Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – Human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew

A Brightness Long Ago – Cherished Memories And Lessons Learned

Originally I wasn’t going to review this book because it is by Guy Gavriel Kay, and here at The Quill to Live we basically have a blanket recommendation for anything he has ever written. His ability to churn out a powerful novel that is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, and love note to history is well known. However, it is very likely that A Brightness Long Ago will be our book of the year – thus it seemed important that we actually review it. So here you go: as always, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. There you go, review over. What, you want more? Fine, I will actually do my job.

A Brightness Long Ago, according to Kay’s book blurb, “is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy”. Unfortunately, because I am an uncultured peasant, I am not familiar enough with European history to have recognized that without his prompting. While some of Kay’s books feel extremely evocative of specific historical times and events, Brightness felt less rooted in real events than some of the other Kay books I have read. As with all Kay books, the story is focused on small individuals who experience moments of something bigger than themselves. In this instance, the larger world events revolve around a long slow conflict between two powerful military leaders: Folco and Teobaldo. They are two proud, brilliant, and unyielding men who are vying to leave their mark on the world. The book follows a continent-sized chess match between these two titanic personalities and explores a number of their attempts to seize power from surrounding powers. Although they are the focus of the plot, the book is much more about the lives that they touch and change in their momentous conflict. In particular, our primary POVs are Danio and Adria – a man of some learning who continuously finds himself at the center of climactic events due to the choices he makes, and a woman who rejects the mantle of aristocracy because she wanted to do something that matters.

This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read.

I love this book so damn much for so many reasons. Kay’s characters are always perfect, but I haven’t liked a cast this much outside Sailing to Sarantium – Danio and Adria stole my heart and won’t give it back. Kay’s stories usually focus on ordinary people who hear gunshots and run towards the sound. However, Brightness has an interesting mix of characters who seek momentous events out, and those who actively avoid them. For those who have read a number of his other pieces, I feel you will find some interesting fresh personalities in Brightness that defy the expectations of even the most well-read readers.

A Brightness Long Ago was a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and I don’t want to know the person who doesn’t enjoy it. As I said in my first paragraph, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Rating: A Brightness Long Ago – 10/10
-Andrew

Gods Of Jade And Shadow – A Walk Through Old Maya

51gxorcir2lWhat an absolutely weird and charming book. Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is equal parts Mayan epic fantasy, Mexican historical fiction, jazz love letter, quest fantasy, and Cinderella fairy tale. I am not sure who the target audience is, but it is such a unique and interesting book that it is sure to find at least a small niche following. The book is another of our dark horse candidates for 2019, so if you are looking for a new debut this might fit the bill. Or, if you ever thought about which Mayan gods would be best dressed as a flapper, then this book might be right up your alley.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Caseopia, a classic Cinderella figure that is being abused by her extended family. One day while cleaning, Caseopia opens a strange chest her grandfather has lying around and discovers a god of death (Hun-Kamé) that her grandfather, and the god’s twin brother (Vucub-Kamé), had imprisoned. Hun-Kamé attaches himself to Caseopia and charges her with recovering a few missing pieces of his person so that he may retake the underworld, called Xibalba. If Caseopia does not recover them quickly, the god will drain her life force and she will die, providing ample motivation. Thus, Caseopia and Hun-Kamé set out on a quest to visit a number of colorful characters and locations across Central America, which culminates in a final showdown in Xibalba between the twins.

I have strong complicated feelings about this book. On the one hand, it felt like what people in the video game industry call “a walking simulator.” Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, or even the antagonist Vucub-Kamé, don’t really do anything until the last 30 pages of the book. The rest of the story is just them showing up at locations and things magically going their way. However, there is a large romance plotline between Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, which is well done despite neither character being individually interesting. In addition, while the book could be described as “characters go to places,” the places they go are incredible. Moreno-Garcia has a real talent for imaginative settings and interesting locations, so it is a shame that I didn’t like the way she described them.

The biggest problem I had with Gods of Jade and Shadow is I really didn’t like the style of the prose. It is told as if you are sitting around a campfire, hearing a story passed down from a beloved older family member who doesn’t really remember all the details but knows the general gist. Given the emphasis on oral history in this part of the world, I highly suspect that this prose style is thematically on point and well executed – I just personally really didn’t like it. It isn’t poorly done, it just really isn’t for me.

Despite this, I did still enjoy the book. The themes are well layered and well executed. The book heavily revolves around complicated relationships, and feelings, with family and redemption. It explores the idea of “can people really change” and I thought Morena-Garcia did a very good job demonstrating her view on these subjects through her characters. In the end, the book is very sweet and heartwarming, and it made for a pretty great beach read despite my issues with the stylistic choices.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is pretty different from a lot of its competitors in the fantasy genre, for better and worse. With wonderful themes and a fantastic setting, the book will pull you in and take you on a journey. However, readers will likely have strong feelings about the distinctive prose. I personally did not enjoy it, but have no trouble imagining that there will be many who find it enchanting. Gods of Jade and Shadow is an interesting experience and if you find yourself even a little bit curious I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Gods of Jade and Shadow 7.0/10
-Andrew

Cold Iron – Not My Speed, But A Great Book

41spu0t5ddl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am playing a little bit of catch up this week and knocked out some books from last year I was unable to get around to reading. One of these books was Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron. Many of you likely haven’t heard of Cameron, but he is a bit of an underground superstar. While he is not well known, he seems to have a particularly fervent niche following that absolutely loves his work. This work primarily consists of a grimdark epic fantasy series called The Traitor Son Cycle (the first book is The Red Knight) which is five books long, each of which is massive. I think a lot of what makes Cameron stand out as an author is his unique narrative style and prose. It is very distinctive, favoring more detailed descriptives and intricate worldbuilding over dialogue, and it tends to be very polarizing. Unfortunately, when I read The Red Knight I found myself in the “not a fan” group of the split, but with Cold Iron, I was hoping to give Cameron a second chance because I loved his new premise.

Cameron’s new series follows the story of Aranthur, a young man attending a magical university in “The City” where he is hoping to learn to be a mage. He is from a rural farming community with fairly successful parents who saved up a bit to send him there, and he has high hopes for making a future for himself as a Magus. Interestingly, this all changes during a chance encounter on his way home for spring break, where he leaps to the defense of some innocents with a sword he bought on a whim – thus beginning his newfound journey to become a swordsman in a world of magic.

The premise of Cold Iron is as simple as it is captivating – a reversal on the “boy discovers he’s a magic prodigy” trope. The idea of someone taking up the sword in a world of people throwing fire seemed intriguing and possibly ridiculous, and I was hooked from page one. Cameron paints an impressively detailed world that takes some time to get familiarized with. He makes up a number of words and terms that you need to slowly learn, and while they do help characterize the culture, they also make it hard to read the book at any speed. The pace of Cold Iron overall is super slow and if you are not up to a thoughtful meandering book this might not be for you.

The characters are also very deep. Aranthur is a complex bundle of emotions, often favoring curiosity and manners over all else. He feels like a gentleman scholar, who is unsure and unconfident due to his young age, and he is an easy protagonist to rally behind. The side cast is all also deep and varied, which helps a lot with the slow pace of the book. By this I mean, although you spend a huge part of the book sitting around tables listening to the cast small talk – there is enough variety and complexity to the personalities in play that conversations are engrossing despite being about nothing. However, all of these positives still didn’t help me get past my principle problem with Cameron’s work – I simply do not like his prose.

To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Cameron’s prose, it is just not to my personal preference. His narration is very slow and meticulous, preferring to spend a lot of time diving into the thoughts and observations of his characters. I feel he likes to focus on the small things going on around his characters, the minute coming and goings of people going about their daily tasks. This style does an incredible job painting a very vivid picture of his characters, but probably due to my ADHD, I tend to find it slow and boring. Mechanically his writing is very impressive, and just because I didn’t like it does not mean you (my reader) won’t.

I didn’t finish Cold Iron. I got about 70% of the way through because I was heavily invested in the story before the slow pacing of the narration just calcified my interest in continuing. If you are the kind of person who lives for dialogue and fast-paced action in a series, you might have the same issues I did with Cold Iron. But, if you are ok with taking things slow, and find the idea of full immersion in a medieval European fantasy setting appealing, then I definitely think you should pick up this book despite my reservations. Cold Iron has a story, and a premise, worth reading – even if that reader isn’t me.

Rating: Cold Iron – 6.5/10
-Andrew

The Curse Of Chalion – Undeserving Of Obscurity

61886As I continue to dig through my older to-read pile, I have been hitting a lot of books that my opinions of could be charitably described as “late to the party”. One exception to this case might be a lesser known classic that I would love to draw your attention to: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Those who know it almost always love it, but I have been finding that many avid readers (myself included until recently) know little about it. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Lois McMaster Bujold is a quite famous author best known for her Vorkosigan Saga – a science fiction series epic in size that actually just won the Hugo for best series this year. However, Bujold has written a number of books in various genres, and one of her most highly regarded, though still lesser known, is a semi standalone fantasy novel called The Curse of Chalion. The book technically has both a prequel and a sequel, but they both seem to only tangentially follow the events of Chalion so I am going to treat it as a standalone.

Chalion’s plot is a bit difficult to describe, as it is one of those books where the point is less about what happens and more about the emotional journey it takes you on. The story follows Cazaril, a middle aged disenfranchised nobleman. We meet Cazaril at the start of the book just after he has escaped life as a slave and is traveling back to friends of his youth – hoping they will remember and employ him. Upon arriving at the estate of Chalion where he was once a page, he is recognized and soon given a job as a tutor for a princess. The book then spends a significant amount of time developing the cast of characters, exploring Cazaril’s backstory, fleshing out a well-built world, and introducing the endgame of the plot: the house of Chalion has an age old curse that must be broken. A large portion of the book revolves around its religious structure and the worship of a family of five gods (The Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) that all represent different aspects of life. I found that Bujold’s interesting take on Gods, and their involvement in everyone’s life, was one of my favorite elements of the book and really gave her world a unique feel.

This is a gross oversimplification of the story because the writing in Chalion is very much a slow burn. Bujold’s writing style reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, in its slow pace and beautiful prose. Fortunately the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasent to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. This is particularly impressive because as I mentioned the story is contained to a single book. To make up for this, the book is extremely large and I would not recommend it to those who are looking for breakneck pacing and action. Chalion feels almost like the literary version of a gentleman, preferring to resolve all conflicts with words and discussion as opposed to combat.

As mentioned before, the prose in this novel is gorgeous. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound and wonderful. Bujold has an outlook on life and a way with words that combined make her narrative voice a joy to read. An additional major focus of the book is on romance, and I think you would truly have to be dead inside to not enjoy it. The cast is charming, loveable, and genuine and watching the various members slowly come together is simply heartwarming.

The Curse of Chalion is food for the soul and a gorgeous piece of writing. It is a shame that I constantly see it on underread and underrated fantasy lists because it was one of the most warm books I have read this year. If you have the patience for a book with a slower pace or are looking for a story with a heart of gold I definitely recommend you check out this self-contained story. In the meantime, I am clearly going to have to check out The Vorkosigan Saga to get some more time with Bujold’s narrative voice.

Rating: The Curse of Chalion – 8.5/10