Best Reads of 2018 (“Let’s Time Travel Back 6 Months, Shall We?” Edition) – Awards Feat. Art, Balloons, and Some Very Special Guests

[Note: This is a LONG intro, so feel free to scroll down to the actual list portion! But if you’ve snuck a peek and are wondering why there are photos of janky art underneath the gorgeous book covers, then read on]

Yup, I see you squinting at the title! And I’m here to tell you that you read it right.

So you might be thinking, “But Kathy, we’re over halfway through 2019. People are posting lists of their favourite 2019 books already! There’s late and there’s fashionably late and then there’s THIS. Why didn’t you post it back in January like all the normal people did? What the heck have you been doing?

Well, I’d love to give a really cool answer to that. Like, “I’m a secret agent for a society that seeks out artifacts that cause temporal rifts and I spent 6 months in Peru doing reconnaissance.”

Or “I was kayaking out in the ocean and a freak storm blew me off course, but I was rescued by pod of killer whales who then whisked me away to their cavern lair. I spent the last 6 months trying to convince them that I am not, in fact, their great whale goddess reincarnated into human form.”

But my actual, not-so-cool answer? Anxiety.

So for those who don’t know or remember, I started getting into art–specifically watercolour–11ish months ago (you can read about my art angst here). And in January, while I was compiling my Best of 2018 list, I got this brilliant idea: I should paint the characters from the books posing with the awards, but instead of giving them fancy trophies, I can pretend that I only had a $20 budget, so I had to raid the dollar store for cheap badges, balloons, and flowers instead. That’ll be fun, right?!

 

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Mm. Yeah.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about watercolour, it’s that it’s a lot like what I imagine babysitting monkeys would be. The idea is super attractive–they’re spontaneous and independent and kind of unpredictable, which is what makes them so charming and fun. This will be EASY.

And then a week later the monkeys have completely taken over your house. There’s one swinging from the ceiling lights, another one’s chucking produce out of the refrigerator, and you’ve locked yourself in the car, as they swarm around you, wondering how your life took such a turn.

 

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Which is to say…it’s not easy.

And it didn’t take me long to convince myself that this award idea was the worst ever. I was getting tired of drawing balloons, I wasn’t happy with some of the paintings but I also didn’t want to redo them, and the thought of showing these to authors whose works I admire made me want to stick a chopstick in my eye. So I ended up burying the post deep in my draft folder.

And today I’m digging it out of the ashes.

Because here’s the second thing I learned about watercolour: it demands that you be brave. It pushes you to try things without not really knowing what will happen, and knowing it could very well mess up the entire piece. It forces you to look at your mistakes and just shrug.

So this is me shrugging.

And I’m going to start by taking you all on a little trip!

Where, you ask?

Through space and time, my friends. WE’RE TRAVELING BACK TO JANUARY.

Pick your poison!

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Hop in! Strap up! Brace against the railings or walls or whatever safety mechanisms are inside the TARDIS (I’ve watched a grand total of 3/4 episode of Doctor Who in my life. I have no idea what the inside of a TARDIS looks like). And if you chose the time turner, tuck your elbows in and take ten deep breaths.

Okay. You ready?

Here we go!!!!!!!

*Runs around waving my arms and making swooshing noises for 15 minutes*

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[15 minutes later]

Oh hey there! I’m so glad you could join me on this glorious January day to go through my Best Reads of 2018 list.

So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books of 2018 and paintings of characters from said books posing with the balloons and flowers I’ve “awarded” them (you can click on the titles to see the full reviews).

(Two of the books are missing art, which I feel super bad about, but I’d messed up those pieces badly the first time and I just didn’t have the energy to redo them.)

 

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

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Fire Dance, the continuation to Last Song Before Night, is proof of what I already know: 1) Ilana Myer writes like her soul is on fire, and 2) I can’t talk about this series without reverting to vague pieces of imagery and too many comparisons to Damien Rice.

And those are my favourite kinds of stories–the ones that make me feel like I’m doing a disservice by breaking them down to plot, characters, and worldbuilding (but FYI, Fire Dance nails all three to perfection).

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s not afraid to be sad and that’s not something I often find in epic fantasy. And I’m not talking about the unbearable, soul-crushing kind.

It’s like when you’re watching March of the Penguins and you see the penguins huddled together to stave off the cold and some of them inevitability freeze to death and it’s terrible and sad to watch, but you also know that’s just the way of nature. And there’s raw beauty in that. There’s beauty in the resilience of these animals and characters, and there’s sadness in the penguins’ deaths, as there’s sadness in the way these characters long for things that lie just beyond their reach, because that’s what people do.

It’s the kind of sad that, after all the tears are shed, makes the world seem a notch brighter.

Ilana writes some of the most complex and real characters in modern fantasy, and Fire Dance weaves together music, magic, and the foibles of humans into a symphony that leaves the edges of my heart tattered. I sometimes do a double take when I remember she’s only published two books because it feels like I’ve been reading her stories forever.

 

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This is a six-coloured cloak and I swear the six colours are all in there somewhere!

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

I’ve never read a book that so perfectly describes the feeling of drifting. Of feeling so removed from your life that you’re floating above it and the weight of nothing becomes heavy enough to suffocate. And that contradiction–of being free but still so trapped–threatens to break you.

While that might seem like a strange praise–“This takes me back to some of the worst moments of my life and that’s why I love it”–this is one of those books that made me feel seen, and I will forever be grateful for that.

The Light Between Worlds is portal fantasy stripped bare–a story about sisterhood and strength and belonging. And it’s a ray of light for all of us who are lost and trying to find a way home.

 

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…I should definitely redo this one at some point using better paper because this was a nightmare to work with.

 

Mr. Big Empty (Hollow Folk Series) by Gregory Ashe

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Yes, I’m cheating and lumping the series into one. Think X-Men: Queer Rural Town edition with addictive plotting, stunning–absolutely stunning–mental health rep and character work that makes you shake your head and go, “This can’t be real. I’m having a fever dream. No one writes this well.” I swear, Gregory Ashe takes character writing to a level I rarely see. It might be on par with, dare I say–

Brain: “Oh, no. Nonononononono. I know what you’re going to say and you can’t just say that.”

“I’m gonna say it.”

“No, Kathy–”

“Robin Hobb.”

Collective gasps sound from my mini-me’s manning control center. One drops a stack of papers. One shuffles to a corner and starts crying softly. Another swoons with a plaintive “Catch me!” (No one does).

…So you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.

There are books that are hard-hitting and emotionally resonant.

And then there are books that opens veins.

Guess where this falls into?

 

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This piece is a LOT darker than the other ones because I didn’t actually paint it with this post in mind; it was just meant to be fanart. But it features a flower (an orchid), so I thought why not include it. Definitely doesn’t look like he’s here to collect an award, though. 😅

 

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards

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“Kathy, is this list just going to be a sad tear-fest?”

Okay. Fine. You want a happy book? Here’s a fucking happy book.

The Last Sun is exquisite. If I put on my Very Serious and Professional Content Creator voice, I can say that it’s got textbook-perfect pacing that never relents but doesn’t sacrifice worldbuilding or character work in the process. Its world is at once familiar and new, merging modern day societies with mythos from various cultures, all wrapped up in a dynamic tarot-based system of governance and magic. The story drags you up through adrenaline-pumping action and brings you down to quiet, vulnerable moments. It explores the fluidity of human connections and the idea that love between two or more people doesn’t start and end at “Wanna bang?”

My Professional? Who Am I Kidding voice:

ARRRRRRGHHHHHAAHHHHHHHHHGOREADIT

I think I’ve done almost all I can to promote this book, so really there’s only one thing left for me to do….

Ahem. Pyr, here’s my proposition to you. I am willing to do video promotions for this series in the form of interpretive dance and poetry. My credentials? Four months of ballroom lessons I took with a friend when I was 17 because he was convinced there would be waltzing at the prom and wanted to be ready (spoiler: as we weren’t in the 19th century or Hogwarts, there was no waltzing) and on-and-off years of spoken poetry.

Please. Call me.

In all seriousness, though, this is one of those stories that quietly creeps into your heart and decide they’re going to stay indefinitely. And you wake up one morning to find them pattering in the kitchen, setting out coffee (and just how the hell did they know exactly how you take it?) and then sitting across from you and chattering away like you’re old friends until you do become old friends.

And if you say, “You know, I haven’t had the best relationship with urban fantasies in the past. I just don’t think we’re compatible,” this book gives you a molten smile, reaches out a hand and says, “Let me show you something.”

And you nod and smile back like an idiot because it’s had you seduced from the first word.

 

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(Rune on the left, Brand on the right. Rune is supposed to have black hair but he somehow ended up with weird bleached highlights)

 

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

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As someone who studies memories it’s so incredibly gratifying to come across a book that highlights their beauty in a way that’s as off-the-walls fantastical as this.

Peng Shepherd draws on the horror of memory loss and juxtaposes it with the beauty of human connections, and the result is unlike anything I’ve read before. “Genre-bending” doesn’t even begin to cover what this book does.

The Book of M has raised the bar for post-apocalypse stories and now I expect them all to include magical shadows and shifting realities.

 

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Smoke City by Keith Rosson

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I’m a girl of simple tastes. You say, “A story about the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner who goes on a road trip to seek redemption from a possibly reincarnated Joan of Arc,” and I say, “Well, I was born to read this.”

Smoke City was the first ARC I ever read and reviewed which might suggest a wee bit of bias, but really, this is one of those “very me” books that I’m unerringly drawn to. Reincarnated historical figures (and Joan of Arc, at that, who I happen to adore)? Check. Road trips? Buckle up. Fantasy bleeding into reality? Affirmative.

Keith Rosson takes a premise that has no business of working and creates a beautiful, imaginative, soulful piece of narrative that ruminates on pasts and mistakes and the forgiveness that we deserve but can never offer to ourselves.

 

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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So this is an interesting one because I can’t exactly say I had a good time reading it and there were issues I had with some parts.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And eventually I called up a friend (who’s Japanese-Chinese and hasn’t even read the book but is blessed with a brain that actively craves–and I mean really cravesspoilers) and bullied her into a three-hour discussion on our countries’ histories and the slippery slope between loyalty and nationalism, and whether the pursuit of justice is worth it if in the process you lose all sense of who you are.

For me, that’s the mark of a book that deserves a spot on this list. It may not have been the most perfect book I read in 2018, but it was one of the most unforgettable.

 

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A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller

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So, by the end of November I was pretty confident in my best of 2018 choices. I didn’t think it likely that I’d come across another incredible book within the next month.

And then this book came along.

And one day I found it leaning on my doorway with its 70’s sweater and smiling eyes and the words of angels falling from its lips and, to take a page from Angelica Schuyler, I forgot my dang name.

A Lite Too Bright is the one non-speculative sheep of the group which should make it easy to describe but I actually find it harder because it’s, well…it’s a little bit of everything. Legacy, mental illness, 60’s/70’s protest culture, the relationship we have with our grandparents, life and the winding route it takes, and love and its ability to burrow so deep inside us that it’s what remains when everything else fades.

And poetry. Heartstopping poetry.

Miller writes with the insight of someone far older than his years and so, in turn, does Arthur Louis Pullman, the fictional author who’s at the focus of this story. Pullman is one of those people who seem to possess an inherent understanding of the world, but with that understanding comes neither cynicism or apathy but a desire to feel more keenly. His writing brims with aching amounts of passion and love–of life and the people that inhabit it–and it kills me that he’s not an actual person.

There’s a universe nestled in just a handful of his words. And I would need a universe’s worth of words to explain what this book makes me feel.

 

Jade City by Fonda Lee

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I can talk about how incredibly rich the world of Jade City is. I can talk about its vibrant characters and a plot that seamlessly mixes politics with action. But my most favourite thing about it is that it nails the Asian family dynamic to the core. And it made me miss my own extended family badly–my roudy tight-knit family of eight cousins, four aunts and uncles, and grandparents who, despite their years, still try to look after us all.

Now, the Kaul family had to take a raincheck on this ceremony–they kind of have their hands full, what with a war and all–but they were gracious enough to send an underling to receive the awards on their behalf (Translation: I couldn’t remember what the Kauls looked like and I was too lazy to draw multiple people)

And he looks truly ecstatic to be here. I mean, look at him!

 

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(Be a Finger, they said. Prestige and honour, they said.)

The shades are there to save you from getting blinded by the sheer joy that’s emanating from his eyes.

And the flowers on his head are gladioli–derived from gladius, which is a sword–and they represent strength and integrity. I thought that was pretty fitting for the Kauls.

 

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Whew! Applause to you and me both for surviving that!

Same time next year? 😀

(Also, Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians!)

Fantasy Books & Games for Mental Health Awareness Month (Why I Need More Mental Health Rep in Adult Fantasy)

 

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May is Wyrd & Wonder and mental health awareness month, so it only makes sense to celebrate the 31st by smooshing them together into one post.

I meant to write this on Wednesday for Top 5 Wednesday, but I’ve been zonked out on allergy meds all week (one day the pharmaceuticals will develop a formula that doesn’t hit me like a freight train) and going to sleep at 6 and waking up at 3 AM.

So apologies in advance if I sound scattered and tired (however tired sounds like in a blog post).

But before we get started, I want to address something.

Hey, mainstream adult fantasy–epic fantasy, if we’re being particular–can we sit down and have a quick chat? It’ll only take a sec.

This is a topic that’s been a growing source of frustration for me in the last handful of years, and I’m going to bring it up again in another post soonish (hopefully) so I’ll keep it short and blunt today: why don’t more of your characters deal with mental health issues? 

Why aren’t your Chosen Ones having panic attacks and breakdowns? Why isn’t your merry band of misfits dealing with the mental fallout from battles and murders and facing monstrosities and just the general “holy fuck” factor that comes with trying to save the world? It seems to be an unspoken rule that therapists can’t exist in fantasy worlds, so how are these people getting out of bed every morning holding determination in one hand and eagerness in the other?

Why is trauma a temporary roadblock that you can gently remove and set aside so that the heroes can go on with doing hero things?

I’m sorry if I seem frustrated and/or bitter but I’m tired and mental health is a topic that means everything to me, and when paired with fantasy, the resulting story can be powerful and validating. And while that isn’t to say I don’t love seeing mental health reps in contemporary and horror and thriller and scifi–because I do, I love it a lot–fantasy can explore mental health from angles that other genres can’t.

And I just–I don’t understand why that isn’t taken advantage of more often.

Writing multi-volume fantasy epics has never really been an aspiration for me when I was younger. I adore reading them, sure, but my projects always leaned more towards…Guillermo del Toro crossed with Markus Zusak.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the one thing that’ll push me into drafting an epic fantasy would be the lack of depressed protagonists in these stories.

Because at the end of the day, you try to create the things you want to see more of in the world and hope that by doing so you’ll help foster an ecosystem where more such creations can take root and grow and maybe become the norm.

So yeah…good chat, adult fantasy! Same time next week? 😀

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

Rep: PTSD, Depression

The Light Between Worlds is the portal fantasy I always wanted and finally got–a spiritual continuation of Narnia and every portal fantasy that has ever ended with the protagonists returning to the real world. The author doesn’t hold back on showing the ugliness of depression and the mental toll it takes on the people who have to watch you go through it.

One of the hardest and most rewarding books I’ve ever read.

 

 

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

The Art of Starving

Rep: Eating disorder

This book is important for several reasons:

1) It talks about eating disorders and body image from the perspective of a teenage boy, which is super rare in fiction.

2) It made me acknowledge things about myself that I never really wanted to acknowledge. You can read about the details in the review here, if you want. It’s a post I’m glad I’d written because the process was…cathartic, in a clobbered-with-a-sledgehammer sort of way. But occasionally I think back on it and get the urge to trash it because, holy hell, it’s so awfully personal. (Some good news, though: I’m 6 pounds up from last year. That doesn’t sound like much but considering where I started from, I’ll take it).

Also, I’ve seen complaints that Miller’s narrative romanticizes the act of starving. But I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder to read this and be like, “Yeah, this is the handbook for getting skinny.” I think readers can recognize the mental gymnastics we go through to convince ourselves into self-harming (which starving ultimately is) and Miller makes it crystal clear that Matt’s actions aren’t ideal.

 

Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb

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Rep: Depression, PTSD, and more

If you want a prime example of how mental health can and should be addressed in high/epic fantasy, look no further. Depression, PTSD, self-esteem issues, suicide ideation–Hobb tackles all with absolute mastery (and I’m shocked and disappointed that the series didn’t spawn more high/epic fantasy books with similar themes). The series also has the best depiction of chronic loneliness I’ve come across in fiction. The kind that has no rhyme or reason and shadows you for years and years and years, waiting for moments when you’re most vulnerable. That’s a very hard thing get across in any story, and the fact that she does it in a fantasy one (across nine volumes) is remarkable.

 

The Hollow Folk series by Gregory Ashe

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Rep: Depression

I er, think I’ve actually run out of words to describe these books.

If you’ve read any of my dissertations reviews, you know how much the series means to me. Gregory Ashe draws on his own experiences with depression and slips them into his main character and the result is painful but so, so spot-on.

 

Arcadia Project Trilogy by Mishell Baker

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Rep: Bipolar Disorder and more

Ninety percent of the characters in this series is a mess and that’s what makes them so great.

Arcadia Project is an ownvoices urban fantasy, and the author does a wonderful job of explaining BPD through her MC while also crafting a unique and entertaining story about faes and Hollywood and the messiness of relationships.

 

The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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Rep: Depression (I think)

I just realized I’ve never talked about this book before on the blog which is crazy because it’s one of my favourite YA books released in the last two years. Memory Trees is all about female relationships–mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, girlfriends–and the story puts a spotlight the MC’s mother and her mental illness and the events surrounding her hospitalization, which I thought was explored really well.

And okay, calling it a fantasy book is kind of an eyebrow-raising move because for most of it the only fantasy is in the way that Wallace approaches the story–as a dreamy inter-generational fable. The rest of it is a mix of contemporary, mystery, and historical fiction. But I swear, the magical stuff does rear its head at the end; you just have to squint to catch it.

 

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

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Rep: The entirety of DSM-5

I’m uh, actually not too sure if this belongs here?

On one hand, I’m not kidding with the DSM-5 thing. Fletcher’s series has the most comprehensive exploration of mental illnesses–from kleptomania to schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder–I’ve ever seen in speculative fiction.

But I don’t know if I would call them representations, per se. In the Manifest Delusions world, your delusions give you power–so the more ill you are, the greater your control over reality. It’s similar to The Art of Starving in that sense, except this doesn’t address those issues from a positive, “This is how you can heal” perspective.

 

Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire

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Rep: PTSD and more

I’m two books behind on the series, but Wayward Children is another portal fantasy story that deals with the trauma of being sent back to the real world, and just the general hardships that come with…well, living, and being different.

 

Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

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Rep: Agoraphobia, Anxiety, and more

Oh look, another portal fantasy! Says something about the subgenre, doesn’t it?

What I really loved about this story is that it features a father who is dealing with severe mental health issues (agoraphobia) and that’s not something I often find in fiction; it’s usually the mother figures who are depressed and ill and on medication. And Sophie Cameron talks about his illness in a really empathetic light, which is even rarer, so massive kudos to her for that.

 

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Now for the video games!

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Rep: Psychosis, Depression

Hellblade is many things.

It’s the most candid look at psychosis (with auditory and visual hallucinations) I’ve seen in any fictional media.

It’s an example of how to go about representing mental disorders you don’t have personal experience with–doing thorough research and consulting mental health professionals and people who do have experiences with them.

It’s the story of a woman who makes her descent into Hel (literally and figuratively) at a time in her life when darkness is all that is seemingly left.

It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and it’s the one game that made me cry from beginning to end. (I cried so, so much)

I can’t begin tell you how grateful I am that Hellblade exists and that I had the opportunity to experience it. Senua’s story is one I’ll carry around for the rest of my life and I 100% would have gotten this quote tattooed if it’d been a bit shorter:

Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story. We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves. It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.

 

Night in the Woods

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Rep: Depression, disassociation

(Or as like to call it, Millenials: The Game)

I think there are three different lenses with which you can look at Night in the Woods:

1) A mystery/horror/fantasy story with cute (and queer) anthropomorphic animal characters getting caught up in strange happenings around town, all the while trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship, family, and romance.

2) A very pointed commentary on the state of capitalism suffocating small towns and older generations who would sacrifice their youth to maintain status quo and save their town from a broken economy that they helped dismantle in the first place.

3) A stark yet empathetic exploration of depression and existential crises from the PoV of young adults in their early 20’s.

…Or all three at the same time. That works too!

 

The Missing: J. J Macfield and the Field of Dreams

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Here’s a crazy rundown of the first 15-ish minutes of this game:

You’re a college girl named J.J. and you and your best friend/maybe-girlfriend Emily are camping out on an island having a great time. But things black out and the next thing you know Emily has disappeared and you’re running through the island desperately searching for her. Then you get struck by lightning and die, but a moose doctor comes and resurrects you, so all’s good. Then you start getting text messages from the stuffed toy you’ve been carrying around (the stuffed toy that got destroyed in the lightning–so presumably it’s sending you messages from whatever afterlife toys get sent to). Meanwhile, Emily is still nowhere to be found.

…I’ll give you a second to soak that in.

Would it then surprise you to know that it offers one of most beautiful explorations of identity and self-acceptance I’ve come across in gaming?

The Missing is made by SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro), and his games tend to be on the…trippy side. Bizarre and peppered with pop-culture references and off-beat humour, you love them or hate them.

I’m firmly in the former category. They’re not technical marvels, the controls can be wonky, the story dives into the nonsensical, but they’re never boring and there’s something incredibly endearing about them. (It helps that he’s an absolute sweetheart on social media)

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Yes, that is SWERY. Yes, he is amazing.

Well, this jumps over “endearing” into “empowering” and “validating.”

The problem I have with media that explores mental health and LGBTQ+ issues is that they sometimes explore the pain side and kind of leave it at that. No closure. What stories like The Missing offer is that end piece–the sorely-needed ray of hope that yes, you can find peace and healing and come out on the other side stronger.

While I can’t personally speak for one of the representations that SWERY dives into (spoiler: transgender rep), other players can vouch that yes, he gets it right.

Please. Go play it. Or watch a playthrough/walkthrough of it.

 

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Review: Nevernight – Nevermore Will I Give into Hype

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Title:
Nevernight (Nevernight Chronicle 1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: August 6th, 2016
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fantasy School, Assassins, Revenge
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, a sixteen year old Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic ― the Red Church. Treachery and trials await her with the Church’s halls, and to fail is to die. But if she survives to initiation, Mia will be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the only thing she desires.

Revenge.

 

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Lying cat! SHHHHHH. I can’t think of a better title right now, okay? Let me have this clickbait one. Also, I think you’re just jealous because there’s a cat character in the book and he has cooler powers than you.

 

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I’ll preface this by saying that I didn’t think this was a bad book (so hold your rotten vegetables ’till the end). I thought it was an okay fantasy story with quick pacing, snappy action, and good humour. But from all the things I’d heard about it, I was expecting something a little more…exceptional. I had an image of Harry Potter bathed in blood and guts and dripping sensuality, and instead I got a typical school fantasy with stabby action (of several sorts) and illogical plot points. It was underwhelming to say the least.

(Also, I read this as a buddy read with my friend and it took us nearly four months to finish–which isn’t an indicator of the quality of the book but rather my lamentable efforts at buddy reading.)

Quick points on what I did enjoy about the book:

  • The footnotes provided interesting details about the world and its history. Some facts were silly, others more serious, and I liked the variation in tone. They’re akin to codex entries in video games; information that won’t hinder your understanding and enjoyment of the story if you choose not to read them, but will add extra depth to the narrative.
  • Mia’s shadow powers are pretty cool. And I’ll always champion the existence of magical animal companions in fantasy. I heard great things about Mr. Kindly the shadow cat and I wasn’t disappointed.
  • I really really liked the teasing of a possible enemies-to-lovers F/F for the sequels (it’s probably the main reason why I want to continue reading)

 

The biggest problem for me is that I couldn’t take the Red Church and its people seriously.

This is an assassin’s school (church/organization–whichever) that one enters knowing full well that it’s an assassin’s school. It’s an organization of the best cold-blooded killers in the realm that churns out more cold-blooded killers into society. Its teachers aren’t there to whack you over the head a few times and then hold your hand afterward. They’re there to let you break or be bent into their image of the perfect assassin.

So it makes ZERO sense for the apprentices to be constantly dumbstruck by the trickery that occurs during their lessons. I can give a pass for the first few times; they’re still kids, after all, and there are probably dregs of naivete still pooling around in their collective psyche. But when poisoning and maiming and “gotcha!” moments are part of your weekly routine and yet you’re still fooled time and time again by situations you should be learning to recognize as suspect, I have to ask what you’re even doing here.

“They’re not playing about anymore,” exclaims Mia two-thirds of the way into the story, somehow forgetting that they’ve been poisoned and tortured and thrown to the enemy since day 1.

These characters act like they’re in a boarding school and like they’re playacting as assassin trainees. Which would be fine if at any point the apprentices or the instructors address this by saying, hey, maybe they’re too soft to be here. Maybe they’re not cut out for this. But they don’t.

The lack of seriousness given to their situation (exacerbated by Kristoff’s upbeat, over-the-top writing style) combined with the fact that no major side character dies during these lessons/trials takes all the tension out of the story.

The characters are interesting enough but I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them very well. And while I like Mia’s attitude, she’s a combination of “over-powered hero” and “plot-convenient obliviousness” that frustrates me. Also, Cassius? The Black Prince? The Lord of Blades? The most powerful and feared assassin of the realm? He ended up being the biggest disappointment of the book. (spoiler: you either live long enough to become a villain or die unceremoniously in a random inn, skewered with a sword)

Other than that, there’s a myriad of plot points and character actions that don’t make a whole lot of sense. Like the convenient series of events leading up to the ending (spoiler: how is it that the greatest–and probably only–assassin’s guild in the world gets so easily infiltrated via the actions of two teenagers?) There’s also a criminal “investigation” at one point that ends with the church’s higher-ups accepting circumstantial evidence as concrete proof which I found fairly ridiculous. You’d think that as criminals they’d have seen their fair share of unfair judgments handed down by the Luminatii. So you’d think their justice system would be a little more robust. A little more on the just side. But nope.

I absolutely get why so many people love the book. I mean, firstly, it’s a fantasy in a school setting which is the literary equivalent of crack. There’s also a certain addictiveness to Kristoff’s writing that I can’t deny–a combination of flowery imagery and dry humour (the latter comes out really well in the footnotes). I just expected less plot holes and more of…well, everything.

 

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Now you may begin pelting the vegetables!

Double Reviews: The Guildmaster and All the World Between Us – Water-themed Romances

One book has pirates. The other has swimming. Both involve water. (And I’m a sucker for themes)

Let’s get to it.

 

The Guildmaster (Vanguards of Viridor 3) by T.S. Cleveland

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Having helped foil the attempt to kill Viridor’s queen, Merric’s return to the Guardians’ Guild should have been celebrated. Instead, his support of elementals has earned him nothing but scorn. With the man he loves presumed dead, and fearing his injuries may prevent him from ever becoming a full guardian, Merric believes his life may as well be over. But when a series of mysterious attacks puts the fate of all Viridor in jeopardy, Quinn, a handsome and dangerous pirate, may be just the man to help save the kingdom – and Merric.

Genre(s): Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance
Publisher: Self-published

Rating: 7.0/10

 

Do you like charming pirates?

Do you like charming pirates who are openly kind, respect boundaries, and engage in hurt/comfort?

Well, do I have a book for you.

The Guildmaster is the third book in the Vanguards of Viridor series set in a loosely constructed fantasy world where magic users called “elementals” are feared and discriminated by the general public (it’s always the mages, isn’t it?) Reading the previous books would probably add to your enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I thought it was a fun, romantic read with a good balance of action and intimate character moments. Merric’s struggles to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow are compelling, as is Quinn’s efforts to help him heal, both physically and emotionally.

I did have issues with the second half of the story. At one point, there’s a lot of deliberate vagueness and lack of communication from the love interest (which didn’t really make sense considering how open he is about everything) and that contributed to a lot of unnecessary angst on the MC’s part. I also wish the worldbuilding was more robust than “*shrugs* It’s high fantasy. Half its characters run around waving swords. The other half runs around shooting fire from their fingers.”

Overall, I really enjoyed it. Also, bonus points for a completely unexpected reference to Dragon Age: Origins–“And swooping was bad.” Actually the first time I’ve seen that line in a book. Delightful.

 

 

All the World Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Quinn Hughes needs to be in top shape if she wants to medal at the swimming World Championships in ten months. This means no easy distractions, no matter how pretty they are.

She’s still piecing her confidence back together after not qualifying for the Olympics, her relationship with her twin brother is getting worse the more he hangs out with the popular kids, and then Kennedy Reed suddenly squeezes herself back into Quinn’s life. The girl who was her best friend. The girl who gave Quinn her first kiss. The girl who hasn’t spoken to her since.

Soon, Quinn finds herself juggling her new girlfriend, training for the biggest competition of her life, and discovering she’s not the only Hughes twin with a crush on Kennedy Reed. All these distractions are getting to her, and if she wants that medal she needs to find a way to stop drowning on dry land.

Genre(s): YA Contemporary, LGBTQIA+ Romance, Sports
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books

Rating: 6.0/10

I’m a girl of simple tastes. I see “swimming” and “gay” in the same sentence and I glomp onto it like an overattached koala. All the Worlds Between Us is an ownvoices second-chance story about two friends navigating the rocky paths of first love. It was quick and light and fine but didn’t really scratch my swimmer romance itch. Most of the story revolves around highschool drama and less of Quinn’s experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer, which was kind of disappointing. When a romance story is set against the backdrop of a sports world, I want the sports side to be as well-developed as the relationship aspect. That’s not always the case, though.

The narration also felt more juvenile than Quinn’s age warranted, and combined with a few explicit scenes, it got a bit jarring. I did find Kennedy’s experiences of being a closeted teen portrayed pretty well, however, and I enjoyed the mix of sweet and heartbreaking moments.

Overall, it’s not a bad sports f/f (especially if you’re new to the subgenre) but definitely not the best I’ve read either.

 

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Review copies provided by the author and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Top 5 Wednedsay – BFFs in Fantasy (plus musings about intimacy, societal expectations, and friendships in western vs eastern media)

The prompt for this week is actually BFFs in SFF, but since this is Wyrd and Wonder month, I figured I’d just stick to fantasy. Also, a special shout-out to Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen who totally would have made the list, but things were turning into a bit of a sausage fest so I ended up replacing them with a female duo.

This post is brought to you by Wyrd and Wonder, a month of fantasy-loving for fantasy lovers by fantasy lovers.

Join us, friends. There’s plenty of love to go around.

(This sounds like I’m advertising a cult and I’m okay with that)

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Fitz & Fool & Nighteyes – Realm of the Elderlings:

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“I set no limits on that love.”

There are many reasons why RotE is my favourite series of all time, but Fitz/Fool/Nighteyes stands at the top of the list. I. Just. I don’t know how to explain how much this OT3 means to me without coming across like a crazy person. They have been the subject of too many poems scribbled out in the fury of 2 AM writing sessions. When the series ended, I had to sit my friend down to blubber about them for an entire afternoon because they were haunting my waking hours and it felt like my heart was imploding. It sometimes scares me how deeply I feel about these characters, because hell, they’re fictional. But then I think, “So what?”

And here’s an unpopular opinion for the RotE fandom: I’m perfectly fine with Fitz and Fool’s relationship being a platonic one, because their relationship is as romantic as you can get without actually being romantic and we need more examples of those in mainstream media (more on that later). Also, I don’t believe your soulmate has to be someone you’re romantically involved with. I just think it’s someone–anyone–who gets you right down to your marrow, and spending two days with them is equivalent to two lifetimes’ worth of connections. We’d all be very fortunate to experience that once in our life, and Fitz has had two of them. One with a wolf, the other with a prophet.

I’ve never come across a group of characters who throws so much of themselves into loving each other as these three, and I don’t think I ever will.

 

Agniezska and Kasia – Uprooted

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I don’t think I realized how desperate I was to see good female friendships in adult fantasy until Uprooted came along. The romance with the Dragon wasn’t the highlight of the book for me (male love interest who’s broody for the sake of being broody  = been there, done that); it was Niezska and Kasia’s relationship that captured my heart. Their friendship is built on a foundation of mutual love and support, but also acknowledgement of some of the more negative feelings (jealousy in particular) that stand between them.

 

Felicity and Johanna – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

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I enjoyed Lady’s Guide far more than I did Gentleman’s Guide and I can thank Felicity and Johanna for that. What I love about their relationship is that it’s not all smiles and matching friendship bracelets. There’s several suitcases worth of resentment and misunderstandings that they need to sort out before they get anywhere, and I love that. I love seeing girls with vastly different personalities learn from each other, admit when they’re wrong, and come out of the whole kerfuffle with a more open mind.

 

Rune and Brand – The Tarot Sequence

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I rambled on about intimacy and the rigid preconceptions of romance versus friendship in my review for this a year ago, and I’m going to ramble about it again now, because this is something I feel very, very strongly about.

It so often feels to me that society draws a line in the sand when it comes to relationships and gives us a list of acceptable behaviours for each respective side–one for friendship, one for a romantic/sexual relationship. So two friends can kiss each other on the cheek, but kissing on the mouth is, like, a sexual territory, so watch out for that! And et cetera.

At best it’s annoying (in my experience, super invasive questions from family and acquaintances). At worst it contributes to toxic behaviours and insecurities about intimacy and affection, along with a horde of other mental health issues.

So I think it’s incredibly important for fictional media to portray the kinds of relationships that blur this line. Relationships that can’t be shoved into boxes and stuck with a big, fat label. This means friendships with the kind of emotional depth and physical intimacy that you find with romantic pairings.

And that’s exactly the kind of relationship that Rune and Brand has. Romantic without the romance. Intimacy without the sex. Snark without the underlying cruelty. Their friendship is by far the best one I’ve found since finishing Realm of the Elderlings, and if you read what I wrote above, you know I don’t say that lightly.

 

Frodo and Sam – The Lord of the Rings

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No explanations needed, really. They’re Frodo and Sam. They’re the OG ride or die male duo. Their love and loyalty to one another kept the world from descending into darkness, and if that’s not friendship goals, I don’t know what is.

 

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EXTRAS (Anime) | Western vs. Eastern?

So, I wanted to talk about these two anime series as a bonus because their friendship storylines are off-the-walls phenomenal and I couldn’t not include them. And then I got a bit sidetracked thinking about friendships in western versus eastern SFF media.

I always enjoy comparing North American and East Asian narrative works (Korean and Japanese, primarily) because I grew up on the latter and then partially migrated to the former, and while I adore both, there are some things that one offers that the other often doesn’t. And while the reasons for some of them are obvious, like the lack of non-fetishized LGBTQ+ and mental health rep in East Asia, others aren’t (for me, anyway). And that includes intense, no holds barred, I’ll-walk-into-the-depths-of-hell-for-you types of friendships–which I always found that Japanese and Korean media does a better job of than NA.

…And I’m not quite sure why.

I have some vague hypotheses but it’s something I need more than a few nights to think about. It’ll be a future post, maybe. And if you have any ideas, leave them in the comments! I love love love discussing these things.

For now, onto the anime!

 

Gon and Killua – Hunter x Hunter

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Killua (left); Gon (right)

These two kids slay me. Watching Killua become best friends with Gon and go from an assassin-in-training with the social skills of a cactus to a kind-hearted, sensitive boy is honestly the best thing about this series.

And there’s this one scene where Killua breaks down into sobs in front of another character (in the middle of a friggin battle) and talks about how helpless he feels because his best friend is suffering and he doesn’t know how to fix that. It’s beautiful, heartwrenching, and startlingly vulnerable, and I would give my left arm to see more scenes like that in western fantasy.

 

Madoka and Homura – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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Back in 2011, Madoka Magica grabbed the magical girl genre by the throat and shook it into something we’ve never seen before. There have been many copycats since then but none with the same kind of presence as the original, and that largely has to do with these two characters. There’s a reason why I own six figurines of them.

Get yourself a friend who would travel back through a timeline again and again to save you from a terrible fate, only to watch the same tragedy played out in increasingly worse ways, and then swallow that pain and do it all over again because she believes you’re worth sacrificing everything for.

I would, no question, die for Madoka and Homura. And then reset the timeline and do it again.

 

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Soooo this was meant for this to be a short and sweet post because I was on a mini break for the past week and a half and I wanted to write something that was easy.  I don’t know how it devolved into a rant about three different topics. 😂

Well, onto you! Who are you some of your favourite fantasy (or scifi) BFFs?

Top 5 WedTuesday – Disappointing Books of 2018 That I Still Appreciate

“Kathy. I think it’s time for an intervention.”

“Uh, I have no idea what you’re talking about. As usual.”

“‘Top 5 WedTuesday‘? Published one day before the next Top 5 Wednesday?”

“Oh, get off my back. You make it sound like I do this every other week. This is literally the first–”

“And speaking of skirting deadlines, you still haven’t put up this month’s Discworld announcement post yet. Or your Best Books of 2018. Or your Best Indie Games of 2018. Or the reviews for books you read two months ago.”

“Listen, I’m running on a sleep schedule of my own devising right now. You know the Aussie Open started last week and you know their night matches go past 3 AM. What am I supposed to do, not watch them because I have blog-running responsibilities now?”

“Here’s a novel idea: you could do your blogging and watch the Open at the same time. I know, crazy!”

“Yeaaah, about that…”

*Looks over to the TV screen which shows tennis. Then at the the desktop screen which shows more tennis. Then at the tablet screen which shows, you guessed it, tennis.*

“…”

“Maybe a rich oil prince will get me another screen for my birthday. :)”

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So while the other half of my brain is having a breakdown, I’d like to clarify that yes, this was supposed to go live last week, but due to reasons that uh, may or may not have to do with tennis-induced sleep deprivation, it’s going live now! Because this is a topic that I actually really wanted to tackle.

The original prompt was “Disappointing Books of 2018” but I put a bit of a spin on it. These are books that didn’t quite live up to the expectations I set for them, but ones that I still appreciate for x, y, z reasons.

(And I’m hoping to get all (er, most) of those overdue posts up before the end of this month. Knock on wood!)

 

Temper by Nicky Drayden

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I loved Nicky Drayden’s debut Prey of Gods–a rollicking scifi-fantasy mashup featuring angry gods, drugs, and dik-diks (which belong alongside narwhals and quokkas in the “I can’t believe this isn’t a made-up animal” category). I could never really get a good foothold on Temper, unfortunately; I couldn’t connect with the main character and the rampant worldbuilding that I fell in love with in PoG I felt overwhelmed by this time around.

What I appreciate: I freaking adore Nicky’s imagination and her willingness to take the genre to batshit crazy places. Temper is even more weird and unconventional than Prey of Gods (which is saying a lot) and even though I couldn’t get into it, I still love the fact that it exists.

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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This is one of those overdue reviews that I still have to finish. The TL;DR version is that I wanted to love this book so, so hard but it ended up being rather…underwhelming. The worldbuilding felt underdeveloped and Lei is one of those very reactive, blank slate protagonists that I’m not the biggest fan of. And the emperor, while a terrible person, kind of just starts and ends at “He’s a terrible person.”

What I appreciate: The heart and foundation behind this book is everything–an unapologetically Asian setting (the food descriptions are to die for), and love and friendship between two girls prevailing in the face of brutality.

 

Grey Sister (Book of the Ancestor 2) by Mark Lawrence

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An unpopular opinion: I thought Grey Sister was a step down from Red Sister, mostly due to character reasons. I felt that Nona’s development had stagnated and secondary characters that I adored in the first book took a backseat in this one.  [Full review]

What I appreciate: I love Mark’s writing style and his ability to move from poignancy to snappy action with fluid ease. Also, this is one of the most female-centric adult fantasy I’ve read in recent years–women loving women, women befriending women, women betraying women. Books like this are the reason I created a Goodreads shelf called “Boom goes the Bechdel test.”

 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I think this is one of those stories I would have enjoyed more as a TV show. I mean, I watched a quite a few scifi anime that deal with similar themes of alien evolution and ended up liking them all, but apparently if you stick it in book-form my brain just laughs and says “Nope.” (Maybe it’s flashbacks to all the evolution textbooks/articles I had to read in undergrad–by far not my favourite biology topic). It didn’t help that I wasn’t much invested in the human half of the story.

What I appreciate: This is probably the best example (textbook, if you will) of evolutionary scifi that I’ve ever read and my scientist heart will root for the success of any SFF book that explores biology to this degree. It’s also pretty dang cool that the author shares a name with one of my favourite composers.

 

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

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Okay, overall I wouldn’t really call this one “disappointing,” but considering the sheer amount of potential it showed in the first half, the second half proved to be a bit of a letdown in terms of character development and pacing (and now I’d give it a slightly lower score than what I originally gave). [Full review]

What I appreciate: Polyamory. In YA. Plus creepy forests and pagan rituals. Enough said.

Review: The Gutter Prayer – A Dark, Imaginative Debut

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Title: The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy 1)
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: January 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Deities
Page Count: 544

Rating: 8.0/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

The city of Guerdon stands eternal. A refuge from the war that rages beyond its borders. But in the ancient tunnels deep beneath its streets, a malevolent power has begun to stir.

The fate of the city rests in the hands of three thieves. They alone stand against the coming darkness. As conspiracies unfold and secrets are revealed, their friendship will be tested to the limit. If they fail, all will be lost and the streets of Guerdon will run with blood.

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There has been a great buzz about The Gutter Prayer and the slew of blurbs from well-respected authors and reviewers praising its name should tell you that this is, in many ways, a pretty damn great debut.

And I can tell you the same thing…with some caveats.

Let’s talk about the worldbuilding first, because that’s hands-down the book’s biggest strength.

I wrote in my notes that the way that Hanrahan presents his world–like the origin of the Ghouls and Stone Plague–reminds me a lot of video games. As in, they’re presented in succinct and easily digestible chunks while still being interesting and attention-grabbing (and later I found out that the author writes gaming books, so that was an “Aha” moment). This has the downside of being a little info-dumpy in places, but considering how interesting the world is, I didn’t really mind it.

Comparisons to China Mieville has been made and for good reason. He’s one of the best when it comes to city building and transforming locations into living, breathing characters. And The Gutter Prayer has that in spades.

But I think this world is a little more…Lovecraftian than Mieville’s work (and not just because of the tentacles). And for that reason, it really, really reminds me of the Gothic browser game known as Fallen London.

And you have no idea how ecstatic that makes me.

I won’t get into the details of the game (that’s for another day), but one of the million things I adore about Fallen London (and its spinoffs) is its total embrace of the weird, the foreign, and the terrifying. Various creatures roam the streets and underbellies of its city and while some might see you as their noonday snack, others just want to go about their lives in peace. There’s something new and exciting waiting for you around every corner and the city is just begging you to explore it all.

The same thing applies here. We have the Tallowmen, humanoid wax creations made from the remnants of condemned criminals that are now used as hunting dogs for criminals (and yes, they have a wick running through them–that’s how they come “alive”); worm-colonies that hire themselves out as sorcerer mercenaries; and on and on.

And we get all these different, colourful districts and their rich history and colourful inhabitants–some friendly, others distinctly murdery, and nearly all of them strange and fascinating.

I fucking adore the imagination of it all.

As for the plot, the main one takes a while to materialize (which can be frustrating) but when it does, it begins to resemble the best of Robert Bennett Jackson’s Divine Cities trilogy–warring gods, trapped gods, and mortals who would kill or free them to further their own agenda.

Now, here comes the caveats. My problem with loud and rich worldbuilding is when the characters aren’t quite as loud and rich enough, so the former ends up drowning them out. This is fine in the early stages of a story–everything is new and shiny and we’re gawking at everything like overexcited tourists–but after a certain point it starts to resemble a lonely stroll through an art museum.

This isn’t to say the characters aren’t interesting–quite the opposite, really!

There are three main characters the story revolves around:

Spar is the leader of the trio and the son of the man who’s founded the Brotherhood–a group of thieves who were meant to be the Robin Hoods of the city, a beacon of hope for the common folk–and also a victim of the Stone Plague, an incurable disease that slowly turns the infected into stone. And he just happens to be my favourite (“The idealistic character with an unbending sense of loyalty who’s also tragically dying is your favourite? Why am I not surprised?”)

Rat is a young ghoul who feeds on the carcasses of the dead.

Cari is the only human/non-infected of the group. She’s left Guerdon many years ago and never looked back. But now she is back and some…disconcerting things are happening with her.

So these are characters with diverse backstories and I enjoyed getting to know them and the lore they bring with them, but I feel like they never developed beyond the surface-level of interesting. Spar in particular never quite reached the potential that I think he has.

And I think the following two points contribute to that:

  1. The three characters spend half of the story separated from each other (and Spar spends a good chunk of that stuck alone in a cell), so we never really get a good sense of their dynamic.
  2. Hanrahan doesn’t have the same knack for emotional character-driven scenes as he does with city building. There are moments, especially near the end of the story, that could have been rousing and vindicating but are curiously glossed over. Tragedies come and go in a blink, leaving you feeling detached and going, “Wait, what?”

All in all, though, Guerdon is a joy to experience and the problems with meandering plot and characters are things that can definitely be ironed out in the sequel. Gareth Hanrahan has stormed into the genre with a deceptively complex debut that’s chock full of imagination, and it sets up a strong foundation for what I hope will be an equally strong trilogy.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.