Gods Of Jade And Shadow – A Walk Through Old Maya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – Siege Loads Of Fun

97803162708091It is always really exciting when one of our dark horse titles pays off. Today I am talking about Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, by K. J. Parker, a standalone novel with a mouthful of a title. The book is a relatively short story of an army engineer that needs to Macgyver his way through a siege against a horde of enemies with only some duct tape and some rocks. While the book isn’t particularly deep or well fleshed out, it is definitely a lot of fun to read and will provide a number of hours of great entertainment to anyone who likes seeing witty engineers pull stuff out of their collective asses.

Sixteen’s plot is straightforward and I have almost already summarized it in my opening paragraph. The narrative follows Orhan, an army engineer whose claim to fame is that he is incredibly lazy but intuitive enough at his work to get away with it. The country he works for has had a mass uprising, and the army deserts and joins the enemy. Thus, Orhan is left to defend a city with just a handful of engineers and whatever he can scrape together. The book follows the typical siege story format, with each side continually one-upping each other in a spectacular fashion to either hold or take the city. Orhan is extremely fun to read about and his solutions to the problems facing the siege are imaginative, fun, and captivating. There aren’t a ton of deep themes in the book, but there are a lot of fun and hilarious scenes.

The narrative is focused primarily on Orhan, but there is a wonderful supporting cast as well. There is an undercurrent of racial politics in the book, as Orhan is part of a racially discriminated group within the empire. It leads to complicated feelings on Orhan’s part when it comes to why he is defending the city. It serves to make Orhan more likable, as we get to see him rising above hate and doing the right thing, but it doesn’t feel particularly thought-provoking. Likewise, the worldbuilding is pretty barebones. Most of the things that K. J. Parker fleshes out are immediately relevant to the story and you don’t get a sense of a living or breathing world. In fact, due to the shallow worldbuilding, the story can even feel a little contrived at times, and Parker does not leave a lot of room to build out the story further. However, not every book needs to be a sweeping epic that shows you the minute wonders of the universe – it’s also great to read for pure enjoyment, which this book delivers in droves.

Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City is a book I would recommend to most people, particularly if they like engineering or witty/roguish protagonists. The book is not breaking much new ground in fantasy, but it is delivering a fun time in a streamlined package. This book would be a great read for any beach or plane ride, or for when you are looking for something light to break up some of your denser reading. I wish the worldbuilding had been slightly more extensive, but it was a fun ride all the same. Check it out.

Rating: Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Library At Mount Char – ….What?

91amvrcfa5lReaders, this book is super weird. Honestly, The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, is one of the weirdest books I have ever read – and I have read some weird shit. This book defies nearly every convention I can think of in the fantasy/speculative fiction genres but tells a really strange (but interesting) story in a disjointed manner. Not only is the subject matter of the book super weird, but Hawkins has an odd author’s voice that took me a long time to wrap my mind around – though I eventually came to like it. I don’t really know where to start, so I am just going to jump right into this fascinating book.

The Library at Mount Char has a fairly straightforward plot: a man with godlike powers and knowledge (who we will call Adam for simplicity) takes in a group of orphans to train as his successors. The book is set in a vaguely modern/90s time/era and mostly takes place in Adam’s massive and magical library (which is at Mount Char). The library contains a number of subsections, each of which an orphan is given exclusive rights and dominion over. They are tasked with learning everything they can in their area, with the only rule being that they under no circumstances can study someone else’s section. Our protagonist is Carolyn, one of the aforementioned orphans, who is given dominion over the language section. The narrative is broken into roughly two sections. The first follows Carolyn and some of her “siblings” learning about their sections and the library. The second follows the fallout of the various children when “Adam” suddenly disappears and they are left to their own devices, and this is when things really kick into gear.

Now the plot is a little out there, but that’s not actually what makes this book strange. Its quintessential weirdness comes from the fact that it is written like a fever dream. The pacing and the narrative are chaotic as hell, rapidly changing speed and style with little to no warning. There is almost no consistency in the book, tons of things are left completely unexplained, and the story evolves several times to take on new forms and directions. The reader is left completely adrift at sea with almost no foundation to build on, and yet it somehow all still works. I don’t even really understand how, and I have reviewed something like three hundred books in the last few years. Things that I would massively critique other books for, like the fact that half the sections of the library are never even explored, somehow just work in The Library at Mount Char.

Normally when I talk about oddball books like this, I tend to say something like “people will either love it or hate it” – but I don’t actually think that is the case with The Library at Mount Char. I think most people would enjoy this, if only for the experience of getting to the end and saying “what the hell did I just read.” It didn’t really stick with me – I didn’t find the book deep or thought-provoking. But, I did find it interesting. I kept picking it back up and saying “ok where the actual hell is he going with this”. I constantly wanted to know what was coming next. Not in an “edge of your seat engrossed” sort of way, but in an “I am a moth staring at a flame and I find myself compelled to keep going and I don’t know why” sort of way.

I know this review is kinda useless as I have fundamentally failed at rendering judgment on whether The Library at Mount Char is worth your time. However, at the end of the day, it’s because I just don’t know. It’s a weird catch-22 of “you will know after you read it.” It is definitely a smart and unique book. Scott Hawkins on some level knew what he was doing – or at least was able to write something so interesting and different that he could pass off that he knows what he’s doing. It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t satisfying, but it was good? That is about all I got.

Rating: The Library at Mount Char – I don’t know, you read it and tell me/10
-Andrew

Gunpowder Moon – Not A Bang, But A Pop

513oyhqa4bl._sx330_bo12c2042c2032c200_I never really intended to read this book. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until Andrew handed it to me in a parking lot, with all the subtlety of a kid’s first drug deal. All I needed was the book’s cover and tag line “the moon’s first murder is just the beginning.” And honestly, if I did not write for this site, I probably would never have picked it up. Luckily for me, I got more out of it than I expected. For a shallow premise, there is a decent amount of potential hidden in this mixed bag of goodies. With Gunpowder Moon, David Pedreira weaves physics and danger into an entertaining read despite its lackluster story, serviceable characters, and uninspired worldbuilding.

Gunpowder Moon follows Caden Dechert, chief of moon mining operations for the United States and former Marine, as he and his small team of engineers and miners uncover a murder mystery. It is the year 2072 and the climate crisis is in full swing. Decades before, a large methane bubble escaped the Pacific Ocean, with the United States feeling most of its effects. The last hope for humanity lies in helium-3, a fuel used in fusion reactors that is found in accessible quantities on the moon. China and the U.S. both attempt to stay out of each other’s way with a tense truce while vying for the precious resource. Unfortunately for Dechert, the first murder on the moon occurs under his watch. The murder has the potential to set off a chain of events that could plunge the nations of Earth into another dark age. Dechert and his team work to solve the mystery before the “forces that be” on Earth find a way to use it an excuse for war.

The aspect of Gunpowder Moon that grabbed me the most was the attention Pedreira pays to physics on the moon. He wastes no time in making sure the reader is aware of how hostile the moon is to human life. From the effects of the lower gravity to the abundance of fine granules that make up the moon’s surface that cause attrition to the complex machinery, Dechert and his crew have a lot to worry about. It really set the stage for me as a reader, highlighting what can and cannot happen if violence breaks out between individuals or separate moonbases. In addition, it spotlights the sheer amount of work that must be done in order to hold the moon at bay while the miners extract the necessary fuel to power Earth. I also appreciated that a lot of the rules were set in the beginning, providing the reader with knowledge that newcomers to the moon may overlook as the story progresses. It also circumvents the problem of breaking down an issue after it has occurred, while allowing the reader to feel engaged when things start to go wrong.

I also enjoyed the setting in terms of the historical context leading to the events of the book. The nations of the world are in recovery after a large and costly war, instigated by the effects of a rapidly changing climate and reduced access to cheap energy. While this setup was interesting, it did not feel fleshed out. Pedreira seemed to rely on projecting current international politics into the future, expecting the reader to fill in the blanks. Readers are treated to a greatly-diminished U. S. that is all too willing to instantly go to war in the Middle East. Their adversary feels more like a bogeyman than a nation with goals and aspirations. I do not doubt that these could be very realistic scenarios, but considering the book takes places fifty years from now, it was hard to accept that government and international relations would not experience the upheaval that the general populace did, especially when it seemed like the United States suffered catastrophic population loss. If there had been a clearer setup, or at least more exposition time on Earth highlighting the problems, it would have felt more dire and volatile. Instead, it seemed a tacked-on reason to place a story on the moon.

When it comes to exploring the characters, Pedreira does a decent job of placing the reader in Dechert’s shoes through a noir-style narration. It is easy to tell what he is thinking, and how he makes the decisions he does. While he is your typical gruff commander type, Dechert comes off as someone who cares deeply for his crew, while remaining uninvested in the Earth itself. His mild misanthropy was easy to relate to because of his devotion to making sure everyone on the moon station was constantly aware of the risks they posed to themselves and each other. My biggest problems with Dechert stemmed from his flashbacks from his time in the war. They were not necessarily bad, but they did not add anything, like showing him rethinking a decision or forcing him to confront something he had hidden deep down. The flashbacks mostly were there to remind you that Dechert was a Marine, he cared for his squad, and he killed people. They did not enhance his experience on the moon or reveal anything about his character to the reader that they could not already glean from his actions throughout the narrative

Unfortunately, Dechert was surrounded by stock characters who did not add much to the story beyond dialogue and tension with Dechert himself. Lane is the quintessential smart female engineer with a penchant for wanting to murder those who disturb her. Quarles is a snarky, younger, slacker genius who serves as Dechert’s delinquent but lovable foster son. Standard – yes that is the character’s actual name – is the typical corporate stooge, coming to inspect the station, making sure everything was on the up and up. The characters themselves were not bad, and their dialogue was largely enjoyable. There was clearly chemistry between everyone, but a lot of their quirks were handled through narration by Dechert. The reader is never treated to one of Lane’s death stares, or Quarles’ need to smoke pot. These are just traits that Dechert relates to the reader at odd times, ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. I never really felt like I got to know the people he cared so much about, only that he cared about his ragtag little group of misfits. I wish we encountered a little more of the characters outside of Dechert’s brain because they genuinely did seem fun, and possibly interesting. Instead, it felt like someone coming home from college trying to tell you about how cool and zany their new friends were.

If all these other parts of the book are a mixed bag, surely the plot itself was engaging enough to shepherd me to the end? Well, like most of the other things I have talked about, the story itself was also just on the cusp of being good. Pedreira managed to keep the pacing tight and fast. He did not waste time setting the rules of the world, and the murder quickly kicks the plot into high gear. The book never truly felt dull, and even though the flashbacks did not add anything, they felt appropriately placed. Tension built consistently, and I felt danger lurking at each turn as the moon’s environment and international tensions intertwined. However, the plot itself did not feel novel or exciting. The stakes were set high from the beginning, and never really grew. To be fair, it is hard to get any higher than globe-spanning warfare set off by a single murder on the moon, but it just fell flat for me. I am not a big fan of mysteries in general, so to center the fate of the world on solving a murder felt too big. And the reveal felt very “Saturday-morning cartoon” by way of Scooby Doo.

All in all, if you are just looking for a fun space romp that has a noir aesthetic to it, Gunpowder Moon scratches that itch. It has fun moments, and Pedreira really put some work into the moon-based setting. The addition of extreme caution to every decision the characters make supplemented the standard murder mystery storyline in a way that made it more appealing. Pedreira also shows a lot of potential in his writing abilities, especially with his dialogue and general structure of the story. I would not recommend it to avid readers of science fiction, but if you know someone who likes the idea of science and new rules attached to their mystery-thrillers, Gunpower Moon is a good start.

Rating: Gunpowder Moon – 6.0/10
-Alex

The Goblin Emperor – A Short Reign

51n8zxqxzclIf you are engaged in the fantasy genre, chances are that you have heard of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor before. This stand-alone novel about court intrigue is a popular recommendation from a number of respectable reviewers and is considered by many to be a modern classic. However, I don’t trust anything I haven’t read myself, so I set aside some time this week to dive into this relatively short novel to see if my feelings match those of the general reviewer populace. Turns out that The Goblin Emperor is indeed a good book, but I also found myself noticing a lot of problems under the hood that kept it from achieving true greatness.

First, let’s discuss the plot quickly. The Goblin Emperor follows the story of Maia, an 18-year-old half-goblin/half-elf prince who is living in exile imposed by his father, the emperor. An airship carrying his dad and three older brothers goes down, killing all of them, and suddenly making Maia the man in charge. He is retrieved from exile, forced into a court with no training that he knows nothing about, and is expected to rule a land that is anything but calm. Amidst all the swirling court intrigue, Maia also learns that the accident that killed his father and brothers was no accident, and launches a murder investigation to discover the source of the treachery.

Other than these basics, which can almost completely be found on the back of the book, The Goblin Emperor follows a fairly predictable plotline. Each day Maia wakes up, is confronted with some new political problem, and must bumble his way through it. The book is court politics at its finest, and if you are into aristocrats having heated debates while groping for power, this book does an incredible job of distilling that feeling into its purest form. On top of this, the characters are mostly delightful – Maia, in particular, is both adorable and lovable. He is a kind and loving soul and a large part of the book surrounds his tendency to break with imperial tradition in favor of showing empathy and sympathy. This leads to a number of truly heartwarming moments as Maia ambles through the book like a giant regal teddy bear. The supporting characters are all well-developed, and I got a very good sense of the court and its history through the careful worldbuilding that Addison weaves into her story. Addison’s prose is also above average, and I found myself reaching for a dictionary to look up new words (that were used to excellent effect) on more than one occasion. However, while I really enjoyed all these positive aspects of the book, there were also a handful of negative ones that severely weighed the reading experience down.

For example, while the setup and execution of the political intrigue in the book were fantastic – the follow through often left a lot to be desired. By this, I mean that a lot of the machinations of the story often felt like they had very little bite. To give a better illustration of this, there are multiple attempts on Maia’s life throughout the course of the novel. These moments are thrilling when they are happening but in the aftermath, Maia still clings to his aforementioned kindness and empathy by suggesting that a timeout will hopefully be enough to prevent future regicide attempts. His staff, as usual, convince him that this is not a possibility but by this point, I was starting to worry that Maia was not showing a lot of character growth and that the book wasn’t taking me seriously. While I understand that a major theme in the book is Maia’s uncompromising empathy, Addison did not do a strong enough job showing how Maia works through complicated situations to find a empathetic solution, which painted Maia as childish and naive. On a similar vein, Maia did not feel like he had enough agency in the story in general. Almost half of the book is him reacting to the actions of other characters or telling his staff to accomplish the results he desires without putting in any of the work. While I like Maia a lot for his warm heart, he did not come across as a particularly strong character – even by the end of the book.

The book as a whole also felt a little rushed and shallow at times. A major theme of the story is bridge building, both literally and metaphorical. Maia’s goal from the start of the book is to make friends, build a family, and bridge a river to connect two dissonant factions of his empire. The novel does an incredible job laying the foundation of these goals – showing a very clear “before” picture of the uphill battle Maia must make. By the time the book is finished, we have just seen a number of these bridges tentatively built, which is great, but we get absolutely no time to enjoy seeing the friendships that Maia establishes. The book ends with the characters saying “sure, we can be friends,” which is all well and good but I wanted to revel in seeing these characters’ friendships in action.

In addition, while the world building as a whole was very good, it was also weirdly patchy in certain areas of the novel. One example of this was in the implied racial tension. I think it is safe to assume that if you tell an average fantasy reader that you are reading about a half-goblin in an elvish society, that the reader is going to expect some racial tension. While there is a tiny amount, it was not present in nearly the same amount I was expecting. Addison only partially explains the racial politics between the two groups, but I think I am inferring correctly that elves see goblins more as distant strange relatives as opposed to a race of inferior useless sub people (which is what I expected). The names of the characters in the book are also needlessly confusing. God help anyone who tries to read this book on an e-reader because I essentially had to flip to the name appendix at the back every other page. Even then, I still had a very hard time keeping a number of characters straight.

Finally, the descriptions in the book could sometimes feel like they were glossed over. I think the best example of this was when Maia receives an incredible “emperor clock” from the clockmakers guild for his birthday. Or at least I was told it was incredible, I don’t know myself as I have no idea what it looks like. After being told by four separate characters how incredible it was, Maia finally gets to see it and just says “They were right, it was both incredible and surprising”. That’s it. Moments like these really broke my immersion in the world, which is a shame because Addison’s creation seemed like something in which I could lose myself.

Overall, I don’t want you to think The Goblin Emperor is a bad book. Addison has an eye for political intrigue and does an incredible job distilling it down to a single engrossing book. There was the potential for this to be one of my all-time favorite novels, but it missed the mark due to the list of grievances I outlined above. Overall, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Goblin Emperor, I just also suggest that you temper your expectations somewhat.

Rating: The Goblin Emperor – 7.0/10
-Andrew

An Excess Male – More Than Necessary Reading

51WJWWdGrzLIt’s a great time for readers and writers of dystopian fiction. Whatever world you want to imagine where something terrible is happening, it is out there for you. One can recede into the classics, finding new relevancies and warnings. Then there are the newer stories that draw inspiration from the past, with the emotional resonance of today’s anxieties. I mean, sure the world is terrible, but we can always imagine new ways it could be worse, right? I honestly did not realize that I was going to be reading about a dystopia. The very basic description had an air of a satire, sexually oppressing the men to highlight the avalanche of anti-woman dystopian stories in our culture. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male instead provides a narratively balanced but horrific look into a banal and homogenous society that feels like the next logical step in the nationalistic population restrictions seen today in modern China.

In An Excess Male, the one-child policy is still in place and the Chinese government has expanded upon it by allowing women more than one husband due to the disproportionate number of men in their society. Each man can have one child with his wife, and the blended families act as a single unit. The story begins with Wei-Guo, a forty-year-old fitness instructor, as he attempts to become the third husband in an already troubled family. The initial husbands to twenty-two-year-old May-Ling are brothers, a sixty-year-old businessman and a software engineer in his fifties. The story is told through the perspective of all four characters as they weigh the pros and cons of letting Wei Guo enter their lives. The family grows closer and secrets are revealed as the oppressive weight of national duty grows heavier on everyone’s shoulders.

Plot and pace-wise, the book feels closely-woven with short focused chapters that exude empathy, while also subtly filling empty space with inescapable dread. The narrative takes place over a few weeks, setting up the story as a snapshot of these character’s lives where the stakes feel incredibly universal, but ultimately very personal. King chooses to place the story in a time where the rules have already been established, enabling her to focus on how lives unravel as individuals attempt to mold themselves to meet the stringent needs of a system. Personal feelings, habits, and ways of life that we take for granted are examined through a system that ultimately finds the open expression of diversity to be inherently hostile. King also manages to highlight how the ruling regime benefits a very small subset of people, using small personal connections between the characters and others in different strata of the society. King uses numerous lenses including lifestyles, sexual orientations, and even cultural views of developmental disorders to demonstrate that regardless of gender, nobody benefits from such a societal structure.

King is not only able to control the plot with an even hand but successfully molds it to highlight the story’s antagonist. As the narrative progresses, the characters’ personal dynamics change, shifting between excitement and anxiety as they process welcoming a new person to their family. While these emotions are normal, they are exacerbated by ever-present pressure from the story’s Chinese government and society. What you or I would consider to be normal interactions are given new weight and urgency under the regime that King has created. The trifecta of husbands are willing to submit to whatever demands are made of them in order to look normal and fit in, while May-Ling is cornered by her lack of choice and will, her feelings negated in the service of society. It is a brutal expectation, reinforced systematically and repeatedly through their interactions with each other and everyone else they encounter. King shines by coating almost every moment with this creeping oppression, never fully overwhelming the reader until she needs to.

King’s writing of her characters complements this tremendously. Instead of focusing on changing her writing between the point of view switches, King chooses to centralize her protagonists differing emotions. King highlights how little anxieties pile up on each of the separate characters, immediately making them relatable. The hardest part as the reader is knowing how all the characters feel as you watch the proverbial emotional pot boil over repeatedly. I found myself hoping that the characters would open up and talk about their feelings with one another, thus sharing just how awful their experience is. When they finally have conversations about their feelings, hopes, and fears, it was a hollow catharsis. It did not matter. The characters could not solve their problems by working together because they were not each other’s problems. Rather, the society they are forced to inhabit is the problem, as it stokes the flames of existing insecurities, fears, and anxieties. While May-Ling and her husbands understand this, they also know they cannot change the system but also cannot change themselves to meet the strict standards. They are left to take it out on each other.

When I first read this story, I was sucked into these people’s lives, wondering how they were going to escape, or if there was even a chance for escape. Things that felt quirky and weird in the beginning became darker and more sinister as the book went on. There was one moment where the illusion was broken and the emotional waltz was interrupted as a pure naked force was used by the Chinese government. It seemed unnecessary to incorporate blatant state-sponsored violence to advance the plot, considering how well-paced everything else felt. After a few days of thinking on it, however, I realized it had to be there. I got so caught up in the machinations of the system, so enamored with King’s future China, and so mixed up in the emotions of these fictional characters that I had forgotten about the real, tangible violence already being inflicted. The brutal display of physical power was there to remind the audience that people’s lives were actually being ruined. Sure, it is a story- a good one, with excellent characters- but it is also a warning. Even though you might find a way to scrape by and conform in the small ways that take the eyes off you, others cannot. In such a world, those that cannot comply must be removed in order to ensure that the whole is perceived as homogenous.

An Excess Male is the right kind of dystopia. It does not overwhelm initially by introducing an interesting premise and slowly ramping up the tension. By choosing to focus on such a small time period in May-Ling and Wei-Guo’s lives, King allows the reader to expand the tension across other aspects of daily life outside the book’s focus. These small interactions add up through the book, painting an elaborate picture of emotional friction that has no true resolution. While I have become more and more a proponent of trying to envision a future that is worth fighting for through stories, books like An Excess Male can also play a role in the uncertain times we live in. Just as I was distracted by the intricacies of this menacing dystopia, I realized that I and others must avoid lulling ourselves to sleep with “it can always be worse” stories of totalitarianism. Because it can always be worse, but people are also hurting right now.

Rating: An Excess Male – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Road – Worth the Trek

71ij1hc2a3lTo a reader like me, who voraciously consumes spoon-fed, tried-and-true Sci-Fi tropes without scoffing, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road teeters on the edge of greatness for a majority of the fittingly winding narrative. It withholds details that, to any other book, would be crucial. It chooses moments of solemn tranquility over epic conflict. It dives deep into the psychology of a father and son walking across a gutted landscape instead of pitting them against hordes of zombies or quasi-undead humans. As I read the novel, I’d lean into this gentle back-and-forth between greatness and insignificance. By the end, I landed gingerly on the side of quality, pushed along by gusts of heart-wrenching story beats and lyrical but grounded poetic prose. And the more I ponder it, the more I feel that The Road is a fantastic book, though it will inevitably polarize readers.

McCarthy’s “masterpiece,” as the back cover dubs it, follows a boy and his father as they traverse a burnt and barren America in the wake of a devastating apocalypse. Save for a few hints and memories, no concrete explanation of the apocalyptic event emerges. Instead, McCarthy treats readers to a harrowing tale of two people trying to survive. The boy and his father are never named. In fact, only one character in the entire book gives a name, and even then it isn’t clear whether he is telling the truth. To divulge any more plot details would lead us dangerously near spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at this: the boy and father venture through this destroyed world in an attempt to find safety or refuge, and they must make snap decisions that could lead to a better life or a painful death.

Despite their namelessness, our two protagonists are remarkably defined. The boy is curious about the world and eager to help others thrive whenever he is given a chance. The father’s memories of the old world jade him to the new one, and he’s driven only by his desire to keep the boy alive. McCarthy varies his descriptions of their journey and their world so skillfully that the reader sees everything through the boy’s eyes and his father’s in near simultaneity.

Some descriptions of the world and depictions of the conversations between the protagonists are so fittingly drab that readers could be quick to denounce McCarthy’s writing as dull or uninspired. Instead of casting it off as such, I asked myself: In a post-apocalyptic setting, how much brilliance can be allowed to emerge? When a ravaged landscape strips bare all of its inhabitants leaving only dust and the will to survive, is there room left for actual human emotion? How can the eyes of this man and his child, so tinted by destruction, see beauty in the world at every turn?

McCarthy’s prose walks these lines and tackles these questions with remarkable poise. At times, the dialogue ignites into radiant descriptions of the world before the catastrophe or vividly dark passages about the spoiled earth. In other sections, the story finds the lowest common conversational denominator, effortlessly and tangibly indicating the need for survival above all else. “Okay.” The boy says. “Okay.” The dad says. It may be less than they need, but it’s the most they can manage.

In my research about The Road, I noticed a majority of reviewers mention McCarthy’s choice to use only the occasional punctuation. Some wax romantic about his brilliant use of poetic license. Others remark that it’s unnecessarily obtuse. In my mind, they’re not mutually exclusive. Sure, only using periods with the occasional comma and never once using quotation marks can symbolize the starving nature of the characters at hand. But there are other ways to approach that goal. Personal preference will reign supreme here, deterring some while attracting others.

The entire story of The Road culminates into a gloriously tragic and satisfying end, flavored by slight hints of ambiguity. It’s poignant and true to the many pages and words that comprise the bulk of the novel. True to the title, the ending sees our characters at an intersection with a crucial decision to make. Given the skill with which McCarthy teaches the reader about his characters, I felt equipped to guess what might happen next. And while that may not be satisfying for all, it certainly was for me.

The Road is a genuinely astonishing tale marred only by the inevitability of personal stylistic preference. If you don’t mind occasionally dense prose or doing some of the world-building on your own without hand-holding, this touching journey deserves a slot on your to-read shelf.

Rating: The Road: 9.0/10
-Cole