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
Readers, 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
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
If 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