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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swordheart – Pointedly Funny and Heartwarming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Swordheart – 10/10
-Andrew

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Eight Takes On A Good Time

51zwilr7mblI seem to be reading a lot of great novels by journalists recently, and if they keep turning out as well as this one did I have no plans to stop. I don’t know if I would strictly call The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton a fantasy book, but I will call it fun. I would describe it as more of a traditional mystery novel with a fantastical twist. You may be the judge as to what genre it belongs to when you finish reading this review, but regardless of how you categorize it, I am very sure you will have a good time if you have even a passing interest in murder mysteries.

So what is Evelyn Hardcastle? Well, in many ways it’s a traditional murder mystery – a number of rich family and friends, brimming with secrets, all gather at a large beautiful estate with ample space to avoid one another. A murder happens, and a detective must solve the crime within a certain period of time. But, like all good mysteries recently, there is a twist that spices up the formula and keeps things fresh. Our protagonist in Evelyn Hardcastle, who shall remain unnamed, must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle within eight days. To do this, each day the protagonist possesses a different person in the story and may spend their time however they want to find out what happened. But, at the end of eight days if they haven’t solved the murder, “bad things” will happen to them.

It’s best to go into Evelyn Hardcastle knowing as little as possible about the plot because discovering what is happening is half the fun. There are really two core mysteries to solve: who killed Hardcastle and what is going on with the supernatural body swapping. You will find yourself frantically trying to piece together what is happening from the various POVs. It’s really fun to see different scenes from new perspectives, for previous confusing events to suddenly make sense, and to try and keep track of what person is where in this confusing, yet meticulous, plotline. But, you also are looking for context clues and hints as to how and why the protagonists ended up in a situation where they are possessing different people like a ghost with no explanation as to why. Both mysteries held up extremely well and had all the great surprises and reveals of a good story, but what really sets the book apart from its brothers and sisters in the genre is the depth of its themes and ideas.

There is a lot of philosophical discussion at the heart of Evelyn Hardcastle, and it does a good job of elevating the story to be deeper than your traditional dime-store thriller. There is a close examination of morality, discussions on ethics, and the meaning of crime and punishment. This was the first mystery novel in a while that got me to ask bigger questions than “whodunnit?, and that earned the book lot of affection from me. Yet, there were some small issues that kept the book from being completely perfect. While I did enjoy how there was more to the book than simply solving a crime, I didn’t quite feel like everything was neatly tied up in the end. Some of the secondary plotlines felt like they could have been layered in slightly better. In addition, the characters felt more like actors reading from a script than actual believable people – though some of the reasoning of this is eventually explained by the plot. These issues certainly weren’t enough to dampen my joy while reading it, but I do think the delivery of the story could have been a bit smoother.

In the end, no matter how you categorize The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle it can definitely be labeled as recommended. The mysteries are captivating, the magic is fresh, and the content has a nice hefty weight that makes you feel like you are reading something smart and insightful. All in all, this book is a very enjoyable read and I think it would appeal to almost any reader I know.

Rating: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Piranesi – Gets My Goat

81h7env6hlPiranesi is the most recent novel by Susanna Clarke, best known for her truly massive book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Normally I wouldn’t put this much emphasis on an author’s past work, but Norrell might be the largest book I have ever read both in page count and in density. While Norrell is a titanic piece of literature that is more reminiscent of a historical reference novel than a fantasy story, Piranesi is a wonderfully quick read clocking in at less than 300 pages. And yet, despite their large difference in size and composition, there are noticeable similarities between the two books. Such as the fact that both novels are profound and beautifully introspective works of fiction.

Piranesi is a quiet book. It tells the story of… well… a man with no name, no identity really. This man wanders an endless labyrinth with thousands of halls, each filled with endless statues depicting all manner of people. There is one other person in the labyrinth, a man looking for the ultimate truth, and he calls our protagonist Piranesi as an inside joke that he keeps to himself. Thus, while Piranesi is not our protagonist’s name, it is how I will refer to them for the rest of the review.

The labyrinth is a strange and tranquil place. It is like a giant island sitting in the middle of the ocean. Each day certain parts of the maze are flooded by the tides – but Piranesi is an expert on the ways of the labyrinth and is always sure to move around before he drowns. Piranesi spends his days exploring new parts of the maze, which he calls “the house,” and marvels at its beauty. As the story progresses you begin to find out that the house has strange and magical powers. It slowly strips selective memories of those who live there and drives them insane, yet Piranesi has somehow been here quite a long time, seemingly untouched by this effect. As you make your way into the book you begin to learn Piranesi’s past and what is really happening in the house.

Although the prose and narrative style of Piranesi is distinctly different from that of Norrell, it is quite easy to tell they were written by the same author. Piranesi’s prose consists of short, poignant, and vivid passages that talk about the character’s observations and thoughts about the world around him. It has the feel of a historian chronicling the greatest discovery of their lifetime. There is this overwhelming reverence that just leaks out of the pages as Piranesi talks about the house, and the story slowly shows you why this reverence is correct and pulls you into the maze’s corridors. It is a winding and surreal book that leaves you feeling strange and unable to sleep thanks to the questions it begs you to ask..

I don’t want to tell you too much more about Piranesi because it is best to go in as blind as possible. This book is less of a story and more of an experience – one that I recommend everyone pick up and try for themselves. The words of this tale flow like poetry and take you through a magical maze filled with wonder, introducing you to one of the purest individuals you will ever read about. Piranesi is certainly one of the most unique books that I have read this year, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Rating: Piranesi – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Phoenix Extravagant – A Common Fowl

phoenix-extravagant-9781781087947_hrYoon Ha Lee is a science fiction writer with a penchant for the strange and the imaginative. His Machineries of Empire series came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed the pants off of myself and many other reviews. His work has a tendency to be surreal and confusing but with clever guardrails built in to get the reader invested long enough to understand what is going on. Since finishing his first trilogy, he has been a part of a number of different projects, one of which is a brand new stand-alone novel called Phoenix Extravagant. But while the premise of the story initially felt extremely strong, the book’s lack of substance eventually turned me off.

Phoenix Extravagant tells the story of Gyen Jebi, a young person in Razanei who is studying to become a painter. Normally this would be an admirable pursuit on its own, but in Razanei painting is a form of magic. Seals, enchantments, and simulacrums can all be created with the stroke of a brush. Jebi hopes to score well on the national placement exam and test into a strong government position to set them and their family up for life. This causes friction with their family as they are a part of a native ethnicity that has been oppressed and subjugated by the Razanei. However, as long as Jebi can earn a living and survive, they are happy to do whatever the Razanei asks of them. That is until Jebi catches the eye of an experimental division of the government. The group kidnaps their family as hostages and forces Jebi to work on a weapon of mass destruction (a fully animated dragon). Jebi must wrestle with their loyalties, discover what is important to them, and find a way to escape this predicament.

This premise has legs. I really liked the idea of exploring painting as a medium for magic. The first part of the book, which focuses on Jebi studying for and taking the placement exam, is great. The stakes are clear, the objective is relatable, and the painting is fascinating. Where the book starts to fall apart is after Jebi is kidnapped to work on the weapon. I just feel like nothing really happens. There is an interesting subplot between a growing relationship between Jebi and a soldier assigned to monitor them – but the majority of the book felt slow and directionless. The dragon simulacrum is exciting at first, but the plot line doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere. Phoenix Extravagant feels like it is trying to do too many things at the same time and only manages to half-ass most of them.

Jebi is also just a boring character. They have no real personality or identity that I could find, and their actions are mostly dictated by dealing with what is directly in front of them. Their importance to the story feels unearned, and the book’s tendency to continually reveal that Jebi is even more special than originally thought feels cliché and boring. The supporting cast isn’t much better. We spend a ton of time trapped in small rooms with individuals who are uninteresting, so I never really got a good feel for the culture – let alone the differences between the groups at odds. The people and places were generally just unengaging.

I was pretty disappointed with Phoenix Extravagant and have a hard time finding many redeemable features other than its clever premise. After reading a number of Lee’s other works I have the distinct feeling that he could do better than this. If you are desperate for a fantasy book with a mechanical dragon and a focus on art, you might enjoy this – but I honestly think there are better pieces out there for even this niche combination. I, unfortunately, do not recommend Phoenix Extravagant.

Rating: Phoenix Extravagant – 4.0/10
-Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automatic Reload – Bad Romance

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Automatic Reload – 6.5/10
-Andrew

The Priory Of The Orange Tree – A QTL Discussion

Today we have another audio review from Andrew and Alex. This time we are digging into the critically acclaimed The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. It is a giant standalone book that serves as a great introduction to epic fantasy. The review is without spoilers, so jump on in and find out if this gigantic book about dragons and fruit is for you. As always, you may want to turn down your volume as we have trouble controlling the volume of our voice at the start. We’re working on it.

The Starless Sea – Beauty And Dreams Personified In A Body Of Water

81h2bkqvsgylOur second-place book in The Quill To Live best-of-2019 list was The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. However, given that the book was released about a week before we had to make the list, we unfortunately did not have a chance to review it yet. Now, we are remedying that and are here to give you a sales pitch for a positively incredible book. Given that we rated The Starless Sea as the second-best book that came out in 2019, you can probably guess that this is going to be a laudatory review. But, given the astounding success and popularity of Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, I doubt I will be the first to tell you that her second book is another masterpiece that will emotionally move and astound you.

The Starless Sea was a weirdly personal book for me and I don’t really know where to start with the plot. At the highest level, the story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a son of a fortune-teller who moves through life without a lot of direction. He eventually stumbles upon a secret entrance to a strange magical underground library that is oceanic in size. However, the library is clearly not what it once was and is, in fact, showing signs of imminent destruction. Can Zachary puzzle out the mysteries of what happened to this titanic magical place and do something to save it?

The Starless Sea is a quiet, somber, and evocative love letter to storytelling. It feels like The Night Circus and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, had a love child that was cherished and well raised. It is a slow and meandering book that explores captivating mysteries and masterfully controls the release of information to keep you fully invested. To me, its most powerful feature is its ability to effortlessly transport you into the role of the protagonist. The Starless Sea is both a story about stepping into books and appreciating the power of storytelling and it is a catalyst to pull the reader entirely into its own pages and tales. In addition, the characters are phenomenal. Full disclosure, the main character and yours truly share a frankly alarming number of similarities, so it was a lot harder to shake biases and give the book a neutral assessment than usual. Yet, I think almost anyone who picks up this book would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the small cast. The single thing I didn’t love about the book was how few characters there were. Morgenstern seems to prefer to focus on a very small group of individuals to tell her stories. While this worked extremely well in The Night Circus, where the romantic focus benefited from its smaller focused cast; The Starless Sea was about an entire magical world and the emptiness sometimes broke my immersion. Then again, one of the themes of the book is feeling isolated and alone in the world at large, so even the one nitpick I had still contributed to the majesty of this novel. The tight cast does allow for a lot of powerful character development that would be harder to accomplish with a larger group of people. Given my similarities to the protagonist, I found his introspections particularly insightful and felt like I learned things about myself over the course of the book.

Despite all the praise I have heaped on The Starless Sea, I have saved its most powerful asset for last: the prose. For better or worse, Erin Morgenstern is a sample size of one when it comes to her writing style. She has a unique storytelling style that is whimsical, aesthetically gorgeous, and polished at the same time. There are a number of “parts” in The Starless Sea that break up the story. Each part has two different POVs: one from Zachary that progresses the overall story forward, and one that consists of chapters from a book from the Starless Sea. Each book in the various parts represents a different character in the narrative and helps to subtly expand on their character. The books all have unique styles of storytelling and do a lot to make the primary cast feel very deep. The books also do an incredible job of getting the reader emotionally invested in the story and help to create huge moments of payoff.

On top of the prose feeling like borderline poetry, the world that Morgenstern builds is a delight to explore. The Sea is a truly wondrous and imaginative place, and you would have to have a heart of stone to not feel its call. The sea spills off the pages as Morgenstern captures so many small details like grains of sand at the ocean’s edge. From the way the stories are kept, to the way the entrances are guarded, to the people who travel its waves, the Starless Sea feels like a real place the reader could go out and find. Morgenstern has created a living and breathing new world, and I want very badly to go there.

The Starless Sea is a masterpiece of prose, character growth, and worldbuilding. It is a treasure that is unique from other books I have read, and a monument to the skill and imagination of Erin Morgenstern. If you have ever felt that stories are more than words on a page, if you have ever wanted to change the choices you have made in life, or if you have ever wanted to be part of something bigger – The Starless Sea will tackle your heart in an explosive hug. I have only captured a fraction of its magic and ideas in this review, but you will have to discover many of its secrets by yourself.

Rating: The Starless Sea – 10/10
-Andrew