Iron Kingdoms Chronicles: “Acts of War I – Flashpoint” by Aeryn Rudel

Iron Kingdoms is a campaign setting from Privateer Press that has enthralled me for almost two decades with its fantastical steampunk world and deep national histories. I spent hours upon hours poring over sourcebooks and thinking of all the stories that could take place in the setting, but still haven’t found a group that wants to play in it (alas). It was to my great delight, then, that I discovered there were novels in the setting that I had never heard of. I was surprised that they’d gone under my radar because I thought I’d been following Privateer Press fairly closely. When I saw Flashpoint by Aeryn Rudel at a bookstore, I grabbed it without any further deliberation. It was enough to know it was a novel in a setting that I’d been in love with for years. I was deeply gratified as I read the novel, though, because it cashed in on that setting in ways that I knew were possible.

Flashpoint starts off with a bang as we follow a desperate, undercover noble trying to escape from an assassination attempt. From there, we get kicked into a setup for a diplomatic showdown between the Empire of Khador (a kind of play on Imperial Russia, but with magic and steam-powered mechs) and Cygnar, a powerful Kingdom that has too many enemies. Rudel introduces readers to a cast of characters including Lord General Coleman Stryker of Cygnar, a warcaster who commands a mech in battle, Asheth Magnus, another mage-like character who is willing to do whatever he thinks it takes to win the day, Maddox, Beth Maddox, a warcaster just doing her duty, and more. The cast is full of strong enough characters to carry the plot, which is itself full of political intrigue and, eventually, squad and battle level combat.

I hugely enjoyed the mix of politicking, character interactions, and combat Rudel uses throughout the novel. It reads like a truly excellent campaign, with battles interspersed at somewhat predictable intervals as action to break up the story exposition. There’s enough conflict here to make things interesting, and both sides of the conflict have sympathetic characters. It’s a great fantasy read, and for readers who enjoy steampunk, there are new wonders in abundance.

It’d be remiss of me to not mention that there are several editing errors in the book. On at least 3 separate occasions, I ran into a sentence that very clearly had a word missing. In two cases, I was able to easily supply the word because it was a common phrase. In the third, the sentence was left somewhat ambiguous by the missing piece. These errors didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the novel, but they did take away from my immersion at points.

Overall, Flashpoint was a delight to read. I loved seeing the Iron Kingdoms come to life. I hadn’t read much from my campaign settings books in a while, and was gratified to see that I could have easily dived into the novel with no prior knowledge of the setting. I recommend the novel to those interested in a fascinating steampunk world.

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SDG.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) Finalist Review: “The Mortal Blade” by Christopher Mitchell

I’m a judge for the first-ever SPSFC (Self Published Science Fiction Contest), but couldn’t help noticing the parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

The Mortal Blade by Christopher Mitchell

The Mortal Blade follows several characters on their journey in a city that has an eternal siege from green skinned goblins. The only thing holding back the hordes appears to be the intervention of a massive dragon, whom the people of the city revere and take care of. Characters include a shape-shifting assassin, a new ultra-powerful warrior who takes the fight to the horde, a fairly stuck up nobleman, and a down-on-her-luck solider hoping to not join the cleaning crew.

At first, the diverse array of views makes several chapters verge on baffling at times as readers have to re-orient themselves to the new characters. Each character, however, is interesting enough to carry the story on his or her own. Mitchell strips away a lot of the filler that some epic fantasies have–almost a necessity given the number of main characters he’s developing–and presents a no-frills approach to epic fantasy. This approach is clear in the world-building. For example, the city in which the plot takes place is intriguing, but Mitchell doesn’t info-dump about it, either through characters or narrative. Instead, readers learn about the city only through individual characters’ viewpoints. There are no massive walls of text describing the political mechanics going on behind the scenes. Instead, readers get only what they “see” through characters’ eyes. As a setting, it works because the question of the Eternal Siege looms over it, making the city interesting because of the sense of impending doom.

The “no-frills” approach also characterizes the novel more generally. Mitchell takes readers straight to the action time and again. This doesn’t mean there is no room for reflection or character development, but it does mean some of the standard trappings of epic fantasy like lengthy descriptions of the setting, characters’ clothes, etc. aren’t there. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it gets readers right into the thick of things time and again, but also makes it hard to slow down and orient oneself as one reads it.

Mitchell weaves an interesting tale here that ultimately brings some characters together while also bringing up additional plot threads and broader conflicts. This city has quite a bit going on in it, and I was all-in from the beginning to several excellent hooks tied to each character’s story arc. Doing some more research on the series, I found that this book is the first book in the series, but part of a much larger series that has been ongoing before it. I will definitely be reading more, but not sure where I’ll start next.

The Mortal Blade was a fun–even refreshing–read. The characters give readers a great vision of a powerfully wrought setting. Meanwhile, the fairly relentless action and use of magic makes it feel like a fully-realized fantasy world. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy, especially if they like urban fantasy settings.

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SDG.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off Finalists: “Legacy of the Brightwash” by Krystle Matar

I’m a judge for the first-ever SPSFC (Self Published Science Fiction Contest), but couldn’t help noticing the parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

Legacy of the Brightwash: Tainted Dominion I by Krystle Matar

Legacy of the Brightwash starts with a body washed up on shore. It’s been brutalized, and it’s a child. I was ready after that opening chapter for a grim fantasy mystery, but was a bit surprised by how Matar delivered it. Tashué is a tinman–a kind of law enforcement officer who for years hasn’t compromised his dedication to law. But as he investigates this mystery, and interacts with those who are on the wrong side of the law throughout the city (including his son), he starts to lose confidence in his dedication to law.

One star of the show is certainly the world Matar makes. I kept wanting to know more and explore more of the city, plumb its depths, and discover more about the way it was being run. Much of this is tapped into by Tashué’s perspective, though I still felt myself wanting more of the city itself at times. How did it get this way? Part of that is the mystery at the core of the book, but part of it is left either to an upcoming book in the series or to readers’ imaginations. The world puts its hooks in and holds on. I found myself thinking about it even when I wasn’t actively reading the book.

Tashué is an intriguing protagonist, and his foil, Stella, has her own motivations that start to get revealed later. As the plot really starts to open up about 40% in, Matar deftly moves it along without losing too much steam. However, I did think it was in this lengthy middle portion that the book started to drag. The pace of plot revelations slowed down, and the story with Stella started to feel more and more like a lost strand. Matar does a good job tying it all back together towards the end, but by then enough other major characters and plot points have been introduced to make it seem like a bit of an afterthought. The will-they-or-won’t-they is strung along just a bit too long, and it got to feeling like it just needed to be resolved. The central mystery went in a direction I most definitely did not expect, but in a good way.

I’d be remiss not to mention a central point of the book, which is how frequently people are willing to use the skills and talent of those they label as “other” or “less than.” This is a truly major theme throughout the book, especially following one character who has the ability to heal but is an outcast because of it. It looms large in other parts of the book, as well. I thought this was a welcome theme and it kept me thinking throughout the book.

Legacy of the Brightwash is a good read for those interested in gaslamp settings and the intersection of mystery and fantasy. It’s a solid entry in the SPFBO.

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Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) Finalist Review: “Reign & Ruin” by J.D. Evans

I’m a judge for the first-ever SPSFC (Self Published Science Fiction Contest), but couldn’t help noticing the parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

Reign & Ruin by J.D. Evans

Reign & Ruin is, at its core, both a fantasy of manners with court drama and political intrigue in abundance and a romance. The story follows Naime, a Sultana who is trying to bring unity to her nation in the face of many challenges, and Makram, a prince with destructive magical powers.

The setting and world building are major winners in the novel. I thought the way Evans built the world was compelling, and certainly made a great place for the many different scenes of political intrigue to play out. Naime is trying to find her way with her father’s failing mental health making it more difficult for her to keep a grip as others try to wrest powers from her. Time and again, she faces off with others trying to discern her interests and thoughts on her path forward, even as she deflects their advances and those of others trying to force her into marriage or other ways of manipulating her. Readers who are interested in political intrigue will eat this book up. I would say well over 50% of the plot is focused around these kind of court drama/intrigue among various factions, and as a big fan of that kind of story, I was delighted.

Makram’s story is interesting, but he reads more like a side character to me. Maybe that’s because of where my interests lie–with the court drama–but I found it harder to connect with him. It was also somewhat predictable to see where the romance was headed and when at times. I should note the romantic elements include quite explicit scenes.

The fantasy elements aren’t subtle, necessarily, but they don’t drive the plot as they do in some other fantasy settings. There are many different kinds of magic, and one of Naime’s driving goals is to bring the destructive magic back into the fold of mages so that she can unite them and bring peace as the Wheel turns. It’s a neat concept, though I found at times I wasn’t sure how important it all felt. On the flip side, there seems to be much more action-type conflict as a possibility in the future.

Reign & Ruin is a great read, despite its predictability. The world-building and setting are treats for fans of fantasy, and the romance elements add to, rather than distracting from, the main plot. I’ve enjoyed the first one enough to give the second a try once I’ve gotten through other books on my list.

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Fantasy Hub– My hub for links to posts about fantasy works on this site. Hugo and other Award nominees, vintage fantasy, indie books, and more!

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Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Fantasy: “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

Vintage Sci-Fi Month has come and gone, but the fun continues!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

This go-round, I opted for vintage fantasy.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

It’s rare that I’ve felt enchanted by a novel. This book has done that. The driving idea behind Invisible Cities is that Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are having a conversation in which Marco Polo is telling Khan about the various cities in his empire in order to inform him about what his conquered realm is like. It’s like an ancient travelogue being rediscovered. But there are glimpses of something more behind the pages here.

The bulk of the book is made up of Polo’s descriptions of various cities. Each is as poetic as the next, and the prose is superb. The descriptions of the cities are wondrous–filled with a kind of delight and lyrical awe that is difficult to grasp. Each city’s name is a woman’s name. It makes me wonder what is meant by it. Is Marco Polo really telling Khan about women, using cities as a fanciful euphemism?

Occasionally, there are snippets of conversation between Khan and Polo interspersed between the many descriptions of cities. In one, Khan asks why Polo doesn’t tell him about Venice, and in the most direct comment about themes in the book, Polo replies that really all the descriptions are about Venice, in their own ways. Is the book really just a kind of love letter to Venice? Or a love letter to women, as hinted above?

We also see the occasional anachronism and fantasy mixed into the book’s descriptions. A hint of New York; a brief aside about San Francisco; a map that shows all the cities that have been or can be or will be. But what does it all mean?

The last three paragraphs ended with questions. That’s on purpose. The book doesn’t answer your questions. Calvino’s work stands as is–ready to be tasted, sampled, and savored. It’s a wondrous, beautiful book. I’m ready to delve back into the realm of the Khan and smile at Polo’s descriptions of the cities. I’m ready to wonder, some more, about the book’s many meanings–or hints at the same. Come, be enchanted with me.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SDG.

“Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao- A thrilling YA Science Fantasy

First off, Iron Widow has an absolutely stunning cover. I used the full cover as the pic here, because it is so gorgeous I wanted to share it. Anyway, I wanted to talk about this book because it deserves more attention in the speculative fiction fan community. I saw it described as “Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale.” I’m often skeptical of book blurbs that try to sell them by comparisons because they often either aim too high (e.g. “Better than [insert your favorite series]”) or are so generic it becomes difficult to know what’s meant (e.g. “For fans of Lord of the Rings”–so basically any fan of fantasy?). Here, though, this comparison is spot-on and specific. Handmaid’s Tale makes me think of the book with its focus on religious practices oppressing women (I haven’t seen the show). Pacific Rim makes me think of giant robots beating up aliens. Well, Xiran Jay Zhao absolutely delivers on a combined experience of those.

The setup–there are some aliens that continue to attack humans. Thankfully, they’re not super bright and seem to just come in huge waves that humans have been mowing down with huge mechs called Chrysalises. These Chrysalis mechs are driven by teams–a man and a woman–who use their chi to drive the mechs to even greater heights of destruction and defense of humanity. Zetian wants to become one of the concubine-pilots (the woman part of the pair is expected to submit to the male partner in every way, whether its taking commands on the battlefield, giving up her life to power his chi, or sexual submissiveness). The reason Zetian wants to be a pilot, though, is to assassinate the pilot who killed her sister.

The book takes readers on a dizzying journey, overthrowing expectations of how the plot might turn out time and again. I enjoyed the many ways the characters around Zetian surprised me throughout the story. I expected certain things from some aspects of the plot, and was delighted when they didn’t turn out exactly how I thought they would.

If I have any complaint, it’s that the aliens/mech combat didn’t occupy more of the book. That’s a matter of my own preference–I just like mech combat and don’t get enough of it in novels. But it was kind of a bummer that the action scenes didn’t give me more of the action in detail. On the flip side, the ending of the novel throws a huge wrench in things that makes me even more excited about the plot developments and desperate for the next book.

Iron Widow is going on my nominating ballot for the Lodestar Award for best YA novel at the Hugo Awards this year. I hope you’ll consider giving it a read, too!

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Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SDG.

“Empire of the Vampire” by Jay Kristoff- A superb dark epic fantasy

I found out about Empire of the Vampire some time ago on Twitter, but I forgot for a bit and didn’t think to pick it up until I saw it locally. I grabbed a copy based on the internal flap. I haven’t read a lot of vampire fiction, so the thought of fighting against a Vampire Empire sounded kind of cool. Little did I know that I’d be diving in to one of my favorite books of the year.

The story-within-a-story follows Gabriel de Leon, a vampire hunter known as a Silversaint, who uses the combination of silver tattoos and vampiric powers to take the battle to the undead as he tells his story to a servant of the Vampire Empire itself. The autobiographical story takes place across several different timelines, and Gabriel picks and chooses which parts of the story he’s telling at different times, in part to spar with his vampiric opponent/recorder. Thus, the sparring between Gabriel de Leon and the vampire historian Jean-François comprises the “present day” storyline that is almost entirely composed of vignettes of them talking over how to tell the story, what drinks to have, and a few other intermissions while Gabriel tells the rest of the story.

Through this lens we see Gabriel’s early life, his entry into the Silversaints as a vampire hunter, and his search for the Grail in order to end the eternal night known as daysdeath and possibly bring an end to the ever-expanding reign of the vampires. Each of these stories has its own set of characters, some of whom recur in the others. Readers aren’t presented them in entirely orderly fashion, either. While the individual strands of story are largely told front-to-back, Gabriel skips from one strand to the other throughout his long night of discussions with Jean-François. Each of the strands of story is utterly compelling in its own way, such that I never minded when the thread was changed because I knew that I would be diving into another grim yet fantastic story.

Yes, the world is grim. Gabriel himself seems to have lost his faith, he’s foul-mouthed, and there’s plenty of blood, gore, and sex mixed in. The book is very much not for anyone who doesn’t want lots of cussing, violence, and sex in their books. I’m not personally all about those things in my books, but they don’t bother me. I enjoyed the grimdark story. How can the world not be grim, though, when humanity is a dying species and the dead are closing in on all sides? Gabriel is joined by a cast of characters that largely reflects his own interests–nuns, other warriors, and his sword each has a role to play. The large book manages to give each character plenty of screen (page?) time, so readers interested in deep characterization will be pleased. While I saw several of the plot twists regarding major characters coming, there are enough twists that I was outpaced by several of them. Additionally, the character development that happens through the book feels utterly realistic. When a character makes a major change, it’s earned such that as a reader you know it makes sense.

There are several other things that set this book apart in my mind. One is Kristoff’s alternate theology and vampirology. While the trappings of high church are familiar to many–either due to reading enough fantasy with similar themes or just being familiar with it because of being associated with a churches or theology (as am I)–Kristoff takes a spin on all of it by inventing his own theology. Each part of it is like a twist on Christian theology, with a Redeemer who is slain for others (on a wheel, flayed), its orders of monks and nuns, and its relics. As someone interested in theology, I found the brief asides about what could be considered sinful, what it means to be sinful, and more to be great spins on wider real-world theology discussions. I don’t want to spoil too much, but even smaller things like heretical beliefs are incorporated and changed with Kristoff’s own spin on things. It’s a fascinating look at theology in an alternate world. Another way this book is set apart is the fairly diverse representation of love.

Kristoff also developed an interesting way to diversify vampiric powers, both based upon the age of the vampire and upon which bloodline from which they sprung. This gives the bad guys more diversity than they may otherwise have had, and, because of how the plot works, does the same for the “good guys.” Finally, it’s set apart in its prose. While it’s not the strongest prose I’ve read in a fantasy novel, the way Gabriel talks has its own voice that got into my head and wouldn’t let me stop. I read the book in a marathon, unable to put it down in between necessary tasks for several days until I finished it.

Huge Spoilers this paragraph. One thing I did feel somewhat let down by was how swiftly Gabriel went from defending Dior to being willing to battle his own lifelong friends in order to do so. I think it may become more clear on a re-read, but that’s the one aspect that as a reader I didn’t think we got the necessary buy-in before Kristoff made the twist happen. I’ll be hugely curious to see what happens in the aftermath of the last 100 pages or so of this book. End huge spoilers.

Empire of the Vampire is one of my favorite books of the year. I know I’ll be picking up the next one when it comes out, as I eagerly anticipate diving back into this rich world and knowing more about its superb characters. I highly recommend it to you, dear readers.

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Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Fantasy Hub

Links to my fantasy-related content as well as other major hubs may be found here. Let me know what you think!

Fantasy Book Reviews

The Wheel of Time

“The Wheel of Time” Episodes 1-3 “Leavetaking,” “Shadows Waiting,” and “A Place of Safety”– I review the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time Episode 4 “The Dragon Reborn”– The best episode yet has a ton of changes from the books, but I talk about why so many of these make sense and why the episode was so enjoyable.

The Wheel of Time Episode 5 “Blood Calls Blood”– We meet Loial!

The Wheel of Time Hub– On my theology blog, I have a great deal of posts analyzing The Wheel of Time books and TV show from a Christian worldview perspective.

Hugo Awards

These posts are a series in which I read through and review every single Hugo Award Winner and Nominee. I also pick my own winner out of the batch, which doesn’t always align. 

1953– There’s only one book, so is it a surprise that I picked it for my winner?

1954- No winner for Best Novel.

1955– This year’s winner is widely considered the worst book to ever win a Hugo. 

1956– Red scare of the best kind.

1957- No Winner for Best Novel.

1958– Only once choice again, but this one was great.

1959– A few contenders, but I picked one that got me thinking.

1960– How could anyone have picked anything but space pirates? I mean really.

1961– The voters got it right on a fantastic novel this year.

1962– The rise of Heinlein. Also, Plato’s Cave.

1963– I dusted off a classic here. (Sorry.)

1964– Easy to pick a winner this go-round.

1965– The voters were perhaps most wrong this year of all the years so far. My goodness, they voted for a yawner over an intense, wild classic.

1966– It’s not fair that these other books had to compete against Dune, because there were some good’ns. 

1967– I cried a lot over my choice of winner here.

1968– Space poetry written by Zelazny. 

1969– I get hooked on Lafferty.

1970– Not the strongest year, but it does feature an all-time classic.

1971– A strong demonstration of why I choose to read lists, as I discover a mostly-forgotten classic!

1972– Yet another year Silverberg should have won the Hugo.

1973– Guess who should have won this year? Yep, and this may have been the biggest miss on SIlverberg so far. 

1974– Honestly I thought this year was a pretty mediocre year. My winner didn’t even break into the “A” grade range.

1975– One of the most singular, fantastic science fiction books of all time won this year’s award. It’s a strong batch, overall.

1976– A weaker year, but I had one fun, hilarious read stand out from the pack.

2020– A fantastic mix of genres and authors, and the first year I’m officially a Hugo voter!

Vintage Fantasy

Other Hubs

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my reviews related to Warhammer/40K/Horus Heresy fiction can be found here. Read grimdark to your heart’s content!

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Star Wars Hub– Reviews of many Star Wars: Expanded Universe novels are here, along with a few reviews of the new “canon” novels.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Want more indie sci-fi? Check out my hub for this exciting contest collecting all my posts related to these self-published science fiction books.

The Wheel of Time Hub– On my theology blog, I have a great deal of posts analyzing The Wheel of Time books and TV show from a Christian worldview perspective.

The Hugo Award for Best Series: 2021 Reviews

Reading the nominations for the Hugo Awards for Best Series takes dedication. I have read at least the first three books of every single one of the series and given the series a grade and review based upon that reading. If I have not read the entire series, I have noted it in my review of the series. I would love to talk about these series with you, dear readers, and want to know what you think about them. Which is your favorite? Have you read them all? This year’s nominations are a pile of excellent books, so it’s worth diving in.

S. A. Chakraborty: The Daevabad Trilogy- Grade: A (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, The Empire of Gold)
There’s an allure about this whole series that stays with the reader all the way through. Chakraborty does such a fabulous job of building the world that the sights, smells, and sounds of the trilogy stick with the reader long after the books are closed. The different tribes of the Djinn make for some surprising conflicts and even protagonists and antagonists. The shifting nature of allegiance throughout the series means readers have to pay close attention even as they admire the prose and movement of the stories. It’s somewhat rare to see the final volume of a trilogy be the strongest, but I personally thought that was the case here, with The Empire of Gold providing a truly wonderful conclusion to the trilogy that had been building throughout. Chakraborty will most certainly be on my list of authors to read more

John Scalzi: The Interdependency– Grade: B+ (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox)
Scalzi is endlessly entertaining. Every one of the books in this trilogy made me grin and even laugh out loud at times. Reading his novels can sometimes feel like reading an entertaining blog post that happens to go on for hundreds of pages. It’s not the strongest prose, but it’s captivating and always fun. All of that said, the story of this space opera felt alternatively epic and rushed. The premise is that there’s a way of travel that connects an entire empire together, and that way of travel is collapsing. The powers that be must then figure out what to do to secure their power or run into the night before the inevitable doomsday for all society. It’s a great premise, and it, along with the entertainment factor of Scalzi’s writing, carries the series on its back. The characters here aren’t as strong as some of the other works on this list, and the plot of the last book, The Last Emperox, feels extremely rushed. It’s unfortunate, because the series does have that sense of the epic at times, but as the events spiral too quickly, it loses it. Scalzi walks that fine line space operas must so often walk between being so huge they get overdone and rushing events too quickly, and he leans over to the “rushing” side with some frequency. All of that said, the series is immensely enjoyable top to bottom simply because of his writing. It also features one of my all-time favorite book dedications with The Last Emperox: “To the women who are done with other people’s shit.”

Mary Robinette Kowal: The Lady Astronaut Series- Grade: A+ (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky, The Relentless Moon, and several short stories)
Kowal is a master of characterization, and this series demonstrates that beyond measure. An alternate history in which an asteroid strike smashed off the east coast of the United States and forced humanity to look to the stars for hope in colonization sounds like a pitch that would play out somewhat differently than it does. The thrust of these novels is much less about the impact of this asteroid strike on civilization than it is about following a few characters caught up in the work to become (lady) astronauts and explore space for the sake of all humanity. I have not read any of the shorter stories in this series, but did read all the novels, including the first one twice. Anyway, the first book, The Calculating Stars, won the Hugo Award for best novel a few years back. It touches on issues of racism, sexism, and more, all while couching it in familiar 1950s-60s vibes and culture. Kowal did her research and historical notes at the end of each book gives some fascinating insights into the novels. The second book, The Fated Sky, gives surprising insight into the characters we grew to love (and hate) in the first book, and it has launched itself in among my favorite science fiction novels. The third novel, The Relentless Moon, is also a nominee for best novel this year, and it follows one of our lady astronauts on the home front as others are on the way to Mars in the second book. Each novel is fantastic, and the series as a whole is as well. Fans of science fiction and/or period pieces will eat this up, and the series is a clear frontrunner for best series.

Martha Wells: The Murderbot Diaries- Grade: A- (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, and Network Effect)
The star of this series is the titular Murderbot, a security robot whose busted its programming and sometimes fantasizes about the murder it could carry out but mostly spends its time instead on protecting those close to it and binging TV shows. It’s a solid setup that allows for Wells to bounce from one-off to one-off while developing longer character arcs here and there. The first four works are novellas, and they move with the intensity and action of their format. Network Effect is the first novel in the series, and it has gotten a Hugo nomination (and a Nebula Win) under its belt already. The hugely popular series is popular for good reason: they’re just plain fun to sit down and read. Time and pages fly past when you read these largely escapist books. Wells weaves a few hints at our own political and societal concerns into the series as well for readers looking something deeper. The series is also continuing, as Wells signed a contract for several more works in the series with Tor Books.

Seanan McGuire: The October Daye Series- Grade: A (Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night, and many more novels and stories)
A huge series with 15 (and counting) novels and a host of shorter works to go with it, the October Daye series follows our half-fae character, October (Toby) Daye and her adventures intersecting the realms of fairy and our own. Whether she’s solving a murder, getting involved in kidnappings, or fighting demonic fae, the series brings action and whimsy together in delightful story after delightful story. These are quick reads, but they are more robust than you might think based on that description. McGuire has a way of worldbuilding that continues to work on itself, block after block, in ways that surprise and delight. The wild thing about this is that this isn’t even my favorite series from McGuire, but her writing is just so good that I keep coming back regardless of what she’s writing. I recommend you give it a try, too, because it’s worth finding out if you, too, can have another author that you plan to read everything from at the earliest possible moment. I love it. I read the first 5 novels before writing this, and plan to read the rest forthwith.

R. F. Kuang: The Poppy War- Grade: B- (The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, The Burning God)
Kuang’s first book, The Poppy War, contains some of the absolute most gruesome and horrific descriptions of violence I have ever read in any book, whether fiction or nonfiction. I believe that is on purpose. However, I found the extreme amount and brutal details of gory violence to genuinely eat away at my enjoyment of that novel. It was especially surprising because early on, the book feels a bit like a Young Adult novel. I am not at all critical of something being YA. I love YA. I think rejecting something just because it’s YA is the height of stupidity regarding reading habits. I’m only saying it felt YA because it read like a “hey we’re going to school to learn how to fight” story that dominates a lot of YA fantasy at times. Then, it got so supremely dark that I almost felt sick to my stomach reading it. Such extreme violent could be pointless–and it almost feels like it here–but it’s also true that Kuang seems to be emulating some real life events, whether it’s an examination of Japan’s atrocities on China’s mainland in the second World War or more modern events (like the casual violence of running someone over to ensure you don’t have to pay for disabilities after an accident). These are themes worth exploring, but the extreme nature of the violence is so intense that I found it taking away from my enjoyment of the novels. Maybe, on some higher literary plain, there’s a sense that novels aren’t for enjoyment and that they can be for instruction or activism. I don’t disagree, but I also wonder whether the level of description was necessary. Regardless, I did read the whole series and I think the central plot is good, and sometimes surprising. I admit I started to skip over whole sections of text when I discovered more violence coming, though.

Links

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Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Reading the Lodestar Awards for Best YA Book- 2021

I am a Hugo voter this year (you can be, too, by paying the fee) and I have set off to try to read everything that was nominated in the awards so that I can more fairly vote for what I believe are the best works of the year. The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book is not technically a Hugo Award, but it is awarded at the same time for the best YA novel of the year in the genres of science fiction or fantasy. I have read all the nominatees for this year and given them reviews and scores below. I’ve also chosen my winner. Let me know what you think!

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn- Grade: A-
A retelling of King Arthur in which a magical society made of white people is enlisted for help fighting demons by Bree Matthews, a black woman. Racial tensions loom large in this story that has a number of refreshing themes that spin off the Arthurian core in surprising ways. I ate it up in a lengthy afternoon read. My main complaint is that the book, weighing in at almost 500 pages in hardcover, felt like it was just as long as it is. It’s got a bit too much exposition crammed in between the covers for my liking, but once it gets going, it goes. Matthews is an intensely likable protagonist and the theme found throughout the book make it resonate with today in challenging ways. It’s a great read.

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (My Winner)- Grade: A+
Raybearer is a story that subverts expectations time and again. It starts with The Lady assigning our protagonist, Tarisai, to a task of befriending and killing the crown prince. As a reader, certain expectations got built in to what I thought would happen based on that. Some played out, but many didn’t. Even those expectations that were fulfilled went in ways I didn’t foresee. But Ifueko’s talent for subverting the narrative isn’t the only great thing about this novel. Her prose is beautiful; the plot remains compelling throughout, the system of magic used is intriguing, and the world is captivating. Raybearer reveals Ifueko as a remarkable new talent, and I will most definitely be reading everything she puts out in the future.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik- Grade: B-
I love Novik, and this novel has some of her strongest work. The reason I didn’t rate it higher is because it truly takes somewhere around 200 pages for me to start liking any of the characters. The reasons for this are extreme spoilers, but suffice to say that I’m convinced you’re not really supposed to fall in love with any of the characters early on. However, that means that the book relies on its worldbuilding for those first couple hundred pages to keep you going. The worldbuilding is quite strong–strong enough to carry the load–but it doesn’t make it entirely enjoyable. That said, this is a series I am waiting for the next book with supreme eagerness.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger- Grade: B+
Elatsoe is a triumphant tale of a young Apache woman who’s able to summon the spirits of dead animals. It’s got noir aspects, some elements of horror, questions of racism, and some good art mixed in. The novel reads a bit like a travelogue to me, which feels wrong to type because it isn’t one. It just reminds me of the spirit of the older travelogue-style speculative fiction. Elatsoe is a fun character, and I love her interest in fossils. This is a perfect read for a freezing cold day indoors next to a fireplace. This isn’t a cozy mystery, but it had some of the same comfortable elements as cozy mysteries I enjoy, with a character in Ellie/Elatsoe who carries the story with her spirit.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher- Grade: B+
A wizard with powers of baking animate bread has to fend off an attack on her home city and all wizardkind. Defensive Baking is a fun fantasy romp combined with a mystery. Fun is a simple word, but it seems like the right one to describe this book. It’s just a delight to read. That said, I think the plot bites off a bit more than it can chew. I loved the first half with its blend of mystery and wizard baking, but when it came to the actual defensive baking, it felt more generic. I would definitely read more set in this same universe.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas- Grade: B-
A latinx school/urban fantasy that includes necromancy, LGBT+ affirmation, and teen drama! Cemetery Boys is full of interesting ideas, but suffers from major pacing issues. The opening scene and story concept take far too long to develop for what isn’t a very long novel. Then, the rest of the story rushes quickly past in a blur. It slows down again near the end, only to stuff a bunch of fulfilling plot points in at the very end. It felt a bit like being jerked along on a chain. That said, the core concepts that are there–teen drama, finding oneself, and a splash of dark magic–made it a fast and fun read.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.