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.
Our 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
Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.
Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.
Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.
The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.
And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.
Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.
From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.
Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.
Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots
Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.
This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.
The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.
Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.
Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
There is something alluring about military science fiction. It takes the massive volume of space and narrows it to a single point: conflict. Often, this specific genre ignores a lot of the more nuanced questions that sci-fi often proposes in favor of a single query: what would humanity do in order to survive? Normally, I miss this complexity and nuance, but every now and then I want an action-focused romp against an easily discernible bad guy that definitely needs a kick in the teeth. Luckily, the folks at Del Rey offered me the chance to fulfill this desire by letting me read John Birmingham’s recently released novel, The Cruel Stars. It’s a book that offers a clear black-and-white conflict with heavy action, but delivers little else.
The Cruel Stars takes place in the Volume, a series of undefined star systems colonized and inhabited by humanity. Two hundred years prior to the events in the book, a civil war was fought to decide the course of human development. To be honest, Birmingham gives the reader very little context about this war beyond “the Sturm lost.” The Sturm, a faction of people that felt they needed to purify the species of any genetic or cybernetic enhancements, were essentially thrown into the void after their defeat. Little is said about the conflict itself, and nothing is specified about the way they lost to one of the book’s protagonists. As the book opens, the Sturm are returning to fulfill their promise. The descendants of the Anti-Sturm (how I refer to them, not Birmingham’s words), the victors of the war, are ill-prepared to deal with their return. The spaceborn naval forces of the Anti-Sturm are crushed in an instant, allowing the Sturm to begin their campaign with confidence. Unfortunately for them, they do not wipe out all resistance, most notably failing to neutralize the man who defeated them two hundred years earlier.
The plot itself is straightforward, putting the reader in the passenger seat as the Volume-wide invasion is witnessed through five different perspectives – all of which take place within the same star system. Birmingham spends little time introducing the five POV characters, offering a chapter to each before the conflict begins. By eschewing worldbuilding and focusing on the characters and plot, Birmingham sets a brisk pace that propels the action forward. The narrative moves with a frenetic style that kept me entertained for the most part, but it leaves little to no real breathing room to really understand the conflict. I don’t mean to say “space Nazis should be given their due,” as much as I want to point out that the people fighting them are barely given a cause beyond “they’re gonna kill us”. It isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but it did not engage me with the fight for survival beyond “the Sturm can’t win”. It’s very black and white, which is what was promised, but the few slow moments left my brain to probe the empty spaces where worldbuilding should have filled in the gaps.
Which leads to the book’s info dump of an introduction that other reviewers warned about. Within the first chapter, I joined the ranks of readers who discovered that the book hits the reader with a lot of information up front before jumping into the “real” story. Normally, this doesn’t bother me, but The Cruel Stars made it more of a slog than usual. Birmingham introduces the story’s primary protagonist in a slurry of unfamiliar and decontextualized military ranking titles while also attempting to explain the character’s background and motivations. This narrative choice was confusing and failed to provide the “hook” that would otherwise have drawn me in. The other introduction chapters read similarly, with scant details on the world and societies that developed after the war, beyond the character’s small relation to them. I wasn’t initially bothered by this choice because it felt like Birmingham was leaving room for characterization to happen later as the protagonists watch their world burning. However, the reader is rarely given an idea of what kind of world the Sturm are destroying, let alone any reason the characters would fight for it. It feels like a missed opportunity to really dig into the setting and the factors that allowed for the rise of the Sturm in the first place.
There is also a very noticeable lack of scale to the story and the conflict. The reader is given very little indication of the size of The Volume. Vague descriptions offer an idea of factions that make up the Volume, but have no indication of their size, location, or political goals. We know that one controlling interest is a megacorporation where the C.E.O. is chosen by feudal birthright, while another powerful political entity employs a type of debt slavery, but that’s about it. Earth exists, but in what capacity, I could not tell you. That isn’t to say Birmingham is scant on details. In fact, he loves having minituae filter through the characters and the way they engage with their surroundings. The issue arises when these details focus so much on the character’s relation to the world that the world itself becomes muddy. It would be cool if that was used to highlight the Volume as a place that needs change, and that this war is just the thing to get it started. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the characters expressed a general disdain for the socio-political structure of their world, there is little interest in following through on that unhappiness to facilitate real change.
The world would have also felt a little more real if the characters themselves went beyond their initial personality. All of the protagonists follow a fairly standard action character archetype, which makes them easy to latch onto. They were likeable enough, but they don’t really grow beyond that introduction. The reader is told that the characters are flawed, but other than being generally obstinate, I’m not sure what their flaws were. They didn’t really exhibit them in any way that felt human or effective. The “flaws” did not add any real character tension between the rag-tag team, nor did it lead to any conflict within the story. On top of that, characters who exhibited traits considered “impure” by the Sturm did not seem to have any added stake in the fight either. Everyone had the same feelings about the Sturm, which was just, “man, I hate those guys.” Even a small window into the life of the Sturm did not open any real avenues for exploration.
While The Cruel Stars has its issues, I actually had some fun with it. There are so many small details scattered through the book that feel like breadcrumbs to a larger context. There is potential for a more cohesive world with a broader and more nuanced understanding of the conflict at hand. The action is fast and intense, making the fights feel loud and messy. There are a few weird and contrived decisions, but overall the story had a nice flow that reminds the reader that a war is happening. The technology used in the opening gambit by the Sturm is terrifying, visceral and unexpected. There is a beautiful nuance to the way the Volume refers to the bad guys as the Sturm, while the bad guys call themselves “The Human Republic.” The little pieces added some flair and kept stringing me along to the end just to see how it would play out.
There is something fascinating about a story that has the ability to entertain while also leaving so much room for dissection. I think where this book mostly falls apart for me is that while I loved all the small details, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It’s disconnected from its own world as much as it is from ours. It barely satiates the need to watch Nazis get their just desserts, while offering little in the way of counterargument to their ideals beyond “no way, José.” The Cruel Stars was fun and had some genuinely cool ideas, but that’s about all I think it has to offer.
Rating: The Cruel Stars 5.5/10
What 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
It 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