The Puzzler’s War – A Satisfying Next Step

51i5x8gwmal._sx324_bo1204203200_I am not a prolific post-apocalypse reader, but I have read enough of them to realize there is a cyclical nature to their stories. Many trilogies within the genre follow the following format: book one shows you a ruined world and explores the question of “what happened?” Book two provides a window into the past and explores “why the end times happened.” Book three provides you with the full context of what is going on, moves you to the present, and explores “is what happened good or bad?” I have been through this cycle around five times now, and even though each story I read has its own quirks and originalities, it is hard to keep getting excited about these same themes. Thus, it should speak to the quality and execution of Eyal Kless’ The Puzzler’s War that it falls neatly into this trilogy set up that I mention, but has kept my attention glued to the story.

The Puzzler’s War is the second book in The Tarakan Chronicles, a story about a post-apocalyptic world struggling for survival. The plot revolves around mysterious mutants called Puzzlers that have the ability to unlock hidden caches of pre-apocalypse tech by solving riddles in dangerous conditions. I reviewed and enjoyed the first book (The Lost Puzzler) and you can find my thoughts and summary of book one in the link. Book two picks up right at the end of book one and follows the aforementioned PA pattern: this book is about why the end times happened and what the world used to look like before. The narration is once again split into two different timelines: the present, where our main cast tries to save/heal the world, and the past, where we learn more about the background and mystery of what is actually going on. While the “present” POVs are the same cast from book one, in the past we leap back to the start of the apocalypse and follow the story of one of the antagonists that caused the end of the world.

The book is great. The characters continue to be interesting and productive; they feel as though they have the agency to actually change the status quo of the world. One specific character, Vincha, felt like she could use a little more work. She pretty much only had one dimension, and that dimension was annoying and critical to the plot so it is brought up a lot. The worldbuilding is phenomenal and greatly helped alleviate my disinterest in reading another similar post-apocalyptic story. While the plot isn’t exactly the first of its kind, the world-building is dripping with love and imagination. Kless’ Earth feels like this strange ephemeral place that is both familiar and deeply alien at the same time. Occasionally, you can feel like you are reading a fantasy story that is pulled completely from imagination. Other times, you can see the world we live in under the surface and feel like you are reading about the place you live now.

This wonderful world-building is enhanced by the additional insight the “past POV” in the narrative provides. In the reader’s mind, Kless’ Earth slowly changes from this scary, magical, and foreign place to the planet we know – but ravaged by human folly and hubris. In the meantime, the “present POV” in The Puzzler’s War does a wonderful job keeping you invested in the story and provides a palpable sense of urgency as the cast needs to make choices around the future of the planet. All of this blends together to make a novel that is easy to pick-up, greatly improves the story that its predecessor told, and sets the stage for the next book.

The Puzzler’s War is an excellent follow up to The Lost Puzzler and broadcasts clear signs that this series will have a fantastic ending. Kless’ imaginative and evocative worldbuilding does wonders to refresh some tired tropes and classic genre stories. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction, I think it is safe to say that The Tarakan Chronicles will likely press a lot of the right buttons. Kless’ mysteries and descriptions will keep you up late into the night, wondering about what could be behind the next puzzle-locked door.

Rating: The Puzzler’s War – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Lost Puzzler – That’s A Twist, Very Twisty

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_Post-apocalyptic fantasy/science fiction fusions are becoming more common, which I am happy about. Despite being a mashup of three different genres, the trio seems to work well together and I have been reading some excellent work in the space in the last few years. There is something really satisfying about watching a protagonist rule over a wasteland with scientific powers so advanced they might as well be magic. The latest entry I have read in this niche is The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless. It is a great debut from an author I knew nothing about before I read the book on a whim. Additionally, I don’t normally care about the personal lives of authors when I judge their books, but Eyal Kless is a pretty cool exception. Turns out he is both a professional violinist and a professor at the Buchmann Mehta school of music in Tel Aviv. Clearly, he is a pretty talented guy, and if you are the type who prioritizes books from international authors this might be right up your alley.

So, The Lost Puzzler. For starters, the book is another in the current trend of using a historian exploring the past as a narrative technique. The book is split into two POV’s, the first of which is a scribe of the Guild of Historians. The scribe has been tasked with a dangerous mission to discover the fate of Rafik, a boy who has been missing for a decade and is said to be a ‘puzzler’ (get it, he’s a puzzler who is lost, titles). Puzzlers are people with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like caches of technology that are scattered across the world. These boxes are hidden away in dangerous mazes and dungeons and contain treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. The Tarkanian civilization was an empire with extremely powerful technology that more or less imploded, taking most of the known world with it, in an event called ‘The Catastrophe’. While I like a lot of things about The Lost Puzzler, I will say the names in the book are a bit uninspired. Following The Catastrophe, humanity fragmented into a number of guilds and groups that banded together to survive. Diving into dungeons for lost technology became one of the major forms of progress in the new world, which made puzzlers extremely important as they are the only ones who can unlock the nodes.

As I mentioned the book has two POV’s in two different timelines. The first is the scribe’s journey in the present as he tries to find Rafik, and the second tells the story of Rafik from childhood up until he disappears. One of the things that I like about the book is that the story is fairly evenly split between the two timelines and does a good job having them compliment each other. Rafiks story focuses a lot on the difficulties of growing up as a puzzler. He was born in a community that has reverted after the Catastrophe, becoming deeply faithful to the new gods they worship while shunning everything to do with technology. This makes life hard for Rafik when strange tattoos marking him as a puzzler began appearing on his fingertips. He is exiled from his family and starts a journey out into the wider world, with painful naivety.

Rafik works as an excellent vessel for worldbuilding, as his backwater origins make it feel natural for characters to constantly be explaining how the world around them works – and the world is very interesting to dive into. Kless did a great job of building intrigue and my curiosity as I saw more and more of what was left of the planet (presumably Earth). However, while the worldbuilding and events were great to read – they did sometimes feel a little choppy. I occasionally would sink into a really cool segment – like Rafik’s time with a super truck (a MASSIVE semi-truck that is a lot cooler than it sounds) captain – only to be a little disappointed when the narrative moved on too quickly. The narrative jumps only slow down in the second part of the book when Rafik is employed by a looters guild that is obsessed with exploring a lost city of the Tarkanian empire. And although this is the most stable of the parts of the narrative, it also isn’t as fun or as interesting as the first parts of the book.

The characters were great though. I think I ended up liking our scribe narrator more than Rafik, as I found the scribe’s character arc of self-actualization very satisfying to read. However, there weren’t any bad characters, including the antagonists and supporting cast. Kless did a great job making people feel like lawless rabble that had to carve out space to live in a shitty world, but still made them likable in their own way. There is a good mix of selfish assholes and people who have moments of kindness to make the world feel terrible but not hopeless.

In general, I really liked The Lost Puzzler. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubix cube, and I liked that a lot. The book ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, and I was sufficiently drawn in to definitely want to pick up the sequel. I just hope that Eyal Kless smooths out the writing a little bit and improves his pacing ever so slightly. Otherwise, I think The Lost Puzzler is a fantastic debut and you should check it out.

Rating: The Lost Puzzler – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Vigilance – About What I Expected

51jlcyt6qilSo, Robert Jackson Bennett has a new novella out – its called Vigilance. The lovely people at Tor.com know I think Bennett is some sort of literary Midas, so they kindly sent me an ARC copy of the story in exchange for an honest review. Now, while it is definitely true that I think Bennett is one of the best fantasy authors out there, it could be argued Vigilance is a slight departure from his usual work, and is much more of a post-apocalyptic political piece. However, everything I have read from Bennett thus far has been a fantastic fantasy novel with a hidden brilliant political manifesto inside. In the same vein, Vigilance feels less like a change in style for Bennett and more like he trimmed the fat from a full novel and put the core driving values of the story on display.

Vigilance is a 200-page novella on gun violence and a commentary on the direction that America is headed, with its mentality and legislature surrounding firearms. The book gives a glimpse into a decrepit America a few decades in the future. With growth crippled by us vs. them national policy, and an increase in weapon sales via fear mongering, America has become a reoccurring news cycle of gun violence and tragedy. Faced with the realization that gun violence was only going up, a media and marketing studio essentially made a reality show out of mass shootings under the pretext of “hey, you have to experience mass murder one way or another, you might as well have a shot at making money off of it.” The show debuts to grand success and is dubbed Vigilance, for the idea that everyone in America must always be vigilant.

The plot follows McDean, a managing director of Vigilance, as he strives to maximize the viewership of the show through algorithms and marketing techniques. The chapters slowly break down the methods that he used to incorporate such a horrific show into the daily life of Americans, and the path of events that led to the USA willing to embrace it. We also follow a second character in the general populous; a bartender and gives a glimpse into what the daily life in the US is like. The result is a truly depressing tale that made me feel like walking out my front door protesting guns and the rhetoric behind them.

Vigilance is a stunningly well-argued piece on an imagined future for the current US political path. Full disclosure, I abhor gun violence and I was worried that my biases might make it hard to objectively review this story. However, having finished I find it the most compelling argument I can think of for the anti-gun side of the argument. This is not an unbiased thought piece, and if you find yourself on the pro-gun side of these issues, I do not think you will like it. For me personally, Bennett uses his smart prose, excellent pacing, and copious narrative skills to put into words feelings and ideas I, and I will bet many others, have wanted to express, but lack the ability to do. Vigilance, like everything Bennett writes, is an excellent piece that I think everyone should read.

Rating: Vigilance – 8.5/10
-Andrew