felt like riding a boat to the beaches of Normandy. On top of being an emotional roller coaster, Ada Palmer decided to actually flesh out and answer a lot of lingering world building questions about her universe in the third book. Tons of things are fleshed out and expanded on in The Will to Battle like, the backgrounds of hives, previously alluded to laws and concepts, backgrounds on characters and jobs, the minds of several leaders, and more. Palmer shows you a number of the homes of various hives, and their wonders at even more character to the diverse hives and ignited my imagination. The Will to Battle made me feel like I actually solidly understand Palmer’s world, but then again I felt the same way at the end of her book two so who even knows.

Everything that was amazing about Palmer’s previous books remains true with her third. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The plot is captivating and I have a physical need to know what happens next. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. It should be obvious at this point that everyone here at The Quill to Live recommends this series. It is probably one of the most difficult and rewarding things we have ever read, and we want the world to read it.

Rating: The Will to Battle – 9.5/10
-The Quill to Live team