The Best Of Science Fantasy

I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.

So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.

So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:

  • Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
  • Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
  • Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.

Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.

71td5pweetl1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.

81g3gpska-l2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.

gideon-the-ninth-cover3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.

51uflwycsnl._sx324_bo1204203200_4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.

red2bsister2bcover5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.

355205646) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.

threepartsdead_1507) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.

514r1y8fc6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.

51zeepnspsl._sx331_bo1204203200_9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.

812bsf2bbnqul10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).

978057508516911) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.

51oul60c3fl12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.

Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.

-Andrew

The Girl and the Stars – Not Exactly a Light in the Dark

I haven’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s work since Emperor of Thorns back in 2014. I was particularly put off by the final book in that trilogy, and I could not bother to pick up any of his later books, despite hearing reliable appraisals for them. It was just one of those rare instances where I gave up on following the conversation. So when Lawrence announced a new trilogy, I saw the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse with The Girl and the Stars

The book follows a teenage girl named Yaz. A member of the Ictha tribe, she’s reached an age where she has to pass the test that would solidify her within the tribe. The Ictha, along with other tribes, live within the northern icy regions of a planet called Abeth. There is not a lot of food, and no shelter as these tribes wander the frozen wastes, and only the fittest can survive. You couldn’t be too big, lest you eat too much food, and if you were too weak, you were a waste of energy to carry. So, children were tested, and those found wanting are tossed into a large pit within the ice. Yaz feels she will fail the test and be tossed into the hole. However, she passes, but her brother does not. As he is pushed down, she jumps without hesitation. At the bottom Yaz finds the Broken, a society made up of survivors of the fall. Unfortunately, they also have their own problems.

I’m going to rip the band-aid off right now. I had trouble with this book. Don’t get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff in here, but ultimately my experience was akin to Michael Bluth opening the famed paper bag in the freezer labeled “Dead dove do not eat:” “I don’t know what I expected.” I wouldn’t say Girl and the Stars is a bad book, but I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the world Lawrence built an incredible amount. Abeth is a really fantastic example of a new and interesting world. It’s a planet at the end of its ability to support human life, with undertones that the folks who live there are descendants of a space-faring human civilization, who have also forgotten that very fact. It’s such a satisfying and tasty seed from which to grow, and it scratches an itch and inflames a curiosity I haven’t had in a science fiction world for a while. 

However, while I enjoyed the end product and the horizons it presents, I did not like the actual worldbuilding in and of itself. Many reviews I read led me to believe that if I had not read Book of the Ancestor, I would miss nothing here. Now in some ways, this lack of context was interesting. The characters felt within their world, no need to explain the types of people that inhabited the wastes of Abeth. But with that also came a very distinct feeling that I should know, and therein lies the problem. Rarely do I reread paragraphs in books, but with Girl and the Stars, I found myself rereading whole chapters as if I missed something only to discover I was not missing anything from the text I had been given. Which leads me to my next gripe, Lawrence’s writing style. 

In this book, Lawrence writes from an informed third-person perspective, tied to Yaz. For half the book, this did not present problems. I often felt like I knew how Yaz was feeling and her immediate reactions to events. Unfortunately, Lawrence felt that this was occasionally limiting to describing what you might consider “cool events”. There are moments where, without warning, I was pulled out of Yaz into an out of body experience to witness something outside her senses, with narration to match. A paragraph later, I’m back with Yaz, my brain scrambled and without any greater context. This happened frequently enough to disrupt the whole experience, but not enough to build a pattern wherein I could expect it. It also felt as if sometimes this was used to hide information, moving the action forward without time to think about the implications of how something was said. It was incredibly jarring, especially when Lawrence eschewed all sense of place in an underground network of ice caverns by providing the barest minimum of descriptions. There was no sense of scale or understanding of where the characters were relative to anyone else. In some ways it can work, highlighting the labyrinth that is the underground, but Yaz doesn’t even mention it. Not even a single sentence of how confusing it would be to wander on her own without the help of the Broken. I just never got a sense of place or any sort of grounding, so the whole place just ran together.

Speaking of Yaz and the Broken, there was not a single character I could really get into – including Yaz herself. She seemed to fill the fairly typical YA female lead character role. She was indecisive, brash, and ended up finding a leadership role among an incredibly small group of folks to achieve her one goal – find her brother and leave, regardless of the harm caused to those around her. All the other characters could be defined using their name and a single sentence; and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t remember most of their names. I don’t want to skip over the fact that Yaz also seems to be entangled in a love square, but I also don’t have time or energy to get into that whole thing beyond the mere mention of it. I found the society of the Broken to be a cool concept, but we don’t get to see their lives. We don’t get to hear about how hard it is to scrape a living together at the bottom of the world. The reader is barely even given a hint to their struggles beyond “this guy wants war, and this lady doesn’t and it makes them mad at each other.” When characters died, the only thought in my head was “well that’s one less name to remember,” and that’s never a good thought to have. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate, I have not read Lawrence since 2014. I walked in with reservations, regardless of how open I was to the idea. I may have been led astray by other reviews in what to expect in terms of accessibility. You could even blame my fellow reviewers, people who know my opinions, and say “why would you do this?” All of those are very real points, and I think satisfying enough that if you like Lawrence, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl and the Stars. This was my experience as someone who has moved away from his work long enough to feel refreshed and ready to look at it with new eyes. So if you’ve had similar experiences in the past, the paper bag is best left unopened. If you’re newer and still curious, I would suggest starting somewhere else. 

Rating: The Girl and the Stars 5.0/10
-Alex 

How Rory Thorne Destroyed The Multiverse – Thankfully There Is Another One

81g3gpska-lRight before my city enforced strong restrictions and everything closed due to our current pandemic, I metaphorically looted my library. I figured that if I was going into isolation I might as well grab as many books as I could carry to the front desk and just try reading some random things that caught my eye. The results of this have been… mixed. Turns out that publisher marketing teams know what they are doing and are extremely skilled at putting nice covers on questionable books. But, there have been some gems out of the pile of disappointment I grabbed, and How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, by K. Eason, is definitely one of them.

Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon. Combining the two genres is hard to do, but a number of my all-time favorite books fit into this niche, so it’s safe to say the premise excited me. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse tells the story of, well, Rory Thorne. Rory is the princess of an intergalactic empire that grew from humble fantasy beginnings over untold generations. She is the first girl to be born to the royal line in a ridiculously long time, so the royal parents decide to follow the age-old tradition from when their kingdom was first founded: ask the faeries of the land to grant her a blessing. It seems like a cute and fun idea until the faeries actually show up and bless Rory with 13 gifts. They are varied, interesting, and mostly benign – except for two. One faery gives Rory the ability to always be able to tell when people are lying, and a second gives her a well of courage to know when not to back down. We then rapidly get taken through Rory’s journey to adulthood and get key glimpses into how these two gifts forge her into a fascinating adult. This takes up roughly the first third of the book, and then we shift to something new.

The first third of the story is about building Rory’s personality and attaching the reader to her, and the back two-thirds are about stripping her of all her tools but her mind and throwing her into a political sea and seeing if she sinks or swims. This portion of the book is a political thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page. It’s extremely satisfying to see how key moments from the first part of the book made Rory into a person who can handle challenges thrown at her in the second part of the story. It makes Rory feel extremely alive, relatable, and likable – and makes all of her victories feel extremely earned.

The world and cast are fun, cool, and do a great job of pulling in the reader. Thorne leans more towards science fiction, with the fantasy sprinkled in for some magic realism…in space. The formula works well for the book as the magic always feels like a subtle catalyst that keeps the plot moving and keeps things interesting without overstaying its welcome or stifling Rory’s achievements. One of her many talents is picking up support characters, and helping them shine. The secondary characters are all fun and interesting in their own right, but they also serve as a powerful mirror to look back at Rory, work as a foil, and further her continual growth in the latter part of the story.

The plot is very satisfying, with twists and challenges that kept me coming back. But, if one were to just glance at the back blurb of Thorne, you would see some cursory paragraphs about the plot and the following statement: “[the book] is a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes and a story of resistance and self-determinationhow small acts of rebellion can lead a princess to not just save herself, but change the course of history. ” While I understand that this tagline is there to catch the eye and sell books, I honestly think it does the book a disservice. Everything that quote mentions is definitely a part of this book, but I feel like it narrows the success of the story. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse should resonate with every reader, as it tells the story of how every person can face adversity and challenges. It tells a particularly compelling story for women and facing sexism, but as a man, I still found it extremely relatable to my own personal trials and tribulations. This book is great for literally anyone.

The one place that I felt Thorne dropped the ball a little was in the finale. Things wrap up very quickly and it feels like a lot of loose ends are tied up in a short number of pages. What is surprising is the ending reads like Eason was wrapping things up and removing the possibility of sequels, but this is the first of an intended duology. I am not exactly sure where the story is going next, but I am still excited to find out when it becomes available.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse is a unique gem of a book that is hard to classify. Its pacing, storytelling, tone, and genre-blending are all uneven, but they serve to enhance the power of the narrative instead of detracting from it. Rory is a relatable and endearing protagonist that you would need a heart of stone not to like. Other than its strange climax, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse has been one of the best books I have read this year so far. If I had managed to get to it when it came out last October, it definitely would have made it into our top of 2019 list. I will not make the same mistake with the sequel.

Rating: How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Gideon The Ninth – Murder On The Space Wizard Express

gideon-the-ninth-coverI wanted to call this book my sleeper pick for the best debut of the year, but seeing as the book isn’t even out yet and already has a subterranean press version being made it seems like I am not the only one in the know. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, was one of our dark horses for 2019 and a book we have been paying close attention to – mostly because it features necromancers. I feel like necromancers are mages that everyone thinks are cool, but don’t have enough books to scratch my lich. I was super pumped to see a new story about raising undead minions hitting shelves, and the fact that it’s a kickass action-adventure is the icing on the cake.

Gideon the Ninth has an ambitious and complicated premise, so bear with me. If I had to describe it in a single sentence it would be: Triwizard tournament meets murder mystery dinner in space. The setting is a galaxy-spanning empire run by a necromancer so strong he might as well be a god. This “necro lord prime” has nine houses underneath him, each with their own culture, specialty necromancer magic, and noble family. Our protagonist is the titular Gideon, orphan, swordswoman, and slave of the Ninth House. Gideon is an interesting character with a strong sword arm and a foul mouth. She has a bombastic and humorous personality that will have you laughing out loud and rolling your eyes (in a good-humored way). The book as a whole is extremely funny, but I found the humor more present in the first half as book gradually takes on a more serious and emotional tone. She is also a queer protagonist if that is something you are looking for in a book.

The first part of the book details Gideon’s frustrating life as a servant of Harrow, the noble daughter of the Ninth House. After trying to escape from Harrow’s clutches and repeated abuse for years, Gideon is offered a deal: team up with Harrow in a special tournament of champions, help her win, and go free. See, the lord necromancer is looking to build a new council of lieutenants and the selection process is shrouded in mystery. All the characters know is that it involves eight of the noble houses (numbers Two through Nine) sending a swordsperson and necromancer duo to represent them in a competition of sorts at the First House. So, Gideon of course accepts, and the majority of the book takes place in a giant mysterious tower with an eight-way battle royal between sixteen contestants.

God, I still have a lot to talk about and we are already almost five hundred words in. For starters, the characters in this book are stellar. A really good way to tell if a book has interesting characters is if you can remember, and differentiate, twenty-seven god-damn archaic names thrown at you all at the same time. Muir does not make it easy to remember who is who, with the reader meeting 10+ people all at the same time and casually rotating between referring to them by their first and last names depending on who is talking. But, she made it work. Every character is interesting, complex, memorable, and evocative of their unique identity on each page, which both helps you keep everything straight and get invested in the story. Shout out to Septimus, the enigmatic and studious royal of team “Eighth House” for being my crush – he’s super cool. However, all the characters were enjoyable and there wasn’t a single one I would change. In addition, Muir gave each of the houses a different take on necromancy, which was very exciting. It was like getting eight entirely different necromancer books at the same time.

Mum’s the word on the actual competition in the book, as figuring out what the competition actually entails is half the fun. The characters are left in this giant magical ‘Tower of Babel’ type structure, with no guidance, and told simply to go to town. This does a great job to stoke the reader’s sense of curiosity and urgency while reading the book, while also creating this tense atmosphere of distrust between all of the characters as no one understands the rules of the “game.”

The worldbuilding in Gideon The Ninth is a complicated and nebulous topic, as I think it is a strength and a weakness of the book. As a strength: Muir has some really cool and interesting ideas. Necromancy, in my humble opinion, is hard magic to make fun and exciting – as it traditionally just involves raising undead minions. Muir manages to make classical takes on necromancer magic fresh and exciting, as well as invent several cool new takes on the magic. In addition, she does all of this in space, which just adds another layer of complication to the subject. The houses are all interesting and felt like they have complex histories that are breeding grounds for conflicts. The tensions between houses in the book feel organic, and you get a nice feeling of this huge space empire where each house takes on a different role.

However, while I think all of the above positives about Muir’s worldbuilding are true, I also think that the world-building can feel extremely piecemeal at times. While houses feel unique and well fleshed out, this is only true about the houses that Muir takes time to talk about (which is about half). The other houses are left completely unexplained, and it can leave the reader frustrated. While you will get these nice little details on how this space empire runs, a lot of what is going on is left completely unexplained and the reader needs to be comfortable with being left in the dark. I got the sense that Muir built out this very intricate and well-realized universe, but then didn’t explain enough of how her world works in the book so that you get this sense that you are missing a ton of information. It can also create this sense of “false depth,” where the worldbuilding seems deep on the surface but lacks the small details to really breathe life into the world. I think a lot of these worldbuilding problems stem from plot relevancy. It often feels like Muir wants to keep how her world works secret, and the only details you can pry out of her hands are the worldbuilding that is immediately relevant to the story. In the end, it gives the sense that Gideon the Ninth is less the first book in a series, and more the first half of a really good incomplete book.

All things considered, Gideon The Ninth is an ambitious, engrossing, creative, hilarious romp that stands out in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has some issues, but they do little to detract from the pure unbridled joy I felt as I tore through this debut. Gideon The Ninth is likely the strongest debut of the year and is one of the funniest books I have read recently. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly. Don’t sleep on this dark horse, go check out one of the best books of the year.

Rating: Gideon The Ninth – 9.0/10
-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

Holy Sister – Just Short Of Sacrosanct

91zzfwkuijl._ac_ul436_An interesting book to close out an interesting series. That’s the general gist of this review of Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence, the final installment in The Book of the Ancestor trilogy. For all of you who are waiting with bated breath for what is likely to be one of the most popular books this year, don’t worry. Holy Sister continues in the tradition of its predecessors and manages to tell a fast-paced, highly imaginative, and captivating story. You can find reviews of both of the previous books here and here. At the same time, it almost feels like Holy Sister is successful in spite of Lawrence, with him making a number of choices I find questionable (despite the book still landing on its feet).

Holy Sister tells two stories, each separated by a short time gap. The first storyline picks up where Grey left off: Nona and her friends are on the run from the powerful Noi-Guin and must escape to the ice if they want to live. The second timeline is a few weeks in advance where Nona is back at the convent and completing her final trials to become an official sister. The two timelines meet right as the much foreshadowed invasion of Scithrowl begins and the Sisters of the Ancestor must take the field to repel the invading forces. The split narrative works well, and Lawrence manages the dissemination of information in a skilled and clever manner so that the storylines remain interesting in tandem without stepping on each other’s toes. In addition, the third act where the two narratives meet is extremely climactic and has a lot of great pay off for plot lines that Lawrence has been building since book one. The action was still exciting enough to have me gripping the book in fear, and Lawrence continues his worldbuilding until the last page, potentially setting the world up for a sequel or spin-off series. Overall, the book brings about almost everything I could have wanted from the series… is what I would have said if it wasn’t for a few narrative choices that Lawrence made.

The first, and most problematic for me, is that there is a MAJOR character death off-screen between books two and three. This death murdered the forward momentum of the plot for me and caused me to struggle to care in the first third of the book. Holy Sister eventually recaptured my attention but by the end, I could not a) understand why the death needed to happen at all as it seemed to add little and take away a ton and b) understand why on Earth (or whatever planet they are on) the death needed to happen off-screen. There was so much potential for a pivotal and emotional moment surrounding this characters death that was just tossed out the window. Far be it from me to assign reasoning to Lawrence, but it frankly just felt lazy – like he didn’t want to write about this plotline anymore.

This feeling was mirrored in my other major problem with the book – the pacing surrounding Nona’s trials. I have a hard time in my mind envisioning what a traditional education at the nunnery looks like. Books one and two established a slow and luxurious pacing of how things are supposed to progress with classes and book three throws that pacing out the window in favor of going supersonic. Now, in Lawrence’s defense, he does provide a large amount of in book reasoning for why that happens: the country is invaded by a hostile nation and the end times are upon us. However, to me, it felt more like Lawrence was tired of writing this story and was hurrying me out the door. I was massively less invested in the fate of the world compared to Nona’s time at the convent, so this narrative choice did not sit well with me. On the other hand, while I wasn’t initially as interested in the invasion plot line it did surpass all my expectations so I was not too upset.

At the end of the day, Holy Sister is a strong finish to a strong series. This is easily Mark Lawrence’s best trilogy (in my opinion), and while I disagreed with some of his choices surrounding the last book in the series I can’t argue with his results. For those of you who are waiting to get your hands on the climatic finale, know that your patience will be rewarded. For those of you who haven’t read the series yet, I recommend you check it out as soon as possible now that it has stuck the landing (with only a small wobble).

Rating: Holy Sister – 8.5/10
-Andrew

A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy – But A Good One For Me

Alex White was really working overtime in 2018. Fresh off the release of his debut book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Big Ship), White has just released a sequel with an equally lengthy name, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy (Bad Deal), in the same year. Big Ship was one of my top books in 2018 and I described it as Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The book was fun, exciting, and had excellent combat, but unfortunately also suffered from a cast that was fairly insufferable for the first half of the book. However, this is the price that one must play when you are committed to character growth, which White clearly is, and I was excited to dive into Bad Deal and continue the story we left off from book one. There are some mild spoilers for Big Ship following this paragraph so if you want to remain completely pure I would recommend coming back to this when you have finished book one.

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Jumping into the story, Bad Deal is set a few months after the climactic events of Big Ship and we pick back up with Boots and Nilah more or less where we left off. Boots is moping at her distillery but is quickly dragged back onto the Capricious. The crew has grown to include two mysterious twins and our cast of characters are hunting the financial bankers of the villains from book one in order to continue dismantling the shadow organization. The book follows this plot thread through five to six fantastic settings and ridiculous events until ending on a climax that rivals book one. In other words, the plot of this book is a good time. White has a really good eye for exciting scenes and I think these books would make fantastic movies. The magic also continues to be excellent, despite its complete lack of structure. In book one we were introduced to a fairly small range of spell users that had fairly straightforward abilities, such as making shields or integrating with machines/hacking better. In book two, White expands the magic we see noticeably and highlights a number of spell users with weirder abilities – like “hoteliers” whose magic is basically used to make rooms feel like nice hotel lobbies (I am paraphrasing, but not joking). However, despite these strange additions the magic system only felt more vibrant and fun in Bad Deal and found myself simply excited to see what White would show me next.

It was no surprise that the plot and world of Bad Deal were excellent, they were what carried the first novel to lofty heights. Where book one really struggled was its characters, as I only liked the cast for the back third of the book. I am super excited to say that the feeling of affection I felt at the end of Big Ship carried over perfectly and allowed me to hit the ground running in book two. Bad Deal runs like a well-oiled machine, using the character growth from book one to springboard into new emotional issues for the cast. However, the warmth I felt to the various members of the Capricious only strengthened in Bad Deal and I found myself more invested in their dramatic arguments and fragile emotional states. I was on the record as saying I thought Big Ship was “overly dramatic” and I think a lot of this feeling came from not caring about the characters enough as they poured their hearts out. Now that I adore the cast, I had many fewer issues with its soap opera style drama and found myself happily yelling at the characters as they worked through their issues.

If I had to find one issue with Big Ship it would probably be the story structure. The pacing of the book will certainly never leave you bored and moved at a delightfully fast speed. However, when reading the book you can definitely tell that White sat down and planned out three or four events that he wanted to build around and then carefully strung them together. It’s a very minor criticism, and it did very little to detract from my experience, but I wish that these scenes flowed a little better into one another so that the book felt a little less like discrete chunks.

Overall, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.

Rating: A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy – 9.0/10
-Andrew