The QTL Best And Worst Romances Of Fantasy

We are not a site that is well versed in the subgenre of romantic fantasy. I am absolutely positive that there are hundreds of fantastic fantasy romance stories that we have never heard of. And yet, in our time reviewing the larger fantasy landscape, we have come across a number of beautifully heartful, and catastrophically awful, romances. So, if you are looking for a list of the definitive best paranormal romance stories to check off your list, I would recommend you look elsewhere. But, if you like our content and are looking for a wonderful romance story, or a hilariously bad take on relationships for Valentine’s Day – we have you covered.

Quill To Live’s Top Five Fantasy Romances

5) The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay Lions is one of the top Quill to Live books as a whole, but it has a unique and wonderful take on romance. While there is no singular romance plot to elevate and speak about, the entire story and characters are all motivated by their love of their partners and family. It’s a story about the multifaceted power of love for both good and bad. The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just heart-achingly beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what are the many forms love can take?” and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in are often hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read. Just… don’t grab it first if you are only looking for positive vibes this Valentine’s Day.

4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Here comes The House In The Cerulean Sea again, making its way onto yet another Quill To Live list. It’s well-deserved, though, thanks to T.J. Klune’s positively charming romance between two of the book’s main characters. Cerulean follows Linus Baker, a corporate drone/caseworker at the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. When he’s sent on an oddball assignment, Linus arrives at the eponymous house and meets a ragtag bunch of misunderstood magical youth and their quirky caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. The romance and love that radiates throughout Cerulean isn’t found just in the central romance. It’s also found in the love that Linus develops for the children he’s sent to (presumably) care for. If you want a believable and heartwarming romance, Cerulean has you covered. If you want to explore love in many different ways beyond the cookie-cutter romance, Cerulean delivers that, too. 

3) The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster BujoldChalion is a slow burn that you won’t be able to finish in a day, but is very much worth your time and worthy of a top pick in the romance category. The book tells of an estranged nobleman returning home to the place of his youth and becoming a tutor for a cursed household. Fortunately, the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasant 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. Much of this revolves around a growing romance between two of the leads. I enjoy how there is no love at first sight and you get to see the characters slowly build the relationship brick by brick. The prose in this novel is also gorgeous, which always gets me in the romance mood. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound, wonderful, or sometimes hilarious like this one:

“Men write poems to the objects of our desire in order to lure them closer.” 
“How practical. In that case, you’d think men would write more poems to ladies’ private parts.” 
“The ladies would hit us. Lips are a safe compromise, being as it were a stand-in or stepping-stone to the greater mysteries.” 

2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – To me, The Night Circus is what I always wanted Romeo and Juliet to be. Romeo and Juliet is purported to be one of the best love stories of all time, but when you think about it, it’s actually about two horny teenagers who knew each other for three days and then killed themselves because of their horrific communication skills. The Night Circus, on the other hand, tells a good version of this epic romance. Two rival magicians from different schools battle it out over years in a traveling circus of wonders through an arcane contest and slowly fall in love. On top of the epic premise, the prose is downright gorgeous and the plot has enough twists and turns to tip the book towards a thriller without ever becoming a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s one of the most popular fantasies of the modern era for a very good reason, and if you haven’t read it you should.

1) Swordheart by T Kingfisher I only actually read Swordheart last year, but as you can see it made a very powerful impact on me. This book simply makes me happy. It’s a low key realistic relationship, in the form of a magical sword dating a housemaid. These characters are just so warm and nice and relatable that it is so easy to insert yourself into one of their shoes. Plus, as an added bonus the book is laugh-out-loud funny from the first line. While some of the romances on this list are aspirational ballads of the greatest love stories of all time, this is the one that felt spiritually closest to the story of how my wife and I fell in love, and I could read it a hundred times and never get bored.

Quill To Live’s Worst Five Fantasy Romances

5) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – I greatly enjoy Senlin Ascends, but the set up for a portion of the story is “Senlin, a teacher who married his student, loses his wife in a crowd and spends multiple books looking and pining for her.” I always dislike the teacher and student couple trope; it always feels a bit predatory. Benching the wife, Marya, for a large portion of the story offscreen does not do a lot to make her a compelling motivation for Senlin’s journey. However, I will say that when we eventually do get to spend some time with Marya in the later books I dislike her, and the relationship, a lot less. But let’s be honest, we are all hoping Senlin ends up with Edith, the first mate of his skyship, at the end of the series.

4) Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff – Kristoff has always had some trouble with romance subplots, but his treatment of his protagonist, Mia, in book two of the Nevernight trilogy was a straight-up plot hole. I will avoid naming the other half of this relationship to keep you pure of spoilers, but essentially Mia falls in love with an antagonist of book one for no real perceivable reason other than plot convenience. The massive pile of bodies standing between these two people coming together only comes up a few times and then is swept under the rug. It feels like a badly done rewrite where Kristoff decided at the last minute to shake up the romantic landscape and just threw a freaking dart at a board when choosing the new pairing.

3) Night Angel by Brent Weeks – I feel like this one is pretty self-explanatory if you have read it. If you haven’t, don’t. We have now moved into the territory of romance crimes so grievous that they actually somewhat ruin the books. In this case, we have Gary Stu boy loves Mary Sue girl who is too pure for this cruel, cruel world. The story is about a boy who becomes the world’s greatest assassin to protect a childhood crush, and wants to murder half of the population of a continent because someone was once mean to her. There is also a much greater romance crime at the end of the series involving a metaphorical cursed BDSM sex collar, but I won’t go into much more detail in case you want to read this bad life choice. Week’s Lightbringer has slightly better romance subplots, in that they aren’t agonizing to read, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. 

2) Battle Ground by Jim ButcherBattle Ground was easily the worst book we read of 2020, and we will be coming out with a more in-depth review of its sins in the future. For now, let it be known that one of the reasons this book is so offensive is the treatment of a main female character/romance for plot convenience that has been built up over 15 books. She just yeets out a window in the most contrived possible way to the point where it absolutely murdered any forward momentum I had in the story. This is on top of the fact that Butcher’s treatment of women, both in romances and in general, has been highly questionable in multiple instances over the series’ many installments. The entire thing is starting to read like an incel’s badly directed erotic fantasy, and Battle Ground was miserable enough that I finally stepped off the Dresden train of misery. 

1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I don’t need to contextualize this one, I know you all have read this book, Denna and Kvothe absolutely suck. 99% of the problems in this story can be traced back to the fact that these two characters never have one functional conversation. It is a comedy of errors that isn’t even slightly funny. Neither of them are likable characters in the slightest when it comes to their treatment of the other. The Felurian scene in book two was like being violently punched in the face with poor writing choices while out for an otherwise enjoyable literary stroll. Neither Denna nor Kvothe has any qualities the other admires yet somehow they claim each is the ultimate catch. I enjoy the Kingkiller series, mostly for its undeniably beautiful prose, but each time I return to it, I need to shut off the parts of my mind that respond to romance and love so that it doesn’t murder the rest of my brain in an attempt to stop me from reading further.

Winter’s Orbit – A Hot Romance With Subtlety And Gravity

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell, surprised me in a lot of ways. For starters, it is one of our Dark Horses for 2021, so I knew almost nothing about it other than its plot synopsis. Then there is the fact that I wasn’t particularly sure I would like Winter’s Orbit given its stated plot. It contains a lot of story elements I don’t particularly gravitate towards (romance, trauma, and arranged marriage to name a few), but I am also not adverse to. But when I dug in I found myself reading a book about characters that anyone can relate to, a story that is as clever as it is entertaining, and a novel that is likely going to be one of the strongest debuts of the year.

I would describe Winter’s Orbit as a romance first, science fiction political thriller second. The book follows two male protagonists, Kiem and Jainan – who are obviously going to fall in love. If you think this is a spoiler, I don’t know how to help you. The set up for their awkward relationship is a politically arranged marriage to save the Iskat Empire. The Iskat Empire has long dominated their system through treaties and political alliances – but is trying to pass a sort of galactic inspection in order to maintain their place on a larger scale. Part of this inspection involves Iskat proving that it is treating its vassal planets well and that people are happy. So when an unfortunate tragedy befalls Kiem’s cousin, Taam, and disrupts a high profile marriage between an Iskat prince and a Thean consort, there is a sudden rush to smooth things over and make it look like there aren’t any skeletons in the closet. Enter Kiem, a charismatic sop who has never done anything of any importance for his imperial family and has always been unimportant. He finds himself suddenly married to his cousin’s widow, Jainan, with instruction to just make it look like things are going well until the galactic auditor leaves. But, as Kiem and Jainan attempt to navigate their uniquely awkward situation they begin to suspect that Taam’s death may not have been an accident and try to sift through the political morass for the truth. 

One of the things I really like about Winter’s Orbit is its approach to romance. The focus is on the sweet and heartfelt parts of love – not the passionate lusty parts – though there is a presence of both. The story felt akin to an origin story of two best friends who are into each other sexually rather than some torrid affair that is supposed to get the reader hot and bothered. As someone who doesn’t like too much sex in his stories, this greatly appealed to me. I don’t care much for on-page boinking, but I do love affection and friendship. Orbit does a remarkable job showing what I think are the best parts of the relationship – those first moments you are getting to know someone and starting to feel that there is wonderful chemistry.

Speaking of chemistry, Kiem and Jainan are lovely. Kiem is boisterous, loud, charismatic, messy, and warm. Jainan is patient, tenacious, kind, quiet, calculating, and cerebral. They both are such interesting characters that don’t feel quite matched for one another, but Maxwell slowly maps out their powerful bond over the course of the book. The supporting cast is also fun, but most of our time is spent solely with the two lovebirds. The plot of the book has nice political elements that will keep you entertained – but the true appeal is definitely the romance. What is particularly impressive is how Maxwell parcels out and gifts the reader little pieces of Kiem and Jainan’s backstories while keeping you in the dark as to what exactly is going on. There is some very nice and subtle exploration of past trauma and relationship baggage that was extremely well handled and got me to sit back and just bask in how clever the writing was.

There was only one issue I ended up having with Winter’s Orbit is that it ends up having noticeably unbalanced POVs. For the first quarter of the book, there is this fun back and forth between the two leads as they assess and start to feel each other out. It’s very satisfying to hear both internal monologues back to back like a secret conversation that only the reader is hearing. But as the book progresses one POV (which will remain unnamed) starts to dominate the storytelling because of the needs of the narrative, and while it was still great, I definitely missed that powerful back and forth from the start of the book.

I was wildly impressed with Winter’s Orbit across the board: as a debut, as a romance, and as a strong contender for one of the best books of 2021. The characters are relatable and complex, the romance is different and compelling, and the world and politics are imaginative and fun. Cast aside any hesitation you have about this romantic story and give it a spin. I guarantee you will find yourself over a moon with joy.

Rating: Winter’s Orbit – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Devices and Desires – Unalluring

710abl-mp8lAfter very positive experiences with a number of recent books by K.J. Parker, I decided to dive into the far back year of 2006 and read one of his larger, better known series – specifically his Engineer Trilogy. The first book in the set is Devices and Desires, and Parker describes the series as (and I am paraphrasing here) “a love story in which tens of thousands die. A story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. And he does them through the science of engineering.” I was intrigued, as I studied engineering and physics in college, and my previous track record with Parker buoyed up my hopes that this would be a knock out of the park hit for all kinds of readers. What I found instead is a very strange, very divisive, and very dense book that feels fairly divorced from the recent Parker novels I have read. I strongly suspect that a small number of people will consider this one of their top books ever, but the vast majority of readers are going to feel like they just read an Ikea manual.

The plot of Devices and Desires is such: In Parker’s world there is a technologically advanced city known as Mezentia. This Republic could probably conquer the world with their advanced weaponry and tech, but their bloated bureaucracy grinds all progress and planning to a halt. They have a set of strict guidelines for their citizens when it comes to making anything, and to alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes, our protagonist, finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery to improve its efficacy – because he is a genius. He is forced to use his considerable brilliance to flee Mezentia to neighboring countries. There, he begins a one-man campaign of terror to burn down the known world and its rules in order to be reunited with his beloved family.

Let’s take a quick look at what I liked about the book. The plot, in theory, is interesting. The book is mostly about Ziani going to other rival nations of Mezentia and giving them critical pieces of technology in order to bring them up to fighting speed and destabilize his home country. This tech isn’t just weapons; it includes everything from agriculture tech to joints for machinery. I enjoy how the prime drive of our protagonist is reuniting with his family, it was a nice change of pace. I like the humor in the book. The sections in Mezentia, in particular, are fun as we get to see this technologically advanced powerhouse get flattened by tiny petty people just being counterproductive cogs in the giant machine. I think that the themes are extremely on point. The book does a powerful job exploring the ideas like manufacturing, how things work, how important engineering is in warfare, and more. Parker definitely did a tremendous job exploring the ideas he set out to investigate.

Unfortunately, that is roughly where my praise stops and my complaints begin. First, while the themes are on point, they are also extremely boring. The book has the details and pacing of a 300-page manual in a language you don’t speak. This adherence to themes is a consistent aspect in Parker’s writing. When he commits to a theme, he commits to a theme. But the book is simply too large (and there are two more after Devices and Desires) to spend this much time explaining at a glacial pace how the vent for a blacksmith shop works. I thought I cared before I read this book…turns out I don’t. It was really fun for 150 pages, mildly entertaining for the next 150, and then for the next 300 I wanted to put my head in a smelter.

Then we have the characters. I use ‘characters’ liberally here because despite there being about 20 POVs, I only really saw two characters: Ziani and everyone else. I really cannot remember the name of any other character other than Ziani, and I only read this book 2 months ago. The personalities of everyone other than Ziani just run together depending on which country they are from. They all think and feel the same way and it all blends into this morass of sameness. Then we have Ziani, who is basically just a monster. His reaction to being separated from his family is to reduce the standing population of the world by 50% – instead of inventing a way to reunite with his family without ceaseless slaughter. He is generally unpleasant to be around, grating against every single character (and me the reader) he talks to. I think I was supposed to resonate with him as a man vs. the world, but instead, I found myself hoping he would get over himself and recoil at the horrors he was unleashing (I normally would say ‘realized the horrors he is unleashing’, but this little shit is very much aware what he’s doing). Finally, Ziani is narrated like he’s some sort of genius playing 4D chess with the world, and instead of making him feel cool, it is the nail in the coffin, making him just completely intolerable to be around. I hope book two starts with him falling into a woodchipper and is replaced with his more empathetic brother, Yiani, who always had the hots for Ziani’s wife.

Although I had issues with it, Devices and Desires certainly is a unique book – for better and worse. If you think you really like learning the technical details of a world down to the nuts and the bolts and have a hard-on for manufacturing you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I do not recommend you check out Devices and Desires – Parker has written much more enjoyable books that don’t require nearly the time investment.

Rating: Devices and Desires – 4.5/10
-Andrew

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Swordheart – Pointedly Funny and Heartwarming

51c12tgr73lLook, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. It is currently published by Argyll Productions, a small targeted publisher, so Swordheart is relatively unknown – which is a crime. I found my copy of Swordheart at my public library. There was only a single copy in circulation, I had to wait for ages for it to come off hold, and when I finally got it it was one of the most beat up and well-loved copies of a book I have ever seen. Upon finishing the book I closed the back cover, pulled out my laptop, and ordered Swordheart and the three other currently existing books in the same universe in hardback. I know this is a world and author I am going to enjoy.

Putting aside the hyperbolic love for a second, the plot of Swordheart is rather simple from the outside. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line:

“Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.”

Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. Swordheart is the story of two characters. Our first is Halla, a housekeeper (of sorts) to a wealthy and difficult man who dies and leaves his entire inheritance to her because she was the only person he actually liked. This is a problem for his multiple surviving family members who decide that the best way to get Halla to give up the money is to annoy and badger her to death and collect it from her corpse. When contemplating suicide because she would rather be dead than deal with any more aggressively annoying family members (relatable, and I know my family reads the site but I stand by what I said) she unsheaths a magical sword with a warrior named Sarkis trapped inside. Sarkis, our second protagonist, is an immortal battle-spirit trapped inside a weapon that is forced to serve the will of its wielder. Upon Halla summoning him, he hilariously convinces her not to kill herself and they team up to figure out how to secure Halla’s inheritance. Thus begins an extremely unlikely, and extremely funny, romantic story that kept me enrapt from line one.

Swordheart’s three key strengths are its unbelievably funny humor, its extremely believable world, and its lovable characters – all of which are intertwined. Kingfisher is one of the funniest authors I have ever read, and I was laughing so hard I was tearing up every few pages. A lot of the humor revolves around both the characters’ personality/chemistry, but an equal part of it has to do with funny observational humor about Kingfisher’s world. This has the added benefit of naturally fleshing out the worldbuilding in a fun and enjoyable way, while also distracting you from the fact that she is just dumping cool lore into your brain in large sections. But the world isn’t just funny. There various cultures, sects, magic, and cities you learn about in Swordheart had me engrossed in this book and clamoring to get my hands on the other ones set in the world. It’s a shame that the book is only around 400 pages long because I would have read a thousand pages of this story. The book is a stand-alone, but Kingfisher mentioned that she hopefully will be writing two more that follow similar characters in a loose trilogy.

The third star of the show is the characters. Halla and Sarkis both have tons of depth and go beyond your very run of the mill protagonists. Halla is a very kind, but very suppressed woman who is clever, but didn’t really have the imagination or ambition to conceive of a present or future where she was happy – just one where she got by and did what needed to be done. Sarkis is an energetic, impatient, protective, and outlandish brute who has a complicated sense of honor. Their chemistry has enough fire to burn down a small village, and they are only the first two characters. There is also an entire supporting cast of antagonists and friends that all feel fully realized and enhance this epic quest of traveling to a records office and filing a case against some annoying people.

I read Swordheart last year (in 2020) and it was one of the few bright warm moments of that entire hellscape of a trip around the sun. This book brought me happiness and joy in a time where I really needed it and was so fun that I immediately purchased another copy for myself to enjoy over and over again for years to come. As a reviewer it is always a rare and wonderful joy when you discover a relatively unknown book (and author) who blows you away with their quality work and you get to go out into the world and shout their praises. This is one of those occasions, and I implore you to find a copy of Swordheart as soon as you can.

Rating: Swordheart – 10/10
-Andrew

The Doors of Eden – A Window Into What Could Have Been

the-doors-of-eden-hb-coverI am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed The Doors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.

The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.

The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.

The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.

The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.

Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.

Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.

Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.

In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.

Overall, The Doors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.

Rating: The Doors of Eden – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Automatic Reload – Bad Romance

51lwv2qz04lAutomatic Reload, by Ferrett Steinmetz, is an interesting book with a lot of potential. The premise fascinated me: a sci-fi cyberpunk rom-com about two highly dysfunctional people finding love on the battlefield. It’s written with a cinematic focus and a lot of the book reads like watching a movie. It’s quick, it’s funny, it’s exciting, and as I breezed through it in a single sitting I was really looking forward to giving it a glowing recommendation. And then I actually got to the romance part of this comedy romance – problems.

However, let me sing Reload’s praises before I shoot it in the foot. The premise of the book is original and clever. Mat is one of our two leads and he is a giant cyborg. He has voluntarily replaced his limbs with cybernetic weapons and works as a one-man army for rent. Mat was initially aa drone operator and got PTSD from the missions he fulfilled behind a screen. Now he has fitted himself for war and takes on missions no one else can and works his hardest to keep casualties to zero. The second lead, Silvia, is a genetically-altered bioweapon (who was changed against her will) who has little control of her body. A shadowy organization used her as a test subject for a super-soldier serum of sorts and she has become one of the deadliest people on the planet. However, she also suffers from a massive disabling panic disorder that she is struggling to overcome. When Mat is recruited for a job that ends up freeing her, they must run, hide, and overcome their fears to beat back this shadow organization that threatens the world.

So the good: Automatic Reload is full of exciting action sequences, neat worldbuilding, likable characters, and great themes. In particular, Mat’s slow reveal of how he came to replace most of his body with machines and the mental damage that has been done to him is enthralling. Steinmetz has done a great job creating a modern commentary on the armed forces and explores the new challenges they face every day. Both Mat and Silvia have memorable and relatable struggles that resonated with me as a reader. The only problem is I felt like they had no chemistry whatsoever.

What was painful to me is this book has fun quippy dialogue that feels like it throws itself into the sea when the two leads team-up. Normally with a book like this, I hope that the elements of action, humor, and romance will complement and enhance one another. Instead, the three cornerstones of Reload feel like they are all competing for the same space and stepping on each other’s toes – with the romance, in particular, getting curb-stomped. It just felt awkward to jump from pulse-pounding explosions and funny one-liners to an awkward teenage romance between two very damaged individuals. The tone and nature of their growing relationship feel very at odds with the rest of the book and I felt it detracted from the overall story instead of adding to it.

It is highly possible that my issues with Automatic Reload’s romance were personal hangups that won’t bother most readers. However, I feel like the book would have been a lot stronger with more focus on action and humor. At the same time, there is a lot else to like about Reload and it certainly is one of the more original pieces that I have read this year. It’s short and fun, and If the premise intrigues you I would recommend you go check it out and come back and either confirm or reject my harping on the romance.

Rating: Automatic Reload – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Gun Of The Dawn – Rise Up And Love

a1g9z73urdlIt has been an interesting week in America. We have been seeing unprecedented protests against corrupt authority figures and for the rights of Black Americans, and it has made it difficult to find the desire to write about books. Thankfully, I recently read Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which feels somewhat fitting to the current developing social situation. While not a perfect fit, it is the only book I have in my back pocket that feels appropriate to talk about this week. So let’s talk how about war, oppression, and greed are the worst and how there is nothing more precious than human life.

Guns of the Dawn is a standalone flintlock fantasy anti-war book. Our story follows Emily, a minor noblewoman of Lascanne – which feels like an allegory for the British during the revolutionary war. At the start of the book, Lascanne receives news that their neighboring country of Denland (who feel like an American colonies allegory) has, “selfishly and evilly risen up and killed their wonderful perfect monarch who never did anything bad ever”. The Lascanne news then begins to report that the Denlanders, now intent on remaking other countries in their republican image, are coming for Lascanne. This begins a protracted, slow, and costly war between the nations. As a result, the King of Lascanne begins drafting a few men from every household to join the army, then all men, then women.

The story of Dawn is divided essentially into three sections: pre-war (approx 20%), war (approx 65%), and post-war (approx 15%). All three of the sections of the book are good, but they come in two very different flavors. The pre-war and post-war sections feel like they are drawing from Pride and Prejudice. They paint a very impressive victorian-esque tale of Emily navigating political and familial challenges that stretch her intellectually and emotionally. I found it a well-written character growth based narrative. However, the war portion book reminds me of my all-time favorite anti-war book: Armor, by John Steakley.

The war portion still has some character elements but feels like its focus shifts to larger anti-war and anti-authoritarian themes and points that resonated more strongly with me. The war portion of the book has an excellent exploration of a number of topics that I really appreciated in the current social climate. One, in particular, was the idea of how effective propaganda is at convincing people of an alternate reality. Tchaikovsky spends a lot of time establishing how steeped in loyalist rhetoric Emily is for the first half of the book and then shows how it can result in complete denial of reality when presented with contradictory facts. Only through repeated exposure and slow deprogramming can Emily start to realize a lot of what she has learned has been a lie and (spoilers), unsurprisingly, the authority figure in charge of her country is a selfish monster.

While I liked all three sections of this book a lot, and think that Dawn has a very unique story and experience to offer its readers, I do think it has a major flaw. I don’t really think the two styles of the book blended together well at all. In reality, it felt like I read half of one book, changed to an entirely different book, then went back and finished the second half of the first book. Independently, I think I would have given both styles of the story a higher score than I will give them combine. In the end, I felt like they detracted more from each other than they added. I also ended up liking the war section a lot more, but that might be because of the current social context. The war sections felt a little heavier and more appropriate to what is going on in America right now.

Guns of the Dawn is a unique story with a lot of competing elements. It manages a delicate balance between character and theme focus and does an excellent job with both. The combination of victorian love story and anti-war paper is not quite seamless, but it is definitely interesting and original. I definitely recommend Guns of the Dawn, both as a generally enjoyable book and as somewhat topical for current events. It is a story that talks about the power of love and standing up for what is right at the same time, both of which are things we could use right now.

Rating: Guns of the Dawn – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The House In The Cerulean Sea – Enough Love And Heart To Fill An Ocean

81mny8q7ollThe House In The Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune, is a loving book about the wonders of children and learning to live your life in the present. There is so much I like about this book that I don’t know where to start. It will easily grace the top books of 2020 list of anyone who reads it. If Klune’s other books are anything like this one, I have discovered a treasure trove of new reads that I can’t wait to dig into. Don’t wait on this March release; if you are looking for a pick-me-up you should buy it, rent it, or borrow it as soon as you can get your hands on it.

The story of The House In The Cerulean Sea is packed full of heart, humor, and adventure. It tells the story of Linus Baker. A forty-year-old caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, his job is to travel the world to various orphanages for magical children and see if they are being properly cared for. He leads a quiet and solitary life, his only real companion is his temperamental cat. Some may call him stodgy and stiff, but he is good at his job and he has been doing it a long time with almost no change. That is, until an order from upper management sends him on an assignment from Hell, literally. Linus is sent to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears, do his job, and determine both if the children are being well cared for and whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But, to do his job and determine if the children are a threat (to themselves and others), Linus must go through the orphanage’s caretaker: Arthur Parnassus. He sees the children as his own, and he would do anything to keep them from being harmed.

Even in this brief description of Cerulean’s plot, there is a lot to unpack. First, we have Linus. Dear god does he stand out from your typical fantasy protagonist. He is older, overweight, stodgy, big-hearted, organized, observant, and so much more than I expected when I first opened the pages of this story. Which, is kinda the point. Part of Linus’ story is about his hidden depths and his journey of self-discovery to find them. His character arc is frankly beautiful and one of my favorites in recent memory. Linus’ interactions with the children of the orphanage are heart-achingly sweet for a very specific reason – he treats them like adults. One of the major themes of Cerulean is that children have value as people, not just as someone’s child. They have tiny clever minds brimming with creativity and wonderful thoughts. I think it says a lot that I have never wanted to have kids more than after reading Cerulean. The personalities of these tiny individuals, and their relationships with Linus and Arthur, could warm the heart of a corpse.

But, the book is about a lot more than happy feelings and good times. The six children in question are on this special island orphanage because they have been through hard times. Magic is reviled in Klune’s world, and it is easy to see that it is a simple narrative allegory for someone who is even slightly different. Much of the story involves Linus confronting his own initial expectations, predispositions, and biases to see these magical beings for who they actually are. While this isn’t exactly a new idea, Linus’ earnest personality and quiet introverted nature make the theme much more resonant than the average fantasy book I read. Linus doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, so it’s easy to forgive his presumptions, and it’s satisfying when he evolves as a person.

On top of all of this, Cerulean has three hidden elements that up it from great to amazing: humor, romance, and adventure. The book is hilarious in a very Terry Pratchett-Esque manner There are a lot of hyperbolized and hilarious descriptions of the workplace, seaside villages, and beach vacations. The story will have you laughing out loud, or at least smiling, from start to finish. Next, we have the romance – which creeps up on you while you aren’t watching. I was impressed at both how organic, given its short page length, and timeless, given its fantastical nature, the love story in Cerulean felt. It is also a gay romance that feels accessible to anyone of any orientation – which the genre badly needs. Finally, the book is brimming from cover to cover with a palpable sense of adventure. The entire narrative, on some level, revolves around Linus stepping outside his comfort zones, and this is enhanced by a literary ambiance that evokes discovery and the unknown. The prose is good, and the worldbuilding is serviceable. Yet neither of these things feel important given the power of the characters and themes.

The House In The Cerulean Sea will absolutely be one of the best books of 2020. It is a bright, warm, and surprisingly clever book that reflects its wonderfully unassuming protagonist perfectly. It was just what I needed after going through a difficult time the last few months and it put a smile back on its face. To top it all off, the book has well-realized themes and unique stand out elements that distinguish it far and above what else has come out this year so far. The Quill to Live unabashedly recommends The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Go read it the second you can.

Rating: The House In The Cerulean Sea – 10/10
-Andrew

Ghoster – Too Substantial to Properly Spook

ghosterI don’t have a lot of experience with dating apps, having been in a long term relationship until recently, and as such have viewed them with the same amused indifference granted to most of the technology I don’t interact with. Having spoken to friends that have used them, and through some low-level environmental exposure, I have, however, picked up on some key facets. All of this personal information none of you care about is here to explain that I have not personally experienced “ghosting,” but I do understand what it is through the cultural zeitgeist of modern dating technology, and have a general understanding that it is “bad.” Pretty great lead-in to the review of Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, eh?

Ghoster is a Schrodinger’s Book for me, a story that appears to have been written directly for me and one that is so far outside my normal sphere of enjoyment I would never pick it up on my own volition. A horror story about a relationship gone wrong written through the lens of modern technology and dating apps is very much not my normal fare and with the cover on the ARC we received displaying a text messaging screen, I began reading with no little apprehension, steeling myself for what I was fairly sure would be more toil than enjoyment. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoster. While not without its faults, there are some very strong foundations to this story, and I came out of this reading with a fresh lesson in not judging books by their covers.

In Ghoster we follow Kate Collins as she moves across the UK to begin living with a new boyfriend, Scott. It should not be surprising based on the title, cover art, back of book blurb, and the fact that this is advertised as a horror book that the move-in does not go according to plan and Kate finds herself “ghosted” by Scott. This already fraught situation is complicated by two large problems. Firstly, Kate is a social media addict (and something of a stalker), and has gone cold turkey from digital media in general, trading her smartphone in for a simple texting device. This complicates her search for Scott’s whereabouts and forces her into more and more outlandish actions to try to find him. Secondly (and arguably the less weird problem), Scott’s apartment that Kate has recently moved into appears to be haunted.

Let’s start with the phone stuff. I’m not going to get into the believability of having such a severe addiction to social media that you revert to what is essentially an old Nokia brick, I’m sure there are people out there like that, but I did find it hard to sympathize with Kate a lot of the time due to the nature of her character flaws. I’m sure that says something about me, but while I like my protagonists to be flawed I did feel like this particular issue was pretty overblown. Additionally, and I think this is probably the biggest issue with the book, the references to specific apps and reliance on current technological jargon means this story will age poorly. Not every book needs to be a classic, and there is a time and place to pig out on popcorn, but if you’re looking for a full meal (excuse the metaphor) I would recommend another choice.

The thing that really bugs me about the issues I had with the technobabble and constant references to dating app etiquette, is that I honestly don’t think it was necessary. If the tech addictions and more romance-heavy aspects of the book were removed, I think the horror story at its foundation would be stellar. The bones of this book, the novella that lives within this full-length novel, is outstanding. I did not see the twist coming and the ending goes toe-to-toe with a number of horror shorts I place at the very top of my list. I was expertly misdirected, and the pacing of the horror elements, as well as what information is given, is fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the pacing of pretty much everything else.

The climax of the story happened so quickly that I’m fairly certain it was purposeful to instill a sense of shock in the reader, and while it did have something of a shocking effect, I felt more bemused than anything. Additionally, there’s a fairly long final chapter that seems almost like a postscript to explain all the things that got sidelined during Kate’s search for Scott. Once I finished and closed the book for the final time I was struck by how much more coherent and enjoyable the story would have been to me if it had a runtime of 100-150 pages and stripped all the fat from its bones. There is a story in here that I think would win awards if it were distilled to its core, and I think that a lot of what’s in there distracts from what could be a truly terrifying tale.

I’m conflicted about Ghoster. I went into it expecting a painful trudge through a horror-romance and ended disappointed in an entirely different way. I did truly enjoy my time reading it, which is more than I was expecting, but was left unsatisfied by the heights it failed to attain. There are aspects of this book that will remain memorable for a long time, but a large portion of the book has already slipped from my ability to recall. I sense that the parts I liked will eventually be all I remember of the book, and I wish Arnopp had written a novella or short story with just those bits, but this book probably isn’t really for me, and as such I will take the enjoyment I received and selectively remember it as shorter and scarier than it ended up.

Rating: Ghoster – 6.5/10
-Will

The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew