Gunpowder Moon – Not A Bang, But A Pop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Gunpowder Moon – 6.0/10
-Alex

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The Goblin Emperor – A Short Reign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: The Goblin Emperor – 7.0/10
-Andrew

An Excess Male – More Than Necessary Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: An Excess Male – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Road – Worth the Trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: The Road: 9.0/10
-Cole

Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Blood of the Four – The Antagonist Protagonist

y450-293An interesting stand alone found its way into my lap this month, courtesy of the lovely people at Harper Voyager. The Blood of the Four, a joint work by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, tells a story of dark fantasy, people large and small, and a nefarious queen with a secret agenda. The book has a huge multitude of POVs that follow royalty, slaves, priests, and artists – each with a small piece of the story. The weird and interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t really a protagonist in the story – other than the antagonist. The division of narration falls 50% on the antagonist, Phela, and 50% on a number of other bit characters. Spending so much time with a woman that you desperately want another character to murder was a strange experience, but it certainly was memorable.

The book takes place in the kingdom of Quandis, a fantasy city state founded on the bones of four godlike sorcerers. Unfortunately, the magic of the four is no longer around – but the legacy of power and splendor that they established is still going strong. The city is led by a group of royals, pampered aristocrats who have their every whim indulged. Far below the royals and normal folk are the Bajuman. Forced into a slave like existence despite their huge numbers, the people of Quandis are taught at an early age to ignore the Bajuman no matter what. Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. However, Princess Phela’s desire for power and flagrant disregard for others is changing everything as she makes a bid for godlike power.

The characters of the book are its selling point. As I mentioned, the really unique thing about Blood of the Four is that its protagonist is sorta the antagonist. Phela manages to both be extremely dislikable and still captivating to read, which is a very rare combination. She does this through excellent exposition, with the authors revealing just enough of her plan and thoughts to keep you interested in what she will do next. Besides her, there is a litany of other bit pieces that you will come to know. For how little time we get with each, I was surprised how much I quickly got to care about the small characters. A mild spoiler is that a major theme of the book is that, while all the small bit pieces seem unrelated at first, you will quickly begin to realize that they have a lot more overlap than initially realized and that many of them know each other. The fusion of the many small POVs into a larger group POV is seamless and beautifully done.

As a mild warning, the book is extremely graphic in both sex and violence. My other contributors like to claim I am basically a puritan inquisitor when it comes to sex in novels, but I actually didn’t mind the over the top scenes in Blood of the Four as they felt like they fit the intense voice of the novel. I also really appreciate the choice to make Blood of the Four a standalone book, as Christopher and Tim use a number of character narrative tricks and surprises to keep the book exciting – but that wouldn’t work well in a longer series. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate the culture and world building.

I have never actually read a book before and disliked the culture, so this is a weird topic for me. I brought up briefly before that the Bajuman, a slave like race of people, live in the lowest rung of society in Quandis. They play a major role in the story and their cultural standing is a major part of the driving force that moves the plot along (i.e., they are treated terribly and several characters want to stand up to Phela to stop this). My main issue is that Blood of the Four claims that this is a world where the Bajuman are SO looked down on, that it is so ingrained to ignore these people, that many cannot even get their brain to recognize that Bajuman exist. There are multiple scenes where Bajuman are literally invisible because royals have been conditioned to ignore them so much. It is a weird over the top recurring plot point, and I found it pulled me out of the story immediately every time that it happened. This, plus the fact that the plot is not the most original I have read, dampened its otherwise really positive character and narrative qualities.

Blood of the Four is a unique read for both its strengths and its weaknesses. I recommend you check it out just to experience the weird prantagonist. The intense prose and strong characters of Christopher and Tim make me want to check out their additional work, but the offputting worldbuilding in Quandis makes me glad that this is just a stand alone. Overall though, I had a pretty good time with Blood of the Four and think you might too.

Rating: Blood of the Four – 6.5/10
-Andrew