How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – A Bridge To Greatness

81llcanwmulNo no, not this time. I am not letting another book in The Thorne Chronicle series slip under my radar. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge (called Revenge going forwards) is the sequel to How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (Rory) by K. Eason. I somehow missed the first book when it came out last year and I refused to commit the same crime twice. You can find my review of Rory here, and you can find some bonus thoughts on it in our Best of Science Fantasy List here. It’s a wonderful story about female empowerment, everyone empowerment, creative problem solving, and how to use words and diplomacy to solve problems. The sequel lives up to the high bar that Rory set, with some minor change-ups that are worth talking about.

Revenge picks up a little while after the ending of Rory. One of my only complaints about the first book was how Eason handled the ending of the story. In essence, at the end of book one Eason waves her hands, lightly summarizes a number of big events that change the status quo of the universe, and announces that the remaining cast of characters from the book disappears into the void. It felt like a hard reset of all the progress the characters had made in Rory, and I am not a huge fan of major off-page events being quickly summarized in epilogues.

However, this reset did do a great job setting up the stakes for Revenge. Revenge’s narrative is split into two stories, each focusing on a different group of people. One follows Rupert (Rory’s old teacher) and Grytt (Rory’s old bodyguard), which I am calling team parental, as they receive a nebulous message that Rory is in danger and they should try to help her. Their story revolves around locating where Rory has gone, building an alliance to go help her, and trying to avoid igniting a war between different races that have a lot of friction. The second storyline follows Rory and the remaining side characters from book one. After too much time in the spotlight, they have decided to carve out a quiet life as salvagers – until they run into salvage that multiple galactic species are fighting over. So in one story, you have Rory and the crew fighting to stay alive while protecting their dangerous find. And in the other story, you have Rory’s parental figures marshaling the troops to come to rescue her.

It’s a really interesting story with a fun fusion of different science fiction and fantasy concepts that kept me engaged the entire time. The plot is generally satisfying, but the ending once again does the thing where it has a large number of major off-page events announced to you in a few pages. This is a bigger problem for me in Revenge than it was in Rory because it exacerbates the second book’s biggest issue – there isn’t enough there. I very much like Revenge, and the paragraphs following this one will talk all about the amazing things the book accomplishes. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I was cheated out of a full book. While the plot of book two was very engaging, there doesn’t feel like there was enough of it for a single book. I didn’t feel like the story had progressed enough to devote one of three books in a trilogy to this story. I found myself feeling starved of content and really wishing that Eason had explored almost everything in the book more. It was pretty disappointing. I get a distinct feeling that this is a classic “bridge book problem,” where the second novel in a trilogy spends too much time setting up the finale and loses some of its own identity.

Yet, all of these feelings are born from the fact that what is there in Revenge is so good. In Rory, Eason focused primarily on the titular character, and the themes revolved around female empowerment, solving situations that feel like they require violence with words, and exploring the idea of diplomacy more than all parties being unhappy with a compromise. These themes are all there in Revenge, but Eason shifts the focus primarily from Rory and her personal growth to the full cast. She elevates the supporting characters and builds a fleet of protagonists with Rory at the helm. This is a wonderful experience because much like Rory all five side characters that got elevated are amazing. In addition, Eason brings in a whole new set of side characters that fill the void left by the old. The result is the chance to read about a ton of meaningful character growth from six (Rory still grows herself) different personalities. It is a buffet of excellent character writing.

Thanks to the expansion of the character focus, we also get a much larger diversity of themes in Revenge. Rory is still dealing with the problems of being a woman in a man’s world, but she also has a whole slew of new problems that divide her focus. One person is coping with the idea of being loved as a person instead of as a possession. One person is coping with the complete loss of their identity and looking for new meaning. One person is coping with the pressures of duty vs friendship. And everyone is dealing with themes like the first contact, the value of lesser evils, and weighing personal loss against the greater good. On top of all of this, Eason does a fabulous job exploring the nature of friendship. There are a number of interesting relationships and dichotomies between different characters that I never see explored, and it was so refreshing to see a more diverse set of connections.

How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic book that checks all of my boxes for something I highly recommend. In my opinion, its only failing is how short it feels, but given the pressures of working in a plague riddled world, it is easy to forgive the book for its singular issue. This series is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, and I highly recommend you find the time to read it. Its heartfelt and emotional take on the bonds between people helped me feel more connected to those around me despite being locked inside to socially distance.

Rating: How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew

Earthseed – A Grim Prophecy

When I first started reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, it seemed like some sort of cruel practical joke by the friend who recommended it to me. “Set in an apocalyptic 2020s where society has largely collapsed due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed, these books tell the story of Lauren Olamina. She is a pastor’s daughter who forms a cult called Earthseed based around science to try and stem the tide of fascism from a crazy president of the United States, who got elected on the campaign slogan ‘make America great again’.” This book was written in the 1990s and it is so ridiculously on-point compared to what is happening in the world right now that it boggles the imagination. The duology comprises Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. While I would recommend both Parables on their eerie historical accuracy alone, there is a lot more here to like than Butler’s prophetic wisdom – to the point where I might consider these two books some of the best I have ever read.

parable-of-the-sower-talents-by-octavia-e.-butler-featured-image

As I mentioned, the Parable novels follow a single character – Lauren Olamina. We travel with her throughout the majority of her life that is broken up into essentially four sections over two books. The first is her time with her family in a gated community in a crumbling California. The second is her journey to form a cult based around science and bettering the world. The third is the trials she is put through as her cult begins to grow and attract notice. And the fourth and final section I won’t tell you about as I don’t want to spoil too much. Lauren’s character growth throughout all these stages is unusual. She doesn’t change a lot as a person from the start to the end of the book, but it is very interesting to watch events around her harden and clarify her existing character traits and draw them out more fully. Butler has a beautiful talent for writing believable and natural characters. Everyone you meet in both books feels like a real person – not a caricature that Butler made to sell you on the themes of the book. There is this impressive ecosystem in how the characters interact and coexist that pulls the reader in and makes them more present. This means that you need to strap in and get ready to be sad as a reader because these books are brutal.

Having only read these two books from Butler’s catalog of works, I am not an expert on her writing – which is a shame because her writing is amazing. But, given what I have read of her so far, I think it is safe to say that Butler was a master of atmosphere. She was amazing at creating unique and evocative landscapes that get the reader into the mind and place of her characters. The reader can feel the tension rising and understand the pure primal terror that the characters are experiencing on every page. What’s truly interesting and despair-inducing about Earthseed is how close to home the conflicts hit. These aren’t abstract problems or far-reaching hypotheticals that Butler writes about. We are dealing with these conflicts right now, taken to their next level of progression. The future looks bleak.

However, Butler didn’t just write about Lauren watching the end of civilization – she also proposed a solution in the form of Earthseed, a cult based on science. The Earthseed doctrine claims that humanity’s ultimate goal should be to spread among the stars, like a dandelion spraying its seeds into space. The concept is similar to terraforming themes in many sci-fi books, people who are preparing a world they will never see for future generations. It’s always an interesting idea to see the lives of people who have given up everything for descendants they will never know, and Butler is particularly good at capturing this experience. Earthseed is a really interesting concept both in and out of the book. Internally, the trails that Lauren goes through as she travels around proselytizing are fascinating. She is asking people who have been trained to be distrustful and selfish to be the opposite, and it is a powerful story. Externally, it’s cool to read a book where the “solution” to the problems is a literal cult. It is certainly a different take on how to improve the world and a ringing endorsement in the power of faith as long as it is placed in the right people. I don’t know if I agree with the faith part of Butler’s themes, but it is certainly written powerfully and compellingly.

Earthseed excels at showing the reader both the depravity and the wonder of the human spirit. These two books manage to pack in all the bad and the good that makes up people simultaneously and laser it into your brain with stunning clarity. The world feels present and real, on top of being a beautiful story with powerful messages, it is extremely relevant to the current state of the world. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are two of the best books I have read; I highly recommend you check them out.

Rating:
Parable of the Sower – 10/10
Parable of the Talents – 10/10
-Andrew

A Memory Called Empire – Foreshadowing Success

51dp2bmink2lThe word “Empire” is gaining a lot of traction these days. It shows up in the usual places such as fantasy novels and certain political circles, but I am finding myself hearing it more casually in conversation, tv shows, and YouTube videos. Now, I recognize that my particular tastes are not average, in that I often seek out media that provides some commentary on the state of the world. It could be that I just have my ear tuned to that frequency, but there is something alluring about the word empire. It is often employed to describe a large state in the past, typically in hushed tones of “we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.” It spoke to that retrospective context we often assign the word, but in a way that reinforces the conscious forgetting of how empires form. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, examines an individual’s relationship to their national identity through an intricately paced mystery story, all while seamlessly blending intricate worldbuilding and a compelling narrative.

The story follows Mahit Dzmare, who represents Lsel, the independent mining station where she was raised, as their newly-appointed ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her predecessor is dead, and no one will admit whether it was an accident or murder. Unfortunately for Mahit, the leadership of the empire is also unstable, with open questioning of who is to succeed the current ailing emperor. Mahit enters the capital lost, uninformed, and nearly alone as she tries to figure out why her predecessor is dead and what promises he may have made to those in power. There is not much time as the Teixcalaanli grow bolder in their need for expansion, and her station’s independence might be at risk. With time against her, what will Mahit sacrifice for her people’s sovereignty?

Martine writes with astounding depth. Her use of language contrasting the Teixcalaanli to Mahit’s home culture is inspired. I cannot recall a time I felt so purposefully lost in a culture. I felt like an alien, and I think that was the point. Martine made the Teixcalaanli feel so different from the main character and the audience, without necessarily pitting the reader against them. I feel this is a hard thing to do, especially because it is easy to hate on a “big bad empire” if you are sympathetic to the ambassador of a smaller nation. From the names of the empire’s citizens to their job titles, Martine has created names for almost everything in the Teixcalaanli world. On top of that, to be Teixcalaanli is to be civilized. Everyone who is not a citizen is considered a barbarian, regardless of the fact they are all space-faring civilizations. What makes the separation even more intriguing is the lack of disdain behind word barbarian. Never did it feel overtly malicious, just characters consistently pointing out the obvious that “you are not one of us, nor can you ever be,” reminding Mahit and the reader of their place within the grand scheme.

Martine makes the dynamic even more engrossing by meshing worldbuilding with the character’s narrative. The world is not just alien to the reader, as Mahit is also trying to grasp the reality of a culture she has only ever studied up to that point. It is a slow realization, but Martine paces it well. Mahit is lost upon her arrival to the capital, but confident in her abilities. In her mind, there was clearly a reason she was chosen to be entrusted with the ambassadorship, but as she spends more time with the empire, the less she feels she truly knows. Her liaison, Three Seagrass, is attentive, helpful, and her point of access to understanding the intricacies of Teixcalaanli political life, but she can only provide so much. This choice to have the reader discover the world as Mahit does engrossed me immediately in Mahit’s story. I felt I was relying on her to let me know how she thinks things work. When Mahit finds out she may have been wrong or used the language in a way that did not convey her meaning accurately, I did too. It made her fallible, but not necessarily unreliable.

The writing alone would have carried me through the book even if the story had been lackluster. Martine however, had other plans and wrote a tale of political intrigue that kept me on my toes. My brain was already firing on all cylinders adjusting to the language of the Teixcalaanli, so I felt I had to really work to stay on top of all the political intrigue and mysterious deaths. This was not a bad thing- it honestly added to the general anxiety of her situation. It was impossible to figure out who to trust, who might try to kill Mahit, or whether any of her plans would matter in the face of major political upheaval. It felt like Mahit was pulling a tightly but unevenly wound spring from a sink’s pipes. You just never knew when it would spring free and launch at you, or when it would require a little more effort to dislodge the next piece of the puzzle. The narrative never felt like it dragged, and I always wanted more. It was tiring only in that the reader is along for the ride when it comes to the enormous amount of work Mahit had to do.

There are a lot of great ideas that Martine plays around within this book, particularly examining the meaning of personal identity, empire, and civic duty. Martine never really gives an answer but does an excellent job of opening the discussion. Mahit’s characterization reaches above and beyond the task, Martine seems to have set out for her in terms of theming. Mahit perfectly encapsulates the “between two worlds” narrative often employed in fish out of water stories. I feel these stories entertain the idea that the character can transcend the bad parts of each and combine the strengths of two cultures to succeed. Instead, Mahit begins to lose track of where her loyalties lie. Clearly, she should do her best to serve her own people, but already she feels outcast from them for having studied the ways of Teixcalaanli. When she arrives, her studies keep her afloat, but she is viewed as an outcast there as well. In addition, both sides view Mahit alternately as a tool for an obstacle to their own ends, further separating her from any grander calling beyond “solve the problem directly in front of you.” It was incredibly alienating and made it hard to trust any of the other characters involved in the power struggle.

Martine added to this feeling by starting each chapter with a piece of poetry, a communique, or a snippet of history from within the Teixcalaanli and Lsel cultures she created. They served to highlight the differences in how these two peoples thought about themselves and the world they inhabited. They were never complete thoughts either and served the worldbuilding more often than the narrative. I did not care for them at first because they did not push the narrative, but when I started to pay more attention to them, the harder they were to ignore. It never felt like they built to a synthesis, instead always showing two very different worlds. It lent a sense of urgency and doubt to Mahit’s goals. How would the smaller Lsel station benefit from being integrated when they do not seem to fit? Who would they become based on how they were taken in by the Teixcalaanli? It is an ominous setup, and one I am keen to see play out in the sequel.

A Memory Called Empire is easily one of the strongest debuts I have read. The blending of worldbuilding into the narrative and characterization was refreshing, even though it required a lot of work on my part. The only bumps along the road I encountered were a few awkward dialogue scenes that broke the tonal immersion but never pulled me out. The ride to the end was thoughtful and intense, finishing with one of the most surprising and well-earned conclusions I have read in months. Everything converged together for a grand finale that left me with my mouth agape and made me immediately crave the sequel. If you are just looking for a tension-filled political space opera, this book covers that ground well. Martine, though, does so much more, so eloquently and in ways that cannot be ignored, forcing the reader to pay attention to the details. It is forceful, poetic, introspective and tragic. I can not recommend this book enough.

Rating: A Memory Called Empire – 9.5/10
-Alex