Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


💔💔💔

Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

 

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Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

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Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

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I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: Bloody Rose (The Band 2) – Zigazig Ah-ing its Way to Glory

Bloody Rose

Title: Bloody Rose (The Band 2)
Author: Nicholas Eames
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: August 28th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s): Epic Fantasy, Humour
Page Count: 560 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

 

Before we dive in, let me just mention that Chapter One of Bloody Rose sees our protagonist reverse-mansplaining to an idiot and then declaring she likes girls (to the readers, anyway). If that’s not one of the best openings of 2018, I don’t know what is.

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In a land where mercenary groups are like rock stars of our world–with gigs, tours, groupies, and a penchant for drugs and sex–Tam Hashford is just an ordinary teenage barmaid. But when Fable, a mega-famous group led by a woman they call the “Bloody Rose”, comes into town, Tam decides she wants to join them as a bard instead of spending the rest of her life working in a tavern under her helicoptering father. What follows is a bloody, thrilling quest for glory (or death).

Kings of the Wyld was a rollicking debut featuring a band of aging mercenaries. Eames could have kept the same formula–a group of male adventurers, a “damsel” in need of saving–and it would have been just as fun and wildly successful. But instead he does something that genuinely surprised me: he changes things up.

What he did in the first book, he improves on in nearly every way–introduce more diversity, add more character depth, explore more of the world and its history. In Kings of the Wyld, we had a gay side character with a dead husband; in Bloody Rose we get a lesbian main character with a F/F plotline. In Kings of the Wyld, we see middle-aged characters trying to reclaim old glory; in Bloody Rose we explore how the expectations we place on ourselves can become a crippling weight. The ending of Kings of the Wyld was exhilarating and sweet. The ending for Bloody Rose hits you like a goddamn freight train.

Tam is very much an observer protagonist (think Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird). She’s the narrator of the story and her POV is the only one we get, but she’s not the main character. She’s the chronicler. The witness. The Bard. Not the main attraction but the one who, more often than not, stays in the background. Does that mean she’s any less of a character than Rose or the rest of Fable? Hell, no. The trouble with observer protagonists is that they can easily end up being bland and underdeveloped. That is not at all the case with Tam. She’s capable, talented, and her youthful eagerness and naivete is a refreshing contrast to Rose’s fiery personality.

A bard’s duty was to watch, to witness. For Tam to turn an eye when glory faded, when heroes were forced to endure heartbreak and hardship no strength of arms could overcome, was to betray that duty.

Rose is, of course, the star of the show. Through Tam’s eyes, we see her shift from a legendary warrior to a woman who’s so desperate to surpass the glory of her father, she’s willing to sacrifice her own identity for it. Her struggles are at once fascinating and heartbreaking.

Eames is blessed with a prose that is addictive and so, so much fun. For those of you who avoid epic fantasy because sometimes the characters talk like, “It behooves me to mention that the King bespoke of my lord with indubitable respect”–well, these books are for you, because anachronistic, colloquial style of writing is Nicholas Eames’ game.

“What about Rose and Freecloud?” Tam asked.
“Don’t expect we’ll see much of them today,” said the shaman with an exaggerated wink.
“Okay.”
“If you know what I mean,” he added, winking again.
“I do,” Tam assured him.
“Because they’re having–“
“Bye,” she said.
“–sex, Brune finished, but she was already headed for the stairs.

But I think his greatest talent, prose-wise, is his ability to transition from ridiculous, laugh-out-loud humour to serious poignancy with fluid ease.

My only main criticism is that the plot follows a too-similar pattern to Book 1–lots of moving from point A to B and then defending a city from a horde of monsters. But if you love lengthy travel sequences in your fantasy (I usually don’t), you’ll probably love this. I also wish we got a little more from the villain than the typical “I want revenge” motive.

All in all, The Band series continues to be a love letter to gamers, fantasy connoisseurs, and anyone who enjoys a good story filled with friendship, action, and heart. If Eames keeps moving at this trajectory, I have no doubt his work will leave an indelible mark on the pages of SFF history.

(Also, I’m inordinately proud of myself for coming up with that title)

Review: In the Present Tense – Great Scott, You’re a Time Traveller, Miles!

In the Present Tense

Title: In the Present Tense
Author: Carrie Pack
Publisher: Interlude Press
Release Date: May 19th, 2016
Genre(s) and Subject(s): Sci-Fi, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 6.5/10

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine waking up one morning to find yourself 8 years in the future and in bed, not with your teenage boyfriend, but your twenty-something wife. Imagine your wife then explaining that you possess the ability to time travel and that you and your boyfriend–the love of your life–broke up soon after high school. Oh, and you’re also bisexual.

…Surprise, honey!

Miles Lawson has a condition that allows him to time travel, albeit in an erratic, uncontrollable fashion. Present day Miles is determined to find a permanent cure for his “ailment” and get back to living his current life, but teenage Miles is equally determined to put a wrench into his plans and reconnect with his ex-boyfriend (who is now engaged to someone else).

The characters reference Back to the Future quite a bit, but the story bears far more resemblance to “The Constant” episode of LOST, as Miles’ mind flits back and forth across time while his body remains in place.  So we get POVs from 25 year-old Miles, teenage Miles inhabiting the body of 25 year-old Miles, and future Miles in the body of present Miles. While it’s a little confusing in the beginning, it won’t take long for you get settled and once you do, it’s quite the entertaining ride. There’s a reason why “The Constant” is one of my favourite episodes in LOST and this book’s take on time travel (“temporal shifts” as it calls it) scratched an itch I’ve had since I last watched the show.

I also want to give props to the author for the sheer amount of diversity found among the characters. We get everything from a bisexual biracial protagonist, a Latina wife, a gay Asian man, to a lesbian teenager with schizophrenia. It’s not every day that I come across a queer sci-fi story with a Korean romantic interest and I may hissed “YES!” when I found out (to the consternation of the other commuters on my train).

The biggest problem I had was with the characters. These characters are diagnosed with what I call the “puppet syndrome”– being made to do and say things solely for the purpose of moving the plot in one specific direction, even if it means being contorted into strange and nonsensical shapes.

Okay, but isn’t that what every story does? All characters are essentially puppets manipulated by the writer. Well yes, but the readers shouldn’t be thinking that. For the duration of the story, we should be sold on the idea that this puppet is indeed a real boy, as opposed to constantly thinking, “These characters are like Barbie dolls awkwardly knocking against each other.”

And there’s some serious Barbie knockage going on in this story:

(Some spoilers ahead. And these are not actual quotes from the book.)

Exhibit A:

Miles: Hey, mom and dad, did anything weird ever happen to me as a kid?

Parents: Well, there was that time you stayed at your uncle’s place and his time travel research colleagues took you into their lab while you were sleeping and did all sorts of experiments on you.”

Miles: …Excuse me?

Exhibit B:

Ana (Miles’s wife): I’m so devastated by the fact that my husband is in a mental facility, even though I encouraged him to sign himself in.

(less than a week later)

Ana: Oh, Miles’s boss, kiss my sorrows away!

Exhibit C:

Adam: Miles, I have a fiancé and you have a wife. We should not be kissing!

(literally 3 pages later)

Adam: I know I haven’t seen you in 8 years but I love you more than I would ever love my fiancé. We’re like, destined, you and I.

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The second one is what gets me that most. Miles and Ana supposedly have had a happy marriage thus far, so I feel like the only reason for the latter to be cheating is to justify Miles and Adam getting back together.

So in the end, I never really got a good sense of any of these characters–not so much because they’re shallow, but because they swing back and forth from one action to another completely contradictory one with the speed of a weather vane in the middle of a hurricane.

All in all, I loved the time travel aspect and the themes presented, but the characters had me groaning in frustration to throwing my hands up crying, “Why are you doing this?”

Review: Annex (The Violet Wars 1) – Kids VS Aliens

Annex

Author: Rich Larson
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s) and Themes: Sci-Fi, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 368 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

 
Annex bucks my recent trend of reading books that have strong beginnings and lackluster endings, because I struggled hard with the beginning of this one. The book presents a city that’s been overrun by aliens. The adults have been captured and turned into non-violent, still-breathing zombies, and the children are being rounded up and experimented on. In the midst of this chaos, we follow the lives of a surviving group of children known as the “Lost Boys” who are led by a teen named Wyatt.

I came into the book expecting a sprawling alien invasion epic set on Earth a la Independence Day, except starring children. The reality, however, was rather different. Let’s count the ways, shall we?

  1. The story gives you zero introduction to the invasion situation.

From the beginning, I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story that was already ongoing and my brain was a whirlwind of questions. Who are these aliens? What have they done with the adults? Is the whole world completely destroyed? Why are they experimenting on children? The book just gives you a coy wink and a smile in lieu of answers, and this drove me crazy.

2. The first half of the book is more like a Peter Pan/Lord of the Flies mashup against an alien invasion backdrop. 

I don’t know why it took me nearly half the book to figure this out considering the kids literally call themselves the “Lost Boys.” There’s a lot of focus on the dynamics within this little makeshift family, especially between Wyatt and the two main characters, and much of the beginning is just a recounting of their daily lives as they dodge and fight aliens. The scope is very narrow– because these children know very little about the aliens, we know very little about the aliens.

Once I’d finally made peace with these two points, things started to get a lot more enjoyable. And there is a lot to enjoy in this story. Lawson does action scenes very well-dynamic and exciting–and his descriptions of alien-related creations are fiendishly creepy and imaginative. I especially loved the “othermothers”–creatures made by the aliens to resemble the kids’ mothers, if their mothers had metal insect legs. They gave me heavy Bioshock vibes–kind of like a mix of splicers and Big Sisters.

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The characters are a colourful bunch. We have Bo, an eleven-year old boy who recently escaped from the warehouse where the aliens are performing experiments on kids. Unfortunately, he was my least favourite of the cast as I found him lacking in personality and far, far too old for his age. Then there’s Violet, a fifteen year-old trans girl who’s grappling with the fact that she’s free to be whoever she wants for the first time in her life but still mourning the loss of her parents. Her desire for acceptance and love is is something you can’t not empathize with, and her sassy attitude quickly won me over. There’s also Wyatt, leader of the Lost Boys and a Machiavellian rendition of Peter Pan. He’s charming, manipulative, despicable, campy–sometimes all at once–and wholly entertaining. Larson’s eye for snappy dialogue really brings him to life.

Then around the halfway mark, we meet Gloom the saboteur alien, who is hands-down the best character in the book and one of the more interesting side characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this year. Picture slender man in a bowler hat with a facial expression that just looks off. Picture slender man in a bowler hat with the ability to shapeshift. Picture a shape-shifting slender man in a bowler hat with an unintentionally dry sense of humour and an overall endearing personality. That’s Gloom in a nutshell. Is he as awesome as he sounds? You bet. He’s a precious blend of creepy and lovable and he steals pretty much every scene that he’s in.

All in all, Annex turned out to be a fun, fast-paced story that’s very contained and at times claustrophobic. It just took me some time to get settled into it.

~

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: The Book of M – Beauty at the End of the World

The Book of M

Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy
Page Count: 496 (hardcover)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Post-apocalyptic books and I have somewhat grown apart in the last few years. These days, if I want my daily dose of doom and gloom, I just pop open Twitter; I don’t exactly find myself reaching for it in fiction. And in most of these stories, you’re presented with a dichotomy: you get a setting that’s bleak and grim and fraught with danger; and you get small glimpses of hope and beauty in the actions of the characters who are trying to survive it. The latter–however small or brief it may be–is what keeps the story from getting too unbearable. But these days, for me, those tiny rays of hope just aren’t enough to dispel the misery of the setting.

Peng Shepherd, however, does something with the genre I haven’t seen before, and that’s inject magic and wonder into a post-apocalyptic world.

The Book of M presents a near future where people’s shadows have begun to disappear. And with the loss of their shadows, they begin to forget. And as they forget, the world changes. Literally. You’ve forgotten that your house is supposed to have a front door? Well, now it’s gone. You’ve forgotten that animals aren‘t supposed to be able to converse with humans? Oh look, a talking bird. It’s almost like something out of a children’s fairytale–“And one day, some of the shadows decided they longer wished to be attached to the humans. And so they tugged and tugged and out they popped free, ready to have adventures of their own!”

What I love is that this is a world that’s being destroyed not by zombies or nuclear warfare, but by memories. And there’s such beauty in the way that the world is breaking. It’s in the winged deer that our characters encounter. It’s in the malformed cities and altered landscapes. It’s in the notion that our memories are so powerful, the loss of them shifts the very fabric of our universe. As the characters’ situations become more and more dire, the magical aspect becomes more and more frequent and potent, and some of the last scenes in the book are ones straight out of high fantasy. It’s spellbinding stuff.

But there’s also horror to the story. Because I think there are few things more frightening than having the world we know slowly scrubbed away until all that’s left is a vague suggestion of an outline. And what happens when you forget a specific detail of a loved one’s face? What happens when you forget that your sister had actually survived that terrible car crash all those years ago? Shepherd takes the real-life terror of Alzheimer’s and gives it an extra set of fangs, wings, and the ability to breathe fire. The result is as chilling as it is fascinating.

As we follow the point-of-view of four characters–Ory, his wife Max, Naz, and a mysterious man known as “The One Who Gathers”–in their journey across this changed America, we encounter many strange and frightening things, from cults and scavengers to a moving lake. The characters are all complex and diverse, and while I have mixed feelings about the direction that some of their relationships took, their interactions are, for the most part, quite compelling. Really, my biggest criticism is the sheer number of travel sequences, which I don’t particularly enjoy in any genre.

In the end, The Book of M is a haunting story that explores the power of memories and human connections that I recommend to both lovers and haters of post-apocalyptic fiction. It iterates the idea that we are, all of us, sums of all the people whose lives we have touched–the names and faces that etch onto our minds and form the foundation of our selves.

And it asks: what are you willing to sacrifice to hold onto them?

Review: The Rig – Black Mirror But With Less Rampant Cynicism

The Rig

Title: The Rig
Author: Roger Levy
Publisher: Titan Books
Release Date: May 8th, 2018
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Page Count: 617 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 6.5/10

 

 

 

 

The Rig is one of those books that I know a lot people will love for its sheer originality and exploration of complex themes, but just didn’t really work for me. It’s also one of those books that make me think, “Am I an idiot and/or need a degree in philosophy to enjoy this, or is the author just not presenting their themes very effectively”?

The first 100 pages is rampant with imagination (the first chapter alone deserves an award for being so damn memorable). Picture a future where humanity has ruined Earth to the point of no return. They decide set out to a whole new solar system, filled with hope and determined to do thing right this time. But these new planets aren’t the safe haven they’d dreamed of; each comes with its own share of problems–lethal diseases and infections on top of social conflict. So as technology evolves (at least in some respects), human lifespan becomes halved. And while health care is in constant development, it’s not enough to save everyone. So how do the doctors decide who gets first priority?

Enter AfterLife–a kind of a social networking site that allows its subscribers a second chance at life. When you find yourself on the brink of death, and the morticians/doctors find out that you have an implant in your brain called a “neurid”, your body gets frozen and your “data” uploaded onto AfterLife. At this point, the people in the System get to access the sordid details of your entire life and vote whether or not you deserve a “resurrection.” These people get a chance to play God, in a society that’s largely devoid of any faith, and this idea fits beautifully with the theme of religion that runs throughout the entire story. If you loved those futuristic episodes of Black Mirror that deal with social media, you’ll probably enjoy what this book initially offers.

And in this early part of the book, Levy juggles 3 vastly different plotlines with compelling ease–coming-of-age, murder mystery, and a man working in an underwater structure called a “rig”. The ideas are complex, the scope large, and the characters fascinating. I don’t often come across aneurotypical characters in SFF, so it was nice to see an autistic protagonist portrayed with humanity.

My problem with the story is that as you move away from this “honeymoon” phase–filled with new and exciting wonders–it begins to resemble a dry documentary. We get the rundown of gang wars, psychopathic characters doing psychopathic things, and the mystery of the rigs, which should have been engrossing, but I just felt rather disconnected from it all. A deeper exploration of the characters’ relationships would have helped; considering Alef and Pellenhorc’s friendship is at the heart of this story,we never really get beyond what was established in those first chapters. Then there’s the matter of the Rig itself being a metaphor for God, which I appreciated but wasn’t wholly impressed with.

“Appreciate” more or less sums up my feelings on this book. I appreciate what it tries to do and I appreciate that it exists. And I hesitantly recommend it to those who enjoy their sci-fi with a side of social and philosophical commentary.

~
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Grey Sister – A Case of Arrested Development

Grey Ssiter


Title:
Grey Sister (Second Book of the Ancestor)
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher: ACE
Release Date: April 3th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 432
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

I’m probably going to get booed and pelted with virtual tomatoes by every Grey Sister fan (read: everyone) for this review, so I’ve donned my tactical wetsuit and preemptively stationed myself behind a bunch of barrels.

Okay.

*Deep breath*

I didn’t like Grey Sister as much as Red Sister.

*Dodges a tomato*

In fact, I think this is my least favourite Lawrence book.

*Ducks as the world turns into a hellscape of flying vegetables that are technically fruits*

Wa–Wait until I explain!

Grey Sister starts out two years after the ending of Red Sister and sees Nona inducted into Mystic Class. Nothing much has changed at the Convent of Sweet Mercy–Nona has the same friends, same classes, and the same teachers–except for two things: a new nemesis in the form of a girl called Joeli Namsis, and Keot. Keot is a devil that had transferred itself from Raymond Tacis to Nona at the conclusion of their battle in Book 1. He’s been living inside Nona for the past two years and has often spurred Nona into wild bursts of anger. So it’s been a chore for Nona to learn to keep him under control.

All this we know because we are told so in the first 50ish pages. Just casually mentioned like a recap, except it’s all new information to the reader.

They had seen her rages, back before she started to master Keot, and those hadn’t been pretty scenes. Fortunately Zole had suffered the worst of them, mostly out on the sands of Blade Hall, and had never complained…probably because she usually won the fight.

The ending of Red Sister was such a monumental and traumatic event and a pivotal crossroads for character development, and the addition of Keot makes it doubly so. So we should have been there with Nona for the aftermath. We should have walked alongside her during those two years of trying to readjust to school life while harbouring a devil inside her. That kind of crucial character journey shouldn’t have been reduced to a couple of throwaway remarks. It’s such a huge missed opportunity.

What I’ve noticed about Mark Lawrence is that he’s very good at writing protagonists that have one or two defining characteristics. Jorg is serious and somewhat sociopathic. Jalan is fearful and lazy. And Nona is very loyal but also kind of bloodthirsty. He’s good at plucking adjectives from the dictionary and molding them into human shapes. While this leads to characters that sometimes feel like RPG companions than real human beings, they’re fun and interesting to read about. Most of all, though, he’s good at developing them within the boundaries of those one or two characteristics. For example, Jalan at the end of The Liar’s Key is still just as afraid as Jalan in Prince of Fools, but there is additional depth to his fear–it’s no longer just a matter of him being a coward.

Nona didn’t get any such development in this book. It would have been interesting to see her love and loyalty for her friends being tested by the rage that Keot inflames, but we don’t get anything like that. Lawrence tells us that she’s changed, from wild rages to relative calm, but we’ve never seen her in that first state so Book 2 Nona ends up feeling more or less the same as Book 1 Nona. She still loves her friends and would still rush off into battle for them. And while those are likeable qualities, that can’t be all that a person is from childhood to teenagehood.

This sense of arrested development also extends to the side characters, Ara especially. One of my favourite things about Red Sister was Nona’s relationship with her schoolmates–like how Ara grew from rival to best friend. In Grey Sister, their interactions feel very shallow and we don’t even see much of Ara.

All this makes it sound like I hated the book, but I really didn’t. I still like the writing style–Lawrence moves from taut action sequences to florid ruminations with enviable ease. I also love the additional insight into Abess Glass and Kettle. Glass has become my favourite character in the book. She’s a spider through and through and I find her way of viewing the world as a chessboard fascinating. Her POVs are cerebral in a way that Nona’s can’t be and I love that.

The plot is a better-balanced mix of school and world-encompassing stuff than Red Sister. The first half is Nona and co. exploring the immediate area of the Abby and butting heads with Joeli and her cronies, which is fun stuff–especially the Shade Trial. The second half brings Sherzal and the nobility into the mix and also expands on the shipheart lore.

And apropos of nothing, I have a massive crush on the U.S. cover–mostly because Nona reminds me of Lorde (I can’t be the only one who thinks that).

All in all, this was a somewhat disappointing sequel to a book that was one of my favourites of 2017. Grey Sister widens of the scope of the world while stunting the growth of its major characters.

*Vaults over barrels, somersaults, and poses with flourish*

Now you may commence pelting.

 

[Review] From Unseen Fire – When in Rome…Do as the Mages Do?

From Unseen Fire.jpg

Title: From Unseen Fire (Aven Cycle 1)
Author: Cass Morris
Publisher: DAW Books
Release Date: April 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Alt-History
Page Count: 400
Goodreads

Rating: 5.0/10

 

 

 

This book is a lesson in tempering expectations. One would think that, being a fan of the video game industry, it’s one I’ve learned backwards and forwards by now, but nope–not when it comes to books, it seems. I came into the story wide-eyed and giddy. Months and months before, I’d feasted my eyes on the gorgeous cover, read the words “alt-history” and “Rome” and “magic,” and thought “holy hell, this is made for me,” then fell headlong into hype town. But alas, reality is a cruel mistress. Because while it’s not a terrible historical-fantasy story, it’s a painfully mediocre one–which, to me, is the ultimate kiss of death.

The premise of the story is based around one question: what would the fate of the Roman Republic have been if it’d had mages at its disposal?

First of all, the story suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s mainly set in a city called Aven. And pretty much everything about Aven (minus the magic), from architecture to social and political structure, to its dictator, is identical to Ancient Rome.

Well, okay, so it’s a fantasy world inspired by Rome!

Well, no. Because Aven gods are Roman gods–Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and the like. And the protagonist mentions “Remus” at one point, so Romulus and Remus and the legend of how they founded the ancient city obviously exists in this world (though it makes no sense then as to why the city would be called “Aven” rather than “Rome”).

Then it’s…an alternate history with a dash of fantasy!

No, not quite! Because while Aven does have its own Julius Caesar equivalent, his name of “Ocella,” and he dies not of an assassination but an illness. Also, the Mediterranean Sea is called the “Middle Sea” and Lusitania (known today as Spain and Portugal) has been ever so slightly altered to “Lusetania.” It’s as if Aven is your white friend, Adam Smith, who’d one day decided he would get dreadlocks and call himself Swift Flowing River and sell vaginal cleansing moon water at $69.99 per bottle. It’s all just so weirdly dressed-up and unnecessarily inconsistent. There are too many changes made for it to be alternate history, yet too similar to history for it to be an original fantasy world.

Secondly, let’s take a look at the magic system, which I thought was full of potential:

Aven-magic-list
There are nine types of elemental magics in this world and each has its own patron gods–Spirit mages, for example, are said to be blessed by Jupiter and Juno. When charted all out like this on paper, it looks really neat. Nothing too original, but familiar and cool. My problem is that we don’t get to see many of these magics at work in the story itself. There are throwaway comments here and there about a certain mage doing this or that, but Fire and Shadow are the only ones that the story (sporadically) focuses on.

Moreover, Aven feels like plain old Rome, with little to indicate that it’s a city of mages. There are so many ways that the magic could have been incorporated into the setting. Architectural inventions that rely on magic. Elaborate fashion designs that are reflective of specific patron deities and their powers. There are so many cool possibilities that the story just doesn’t explore, and I was left gnashing my teeth in frustration and disappointment.

The characters are a hit and a miss–mostly the former. Latona is a fine lead character. She’s a Spirt and Fire Mage, which means that she can influence emotions and blow shit up, respectively. She’s independent and fiercely protective of her loved ones, but she’s also dealing with trauma from her time at the Dictator’s court, where she was manipulated and kept under leash. I liked how she channels all the guilt, rage, and helplessness she’d felt into helping other vulnerable women.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for her male co-lead, Sempronius, and most of the supporting characters. Stories with large casts run the risk of uneven distribution of character development, and that’s exactly the case with this book.

Sempronius is a Shadow and Water mage. Immediately following the death of Oscella, he scries a vision of two possible Avens: one of properity and strength like it has never seen before; the other, of ruin and dust–our Rome, basically. And so Sempronius is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent this second future from taking hold. We see very early on that he’s a noble, charismatic, and ambitious man. And as the story goes on, he continues to be noble and charismatic and ambitious, and…nothing much more. Interesting, complex characters either shed layers or have layers added to them over the course of a story. But Sempronius at the beginning of this story is the same as the Sempronius at the middle and at the end. Bland and paper-thin, he essentially exists for the sole purpose of moving the plot forward (and very slowly, at that).

The supporting characters fare no better, with perhaps the exception of Aula, Latona’s older sister, and Merula, Latona’s handmaiden. Part of the problem is that we see so little of so many of them that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about any. The other problem is that they’re just not very interesting. There’s nothing notable that distinguishes one from the other and they all kind of blend together after a while.

There are two main plotlines: the upcoming election of Aven, which Sempronius is campaigning for, and the rising conflict in Lucenatnia, led by the 20 year-old war-leader, Ekialde. I wasn’t really invested in either of them, and a lot of that has to do with uneven pacing. Nothing much important happens throughout a large chunk of the middle, and then there’s a sudden flurry of activities in the last 70 pages. It also has to do with the the structure of the narration, which was very different from what I’d expected. Many of the scenes are written almost like vignettes: there’s a lot of dialogue and exposition and description of actions, but no detailed descriptions of the setting (or any extraneous details) in between. It’s very economic. Which makes it digestible but doesn’t keep me deeply immersed in the world.

The bottom line is that I was bored. I was bored reading a character-driven story about Ancient Rome and political intrigue and foreign threats and magic influenced by Roman gods. It’s a brilliant premise that fails to deliver. And I tried to like it. I wanted to like it. But for that to happen, you got to give me something to hook my interest onto, and all I found were smooth, flat walls.

Thank you to DAW Books and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy.

[Review] Jade City – Rich, Bloody, and Gloriously Asian

Jade City
Title: Jade City (The Green Bone Saga 1)
Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: November 7th, 2017
Genre(s): Fantasy, Crime
Page Count: 512
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

Jade City is Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut and it is an absolute firecracker–a brutal tale of two warring families set in a rich, vivid world that teeters between modernity and tradition. Its first chapter is the perfect sampler of what you can expect from the rest of the book: intriguing worldbuilding, a dynamic magic system, vivid descriptions of settings, snappy action scenes, and interesting, cutthroat characters. And the best part? It’s all so gloriously, unabashedly, Asian

kekon map

Tell me this isn’t the most adorable map you’ve ever seen.

Kekon is a small island country reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Shaped vaguely like a reptilian embryo, it should win awards for the being the cutest-shaped landmass in the history of fantasy cartography. But, in the story, Kekon is far more notable for being the world’s only source of bioluminscent jade. Only those of Kekonese lineage can harness the jade’s powers to augment existing abilities–speed, strength, and senses–to superhuman levels. Such individuals are known as “Green Bones.” Two powerhouse Green Bone families effectively rule Kekon: the Kauls of No Peak and Ayts of the Mountain clan. The former controls the eastern half of Janloon, Kekon’s capital city, and the latter controls the western half. But pre-existing tensions between the clans have boiled over into hostility, and now it’s an all-out war. To the victor goes the honour, the jade, and control of the country.

There are two things that make Jade City exceptional: worldbuilding and family dynamics.

I’m going to wax poetic about the way Fonda Lee constructed Kekon for the rest of the year, because it’s just so damn good and had me clenching my fist and hissing “yes!” in public like a crazy person. My problem with a lot of fantasy stories is that their worldbuilding feels separate from their magic system. Like you could swap out one magic system from one book with another and there would be very little difference to the world. Such systems tend to feel video gamey–contrived and artificial, regardless of how cool or complex they are.

In Jade City, the world is molded around the magic system–which makes the former feel much more natural and real. Jade isn’t just a magical object, it’s a national symbol that influences every aspect of Kekonese society–commerce, trade, governance, education, religion. Consequently, the powers of the Green Bones don’t feel like magic, but a discipline that’s just common to Kekon.

Moreover, I loved how textured Janloon is. It’s not just a cardboard stage for the characters to play around in, but a character that’s well alive and breathing. And it’s all thanks to small details. Like relayball, a high-intensity sport that is particular to Kekon. Like the various festivals that are held throughout the year, and descriptions of cuisines served at a local favourite restaurant (I had a serious hankering for crispy squid when I finished). Like ordinary middle-aged locals drinking and playing cards in the comfort of their homes. And Kekonese slangs (“You cut?”) and expressions that revolve around jade.

A person hoping for too much good fortune might be warned, “Don’t ask for gold and jade.” A child who demanded a custard tart after already having had a sweet bun was, Lan knew from personal experience, likely to be scolded, “You want gold and jade together!”

Even when the plot’s not moving forward, the world of Janloon is so constantly dynamic and interesting that you hardly notice. It’s a city that you want to get lost in and Fonda Lee has you begging to see more of it.

The story is mostly told from the Kaul family’s point of view. We have Lan, the eldest of the Kaul progeny and the newly-appointed leader of No Peak clan. A leader who is sick of his own advisor questioning his decisions and weary of his younger brother courting trouble with the Mountain clan. We explore through Lan’s eyes the burden of leadership and duty. In a city where public image is everything, he struggles to maintain a confident exterior while battling inner demons. It’s compelling and stressful stuff and I loved every bit of it.

Then there’s Hilo, the middle child and the military arm of the clan. Easygoing and quick to laugh but also quick to anger, he’s the polar opposite of Lan. In the beginning, I felt that Hilo was a fun character but one without much depth. But as the story went on, I saw that there was more to him than meets the eye and he soon catapulted over Lan as my favourite. It’s his passion that got me. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve without shame or fear. How he feels everything with so much intensity. And the fact that he so loves his family and yet is looked down on by most of them. Labelled a volatile thug, overlooked by his mother, and despised by his grandfather, he’s the ultimate underdog. And I do so love those.

“You give a man something to live up to, you tell him he can be more than he is now, more than other people think he’ll ever be, and he’ll try his godsdamned best to make it true.”

Then we have Shae, who’s returned from studying abroad in Espenia (the U.S. equivalent in this world) and is determined to make a living for herself without the help of the Kaul name. And Anden, who, at the age of eighteen, is the youngest (adopted) member of the family. Anden is a quiet, talented young man, who also happens to be gay. I found the way the Kekonese view queerness interesting and different from the attitude found in most fantasy worlds, in that it’s viewed not as a malignancy, but as a kind of an acceptable misfortune.

They are, each and every one, complex people trying to balance family and self-interest in a city that’s gone to hell.

Even discounting the fantastic worldbuilding, the palpable love and bond within the Kaul family makes this an incredibly engaging story. Because at its core, this book isn’t about gangs or magical jade. It’s about family. Asian families, in particular. About the bond that ties each and every member together with a strength that never wanes whether we’re five or five thousand miles apart. There’s something almost frenetic about it–a sense that we are but individual parts of the same whole or, indeed, a clan. That’s why I used to be so confused when I heard North Americans equating family gatherings during holidays to getting their teeth pulled out. Because, for me, such gatherings had held a feeling of rightness to them. A feeling of harmony and completion. And no matter the disagreements, we’ll always come together in the end. Because family is everything.

Until Jade City, I’d never read a fantasy book that captures this dynamic, so a massive thank you to Fonda Lee for that.

This book does its damned best to fill the Gentleman Bastards-shaped hole left in my heart and it feels like just the tip of a very large, very bloody iceberg. The war’s only just begun and I can’t wait to see where things go from here.