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

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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

Ruin of Angels – At The Edge Of Imagination And Fantasy

ruin_of_angels_authortop4Max Gladstone’s sixth Craft Sequence book, Ruin of Angels, is out and Will and I finally got a chance to finish it up over the weekend. If you are following this blog, you will know we are very partial to the Craft series around here and think everyone should pick it up. Ruin of Angels marked a new chapter in the world’s story as we (hopefully) move to a more linear chronological storytelling style. Has Gladstone found a way to keep things fresh and interesting, or has…actually I will just give you the answer now, Ruin is incredible.

Ruin follows Kai this time, our protagonist from Full Fathom Five. While not my top craft protagonist, she is an interesting character with a lot of depth that champions the idea of “we are who we decide to be, not what other people tell us we are”. Kai is in the city of Agdel Lex for work, and like all of Gladstone’s cities, it is weird and awesome. The city is home to Kai’s sister, Ley, and a large part of the plot revolves around Ley coming to Kai for help while she is in the city and their complicated family relationship. In addition, Agdel Lex exists on the site of one of the major cataclysms of the god wars, the city of Alikand, and as a result the city was turned basically into an explosion trapped in time. To deal with this, the Iskari (squid priests we have heard of in previous novels) altered reality and built a second city (Agdel Lex) on the site – sealing in the dying city (Alikand) under layers of reality. It sounds more confusing in brief than it is in the novel. Now the second city exists on top of Alikand, but it is possible to “fall’ into Alikand which is extremely dangerous due to the fact that it’s basically continuously exploding all the time. In direct defiance of this, Agdel Lex is home to many illegal “delvers” or people who dive into the old city for extremely short periods of time and try to bring artifacts back for profit. The reason this is illegal, aside from it being potentially lethal, is that the two cities are constantly in competition for existence. The more people who believe/acknowledge one of the cities, the stronger its grasp on reality is. This leads to some literal Iskari thought police who need to make sure believers don’t pull the exploding city back into existence and kill everyone. Sounds like a great place to live right?

As with many reviews of incredible books, let’s start with the bad and get it out of the way. The beginning of this book is slow. Kai was a bit frustrating when we last read about her, as she is prone to a lot of introspection which can feel like it hurts pacing and she made some questionable choices that made it harder to like her. While the Kai of Ruin still has her introspective nature, and doesn’t have her life completely together, she is a lot more fun and her story is better paced than previously. On the other hand, her sister Ley constantly tries to be a mysterious figure who projects an air of control, but often instead comes across as selfish and childish. I found Ley difficult to root for at the start of the book, but I did eventually come around. The start of the book as a whole suffers a little from pacing as Gladstone has to flesh out his worldbuilding a lot more than usual at the start of Ruin. This pays off in spades though, as the second half of Ruin is truly one of the most wondrous things I have read in a long time.

Max Gladstone entered the writing scene as a debut author with a lot of spirit, great ideas, and a modern look at fantasy that I loved every moment of. However, while his imagination has always been a powerhouse, I would not have pegged him as a master of prose or pacing back at Three Parts Dead. Since the first craft book, Max’s skill as an author has only risen and his books keep showing that he is only getting better. The prose in Ruin of Angels is absolutely phenomenal, with several passages leaving me emotionally moved, breathless, and fully immersed in his world. For example this line from Ruin is now one of my favorite love quotes ever: “I do not understand you. But neither do I understand fire, or starlight, or storms, and I love them” – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

On top of all of this, Gladstone’s greatest strength – his imagination – has only grown as well. I have rewritten this paragraph seven times trying to convey into words what I experienced reading the back half of Ruin of Angels. The events in the climax of the book truly pulled me out of this world and into his. I found myself walking outside just to look up at the sky, clear my mind, and think on what I had just experienced and relive it. It was a one-of-a-kind experience that I recommend to everyone. I apologize for being so vague, but to tell you more is a major spoiler and I would not want to take this from you. In addition, Max Gladstone found the edge of what I would consider fantasy and stepped over it. I found myself thinking of the explorer, scientist, and philosophers throughout history as his book gave me rush of seeing something completely new and having no idea what it was – but wanting to learn more.

The start of Ruin of Angels is a bit slow, but builds into one of the most revolutionary fantasy books I have ever read. Max Gladstone’s skill as a writer is only growing and I suspect he has a long and extremely successful career ahead of him. I can’t wait to find out where craft will go next because I have no idea, and love it.

Rating: Ruin of Angels – 10/10

-Andrew and Will