Middlegame – I Didn’t Quite Go Cuckoo For It, But Still Great

71e9du8wynlI wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.

Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.

If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.

The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.

I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.

I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.

Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10
-Will

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This Is How You Lose The Time War – Long Title For A Short (Great) Book

71uzngwnyelI didn’t want to write this review. Strong start, right? I want to clarify that my reluctance to write critically about This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is not out of laziness or a lack of motivation. I loathe having to review writing I find profound in some way, through its message or its romance or a myriad of other sweet words to describe mostly indescribable experiences. I think mainly it’s a concern that I won’t do the piece justice. That my halting and insecure attempts to explain to others why it was that I was touched by a book won’t sufficiently get across the magic of the story. I’m so glad I didn’t have to review the Divine Cities series or The Night Circus for this specific reason. What else is there to say, really, when a text brings you to tears and rekindles a neglected but essential part of yourself? The fact that This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of these special stories was not super great for the part of me that is a reviewer. However, part of me that screams out for something bright and hot and dangerous to warm the essence of myself by, the part of me that fell in love with reading in the first place? That part of me needed this book.

To give you a brief rundown, there is a time war going on in the book This Is How You Lose the Time War. Yes, I was shocked as well. Our main characters, Red and Blue, are time traveling super agents from two separate futures. In one, a hyper-technological race of humans who have augmented themselves to be nearly wholly made up of machine have won and dictate the future. In the other, a hyper-advanced race of humans that has used biotech to augment themselves and their universe with what would be called “nature” if it weren’t used so unnaturally have won and dictate their future. The bulk of the story takes place as correspondence between these two agents at various points in the past and future as their paths overlap. What starts as a taunting letter to a respected foe eventually leads to a surprisingly touching and meaningful romance between the two. Sounds like a spoiler, right? Nope, literally laid out on the back of book blurb. That’s normally the kind of thing that would spoil my enjoyment of a story somewhat, but the fact that love is inevitable, that the future is inevitable is a huge part of why the story works as well as it does.

So my “boss” here at QTL, Andrew, who I have spoken of in reviews with both great love and great annoyance, has a large number of things that he loves in books (magic schools as an example), as well as things he tends to strongly dislike. One of these latter things is time travel. I understand and agree with him in most cases, as it’s generally done poorly, lazily, or merely competently which tends to gum up the workings of a book and mess with pacing enough to take the reader out of the flow of the story. I recently found a book I thought did it well in Middlegame, but after reading TIHYLTTW I have to compare stories involving time travel to a new standard. I love the way it’s handled in this book, and the ways in which we are exposed to the various eras that our characters play their futuristic-and-incredibly-dated-at-the-same-time- exactly game of phone tag in are beautifully described without lingering. I loved the idea of one of our agents, having lived as a north atlantic fisherman for the last ten years in an individual strand of time, seeing a pattern in the spots on a seal and interpreting that for the letter it was. I loved the future strand where an agent commits genocide by uploading a computer virus to the wrong place at the right time. I cannot think of an individual vignette in the story that wasn’t both useful and beautiful. This is a book with no fat on its bones and an exquisite skeleton.

I do want to take a moment to gush about the prose in this book. I thought, in the first chapter or two, that it was a little overwrought, a little too self-assured in its prettiness to the point that it almost came across as cocky. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to describe it, but that was the first impression I got. Something akin to “don’t you just think you’re so clever?” But that’s the thing, it really is that clever. Each word is important, each description is purposeful, and the way unimaginable worlds are described varied from beautiful to horrifying and back within sentences. For those readers who go outside, and have been to the Badlands in South Dakota, this book has the same foreboding and otherworldly beauty that the terrain in that national park does. I’ve never gotten that particular feeling from a story before. I felt like an alien while I was within its pages, eyes wide open and toiling to comprehend the vistas being laid out before me. Oh, and for those of you who know me from my cosmic horror reviews, the description of the Garden made me want an entire horror series taking place there, not being there for longer within the story is the most acutely painful thing about this book to me.

You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed our characters yet. I’m not going to as I worry I’ll spoil something, some of their development or a line from one of their letters might be that one important jenga piece to the whole tower. I can’t begin to pick apart what’s the really important stuff and what’s the stuff that’s just gorgeous and luxuriant. While you “meet” another one or two sentient creatures in the story, we really only have the two main characters, Red and Blue, and as such we are given a surprising amount of space to stretch out and learn about them even within a novella. Their growth was superb and believable, their tit-for-tat taunting and one-upsmanship was fun, and parts of their stories broke my heart despite the fact that I guessed the twist. I love them and truly, truly hope we get more of them in a series or a short or really anything in the future (whichever one it ends up as).

Well I loved it. That part is obvious if you’ve gotten this far. I could not imagine this story being made better by being longer or shorter than it was. Each individual vignette was poignant and beautiful. Each letter Red and Blue exchange buoyed my heart and broke it once more. I was blown away by each world visited, each timeline changed, and each trivial fact about their respective childhoods. What’s more, everything I just mentioned that I loved meant something. It was all important to the conclusion of the story and it was wrapped up in a way that literally had me audibly “wow”-ing on an airplane, earning me several suspicious looks from the man in the seat next to me. I will be reading this multiple more times in the future, and this may end up being one of my few “yearly rereads”. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: This Is How You Lose the Time War – 10/10
-Will

The Rise and Fall of DODO – Extinction Should Be Permanent

51DmqLz01PL._SX335_BO1204203200_I absolutely detest books that feel like work. I don’t mean books that make you work to understand and finish them, but books that remind you of what it is like to wake up in the morning to go to a job you find utterly dull and unsatisfying. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (DODO for short), by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, is one of those books. At a whopping 750 pages, it demands the reader’s time and rewards them with very little. As my previous reviews have shown, I can stick through a book – but folks, this one took a toll. It has a paper-thin plot, boring characters and a grating lack of tension. DODO fails as a satire of bureaucracy as it builds to a mediocre conclusion that feels like a lead into a more defined narrative.

DODO is the story of a government agency – D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations)- that uses magic to travel back in time and create an alternate reality similar to our own present-day world. The story follows historian and linguist Melisande Stokes who is recruited by Tristan, a handsome and mysterious government agent, to do translations of ancient documents detailing the use of magic. They discover that magic existed at one-point, but vanished sometime in 1850. When the pair discover that magic and quantum mechanics are intertwined, they set out to recruit a team of witches and quantum physicists. Quickly they discover they can travel back in time, but to change the present, they must go back several times and affect different universes so that the majority of realities accept the changes they have made. As the department grows, a shadowy but ill-defined government organization begins to take control, and internal tensions grow and D.O.D.O.’s as-yet unstated mission changes.

The story is mostly told through Melisande’s eyes in a series of journals from the past recounting D.O.D.O.’s activities. Melisande, as she is quick to point out, has been sent to the past just weeks before the event that stops the use of magic as most witches know it. While this is set up as the main conflict in the story, much of its narrative tension is quickly dissolved. The reader is consistently reminded of this problem, almost jokingly every several chapters. That way when it finally is remedied, the reader could say “gee that was certainly a close one”. Luckily, this monotonous pace is broken when the journals switch between other characters recounting events, each with a somewhat distinct voice. Over time, however, the various journals start to feel more superficial and thin. Each one has an opening style that is intended to divulge something about the character, such as a diary entry, or the beginning of a letter, but rarely is it deeper than a street puddle. On top of that, all the entries essentially recount how the writer watches other characters do things while rarely participating themselves. I often felt extremely removed from the story, as though I was watching a commentary track where the reviewer filmed themselves explaining the movie while watching the real film on mute.

Luckily, the reader is spared having to read the same event in detail whenever the past has to be revisited, but they still have to read about it. It is hard to put into words how tedious it felt reading about the same event several times. Each time the characters did their job just a little more cleanly, with a little more finesse than the last time. For the video game nerds out there, it felt a lot like watching someone else play Dark Souls. Frustrating watching another player slowly get better at fighting a particular boss until they beat it, but you got to share in zero of the accomplishment. Then you had to watch that process, again, and again and again. It was almost as if the book was made purposefully big and heavy to smash your skull literally and metaphorically. Luckily for you, I did not, but boy was I close.

The characters were equally uninspiring, feeling like cardboard cutouts of stock characters. Melisande is a shy bookish type who mostly stands in the corner, and besides her first trip back in time, rarely contributes. While most of the book is written from her point of view, she mostly recounts how everyone else was doing all the work. Tristan is the gallant and muscular, yet geeky, hero who has a cute butt that Melisande and the other women unfailingly and constantly mention in their own narratives. He is gentlemanly, learns how to fence and never fails to be charming. He knows how to get the job done and has no noticeable flaws. If he does not know something, he goes away to learn more about it and comes back with a software update. Erszebet, a sassy witch from the nineteenth century, could easily be the most interesting character but she is treated like a finicky mechanical device. She is the only plot adjacent character who has a legitimate stake and power in the book. She essentially slows down her aging process to meet Melisande in the present, after being warned by her in 1850 about the end of magic, in the hopes to bring it back. But ninety percent of the time she just stamps her feet till she gets threatened with “no more magic for you” and then sends people back in time. This could have easily led her to be an antagonist with a very good reason but gets put in the backseat halfway through the book.

Unfortunately, there are also many side characters, but they do not have personalities or attributes beyond their physical description. For instance, the coffee shop barista is described the same way every time she enters the scene to the point where I wanted to skip every paragraph in the café because I knew how they would be written. The characters failed to create any of the conflicts in the book, and much of the narrative tension happens off the page. The most present antagonism to the main characters is the agitation created by the increasing levels of bureaucracy within D.O.D.O. and is almost fully ignored to the point that it feels non-existent. None of the characters change or learn anything from their time at D.O.D.O. Their experience often felt like something that happened in their lives and continues to happen, but they get no excitement or fulfillment from it. The single character who presents any sort of threat only chooses to go turncoat at the end of the book, leaving me to wonder if there will be a sequel in which things actually happen.

The theme of the book felt like it was meant to be a satire of bureaucracy and the meaningless pursuits of those who control such a system. It was less a book about time travel and its potential problems, and more about how bureaucracy can take an exciting concept like time travel and turn it into a chore. It was clear that the authors had an idea of how they wanted to portray this, using emails from the HR department detailing proper acronyms, or hidden sound recordings, and the occasional dossier. The intention was to build out a system that would allow for a backward look at the organization, but it ended up feeling overwrought with many different styles. Each iteration feeling shallower and simpler in a way that hoped to piggyback off the reader’s feelings of those systems. It could have been a fascinating look at the minutiae of real life intersecting with magic while grinding down its characters. Instead, it is a monotonous chain of procedurally planning multiple trips to accomplish one uninspired goal. While these journeys would truthfully require heavy coordination and preparation, ultimately it fails as a satire because none of the characters care about the process or how it affects their plans, let alone whether the goal was achieved. No one wanted to improve anything, and they remain complacent enough to put up with all the red tape, while never even complaining about the struggles of their job. They accepted whatever happened and moved on to the next unimportant task. It felt like the authors built a delicate Rube-Goldberg machine, and then kicked it over halfway through its cycle, and then laughed at you for caring. It just made me fatigued.

In the end, DODO was flat out boring. Honestly, I think the events of the first one hundred and fifty pages feel analogous to the whole book, so if you decide to read it you can stop there. The whole book followed a cycle of building momentum and anticipation, only to reveal a weak and uninspiring result. It is possible that that was the authors’ goal, but even if it was, it did not accomplish anything. It did not have a bite that made me think “yes, this is how it feels!”. The characters were unaffected. Unlike me, they did not become angry, depressed, or annoyed, nor did they appear to feel cheated by having their efforts amount to such paltry results. There could have been a fun book here if the mechanics were played with. The ideas were genuinely intriguing, and if the characters had more blood and life to them, maybe the realism of magic and time travel could have been a good joke against them. Instead, I felt that the joke was on me and that makes me sad and tired. Luckily for you, I already put in all the work to let you know this book is a disappointment, so you can avoid that pain for yourself.

Rating: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – I would rather take a cheese grater to my eyes than read more of this/ 10.
-Alex

An Echo Of Things To Come – Time To Shine

32498052I have an interesting review for you today about a book (and series) that I am particularly attached to. Back in the blog’s first year I was testing out ideas for thought pieces to complement my reviews. One of the first ones I did was this piece on perception.  At the bottom of that piece I tell a story about how a free self-published book I got through Amazon Prime, A Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington, turned out to be one of the best books I read that year. I had initially dismissed the novel due to its cover and because I got it for free, but soon learned a lesson in the age old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Since then, Islington has gotten picked up by Orbit and his novel has been reprinted with one of my favorite covers ever. In addition, last week the much anticipated sequel, An Echo of Things to Come, finally hit the shelves and I am excited to say that this story is shaping up to be one of the best ‘farm boy with a destiny’ stories I have ever read.

Echo is the second book in the Licanius series, an epic fantasy centered around time travel and time magic. This was a bit of a red flag to me at first, as I have never been one who enjoys time travel or prophecy in my stories, but I was surprised to see Islington take these elements in a different direction than usual and I ended up really enjoying them. The plot of this series is astoundingly complicated and I am not going to pretend I can do it justice in this short review, but I will give the elevator pitch a shot. Essentially the Licanius series takes place in a magical world where a good god and an evil god went at it. The good one lost (and presumably died), but not before locking the bad one behind a giant magical barrier in the north of the world. Since then, humanity has tried to survive to the south with the traditional set-up of multiple countries that hate one another. In addition, the world has three distinct groups of magic users that have fallen in and out of favor over the age. The first and most common are the gifted, mages with the ability to alter the world around them – usually with some form of telekinesis. When our story begins in book one they are an oppressed and feared people due to their powers, but allowed to live with a brand that makes them unable to use their magic to harm others. Next we have the augers; these much rarer mages have various abilities to manipulate time and occasionally see into the future. The augurs, after ruling the world poorly in the wake of the evil god’s containment, have been hunted and killed wherever they are found due to their dangerous abilities. Finally we have the venerate, a small group of super augers who have ascended to deity like power and are essentially immortal. The books follow a group of individuals from a mix of these magical (and other non-magical) groups as they help the reader piece together the history of what happened in this world and how to stop the release of the evil god stuck behind the barrier.

I know that what I just said sounds fairly generic and vague, but the story isn’t and I have to be because part of the magic is just piecing together what is going on. Book one spends the majority of its time worldbuilding and introducing the cast. Islington did an incredible job investing me in his characters and showing me that his world was worth exploring. Book two however, is where the plot starts to really become clear. The Licanius series is all about time in many senses. While the magic of the world surrounds manipulating time’s flow, the themes that are explored by the cast also revolve around time. Some characters have lost their past and are working hard to discover who they are and what happened to them. Some characters are trapped in a terrible present that they want to escape, and are searching for anyway to rewrite the past or find a future with hope. And some characters have seen an echo of things to come and must prepare and plan to deal with what they know is inevitable. It is a beautifully crafted series with both a kick ass world on the surface and a lot of deeper themes hidden below. As a side note, I also want to give Islington a huge hug because he put a detailed book one synopsis, glossary, and index in Echo that made keeping things straight possible as the series can get really confusing.

While it might be unfair to both series, I can’t help but think that Licanius is shaping up to be a better version of The Wheel of Time. It has all the things that made that classic great; a diverse cast, a sweeping epic world, an unambiguous evil to fight against, and a protagonist rising from nothing to greatness. But it also shores up a lot of the issues I have with Wheel (such as its pacing issues); however, no book is perfect. One of the POV’s in the story is a man recovering his memories. His segments are often used to give you insight into the backstory and history of the world as the character and reader discover his past together. This can unfortunately result in some confusing sections as following conversations with people he used to know can be difficult. On the other hand, if you can put up with being a little in the dark you will eventually have enough puzzle pieces to understand who everyone is and what is happening – and the payoff is definitely worth it.

An Echo Of Things To Come is a wonderful book in a great series that I already want to reread. It manages to both be fun, emotional, and deep at the same time. The book is gigantic and holds my current record for the longest time to read this year – but I do not regret a moment of my time with it. If you like epic fantasy like The Wheel of Time, if you like time travel and oppressed magic users, or if you just like good books The Quill to Live recommends you pick up A Shadow of What Was Lost and An Echo Of Things To Come if you haven’t already.

Rating: An Echo Of Things – 9.0/10